Family-based prevention and positive parenting

Published: 8 June 2012

Opening address by Dr. Katrien Beeckman, Head, Principles and Values Department, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, First International Conference on Family-based Prevention and Positive Parenting. Ljubljana, Slovenia, June 2012.

“We owe our children – the most vulnerable citizens in any society – a life free from violence and fear,” said Nelson Mandela, and please allow me to propose to add 'and full of love and care'.

First of all, let me convey, it is an honour for the IFRC to speak at this 1st International Conference on Family-Based prevention and Positive Parenting. We congratulate the organisers for the initiative, as well as the Slovenian Government for hosting it.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is comprised of 187 member Red Cross and Red Crescent national societies and part of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement. Red Cross and Red Crescent is known world-wide for addressing vulnerability, alleviating and preventing  human suffering. Thanks to our network of 13 000 000 active and well-trained volunteers from within the community, national societies can deliver last-mile assistance and support and contribute to healthier, more resilient and more peaceful communities.

The promotion of social inclusion and a culture of non-violence and peace is one of our three strategic aims for the years 2010-2020.  The IFRC defined a culture of non-violence in our Strategy on violence prevention, mitigation and response adopted in 2011: a culture of non-violence “respects human beings, their well-being and dignity; it honours diversity, non-discrimination, inclusiveness, mutual understanding and dialogue, willingness to serve, cooperation and lasting peace. It is a culture where individuals, institutions and societies refrain from harming others, groups, communities or themselves. There is a commitment to positive and constructive solutions to problems, tensions and the source of violence; violence is never an option.”

So promoting a culture of nonviolence and peace includes preventing, mitigating and responding to violence. However it goes beyond that, it is in essence about on ongoing process of nurturing human values and reaching out to the society at large, beyond those affected and at risk of violence. It is about cultivating an attitude, mindset and behaviour of nonviolence and peace in all that we do.

Before sharing with you some activities of Red Cross Red Crescent societies world-wide in the area of family-based prevention, and sharing some insights on parenting as a mother of three, kindly let me highlight nine key thoughts, I am sure many of us share:

1. Fostering a culture of nonviolence and peace needs action at multiple levels which are complementary, interdependent and mutually reinforcing:  the individual, family, community and societal levels.

2. We know that the harmful experiences that children have when they are young can have life-long negative effects, alter their brain function and DNA. The first line of defence for this is must be the parents and family level – parents are the key for the health and wellbeing of the next generation and therefore the world. Parents need to take up the responsibility to keep their kids safe – not only in the home but also outside of the home. With this responsibility comes the task of knowing who your child is interacting with, both in real life and cyberspace.

3. Violence is often a manifestation or the outcome of an underlying issue or problem, and can only be effectively addressed if its root causes are tackled. Individual risk factors of violence, such as alcohol or substance abuse, anger issues or low self-esteem need to be considered when addressing violence within the family, as much as poor parenting practices, imbalance of power or unequal gender relations.

4. We need to focus on protective and resilience factors, such as assertiveness and self-awareness, the ability to solve problems, having goals and aspirations at the individual level. Research shows that the following factors are particularly helpful for children to cope with adversity, overcome trauma and strengthen resilience : (i) Relationships, (ii) Identity and self-pride (iii) Sense of control over "one’s world" (iv) Feeling of Social justice - ie a belief that one is treated fairly inside one's community and a (v) Sense of belonging, including cultural. For families, the presence of positive mentors and role models, perceived social support, and appropriate emotional expression and parental monitoring are key. Recent research by the International Center for Research on Women and Instituto Promundo, entitled “Bridges to Adulthood – Understanding the Lifelong Influence of Men’s Childhood Experiences of Violence” (2012) demonstrates how gender equality relations within the family (for instance with regard to financial decision-making dynamics), a father’s participation in household duties and child-care and child-rearing activities are also protective factors for childhood experiences of violence in their family.

5. We pro-actively need to create space for self-expression. Too often, children affected by violence do not share their suffering, as they may be afraid that they, or someone they care about, will be hurt, or may think the abuse is their fault or believe no one will believe them. Often kids only tell what is happening to them through their behaviour, so “all behaviour has meaning” and parents need to find out the meaning. Arts, music, theatre, dance and sports are great tools which provide children with opportunities where they feel comfortable to express their story, what they experienced and how it impacted them.

