Diaper Discipline, Child Abuse and Secrets

by Darlene Barriere – Webmaster
(Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada)

The following article was written in response to a comment made on my Ask Darlene page Is diaper discipline child abuse? The comment by MJ dated July 15, 2008 titled How would a child know DD (diaper discipline) is child abuse? suggests that being made to keep the discipline a "secret" is a measuring stick for whether or not the discipline being imposed is actually child abuse. For my visitors who are not familiar with the term "diaper discipline," it refers to the practice of placing an older child—in many cases, an adolescent child—in diapers for disciplinary purposes.

I agree that being made to keep "secrets" is a red flag for child abuse. However, when it comes to discipline that involves any type of humiliation—diaper discipline and spanking, for example—most older children would be secretive of their own volition. A parent wouldn't have to insist that a child keep such a secret; the child would do so willingly in order to avoid scorn and laughter from their peers and possibly family members as well. Older children in particular feel deep shame when such disciplinary methods are incorporated, and as such, would be unlikely to disclose even what would be considered by society as appropriate discipline. The fear of being ridiculed is too great. What 11-year-old would openly state that s/he had been spanked as punishment the night before, never mind tell anyone that s/he had been forced to wear a diaper, and risk the teasing and mockery that would accompany such an admission?

Furthermore, although the authorities and child protection agencies might view the use of diaper discipline on a fully continent child, especially an older child, as inappropriate, they would not necessarily recognize it as child abuse. There is an important distinction to note here. Much as it should be, it is not illegal to put a continent child in diapers for the purpose of discipline. There would have to be an extreme case for diaper discipline to be considered child maltreatment in the eyes of the law. And it's unlikely that victims of such maltreatment would be willing to disclose and face not just private, but also public humiliation.

Child abuse of all types is still significantly underreported. And worse than that, some of the most insidious forms of recognized child abuse are still ignored by those in charge of protecting children: emotional abuse in particular, of which diaper discipline should be considered. The system tends to turn a blind eye toward the effects of emotional abuse because these effects are not so obvious, and because overworked and understaffed agencies must prioritize their caseloads. Typically, case workers are more prone to act on child abuse situations where the child is considered to be in "immediate danger." And even when a child is in clear and present danger, action is not always taken, as we all too often hear about on our local evening news. Children continue to die at the hands of their parents, even when agencies have been made aware of the abusive home situation beforehand.

To summarize, when a child is compelled to keep the method of discipline being imposed upon him/her a secret, that is a red flag; and as such, should be taken into account when determining whether or not child abuse is present. But that in itself is not enough to conclusively state that child abuse is indeed present. With regard to diaper discipline, it is doubtful that a fully continent child would willingly disclose such an embarrassing form of so-called discipline. Parents wouldn't have to swear the child to secrecy; the mere thought of repercussions from friends and family members of such a disclosure is enough for any child to voluntarily keep quiet. It is for this reason the issue is far more complex than whether or not keeping secrets is an accurate measure for whether or not the discipline being imposed is child abuse.

Darlene Barriere
Violence & Abuse Prevention Educator
Author: On My Own Terms, A Memoir

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