6. The development of intra-personal and interpersonal skills to act constructively and interact harmoniously is crucial as they can open the door for bonding, openness and trust, between parents and children. Within IFRC, we have developed a flagship initiative focusing on youth and seeking to enable them, through the development of these skills, to take up a leadership role in promoting a culture of nonviolence and peace around them, it is called “Youth as Agents of Behavioural Change” (YABC) . We think the following skills are of particular importance, equally in a family context:
- Active listening (being truly present and relating to the other’s concerns, feelings and needs)
- Empathy (putting yourself in the others’ shoes)
- Critical thinking and dropping bias (breaking our usual habit of jumping to hasty conclusions based on partial information and interpretations rather than facts)
-  Non-judgment (a capacity not to judge or label the other which is conducive to gaining trust, openness and a willingness to change)
- Nonviolent communication
- Collaborative negotiation and mediation
- Operating from inner peace focusing on stress management and balancing energy

7. We need to break the 'culture of violence' within society and the family. This means dealing with socially or culturally conditioned norms and practices encouraging violent behaviour, 'men need to be tough' for instance, or social influences making violence acceptable and sexy as often learned through vehicles like TV, video games, etc. We also need to break the “cycle or culture of violence” particular within a family, where it may be conditioned by intergenerational transmission. We can do so by reflecting on our own parenting style and becoming aware of how much it is conditioned by our parents’ parenting style we faced as children.

8. Children themselves need to be pro-actively involved and listened to. We need to stop seeing them as “inferior” to adults, worthy of less respect or consideration, or just “cuties and darlings”.

9. Education is key in many respects. Parent’s educational attainment, the mother’s in particular, is a protective factor for violence against children as showed by the Promundo research. Formal education, from the earliest age possible, needs to be directed towards fostering dialogue, mutual understanding and non-violence, breaking gender stereotyping and social conditioning and needs to develop these interpersonal skills to interact constructively with others.  Children as learners, can then subsequently bring this learning inside their family and become an agent of family transformation. Stronger, constructive and supportive linkages between schools and families need to be built.

Ladies and Gentlemen, let me now illustrate through some concrete examples how Red Cross Red Crescent National Societies world-wide are promoting a culture of nonviolence and peace at the family level.

In Honduras, where family health is mainly seen as the sole responsibility of women, the Red Cross Society, with the support from the Canadian Red Cross, set up an initiative called “Redes” (networks in Spanish), which promotes men’s participation in maternal, newborn and child health. Taking part in pregnancy, birth and post-partum activities has enabled men to challenge their own views on gender roles, engage in active fatherhood and positively influence attitudes and behavior in the community. 

The Australian Red Cross has a Family Support Programme, offering support to families with young children by assisting parents and care-takers in their own home, with a range of parenting skills and techniques.  Parenting skills are strengthened by (i) increasing parents’ knowledge about child development and health issues, (ii) encouraging them to play with, and have fun with, their children, (iii) supporting them with strategies to be fair and consistent with children, (iv) encouraging them to learn how to place safe limits on children, (v) helping them to create non-violent and caring homes, (vi) encouraging them to take an active role in their child’s schooling and (vii) helping them to develop confidence and know-how as parents. A “playworker” accompanies each family during 3 months, during 2-3 hours a week.

The Guyana Red Cross is conducting the “Be Safe!” programme, a personal safety programme for children aged 5 to 9. It uses story telling, puppetry, songs and games to teach children safety messages. An important part of the programme is also to train parents, teachers and community members on prevention of violence, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse – for instance humiliating or isolating a child, as well as neglect.  The “Be Safe!” initiative is part of the RespectED programme of the Canadian Red Cross, a National Society with incredible expertise, experience and innovative parental programs on violence prevention such as Respect in Sport, Beyond the Hurt (on bullying prevention) and Healthy Youth Relationships (on dealing with challenges in adolescence).

The South African Red Cross Society is engaged in advocacy and mobilizes youth to reach out to men and get their commitment to adopt violent free behavior towards their partner and children. 

The Swiss Red Cross, started courses in the 1960’s for parents and future parents, including psycho-social support, dealing with adolescence and first aid.

These are of course but a few examples of how Red Cross Red Crescent actively engages in family-based prevention all over the world.

Finally, ladies and gentlemen, as a mother of three and an experiential learner, I wanted to share some insights that reading inspirational books, like those of Marshall Rosenberg, or interacting with my own children have allowed me to gain and which seem to me relevant for our conference’s discussions.

1. You must do this! Don’t do that! The era of authoritarian or top down parenting – and human relations generally I would say as shown by the “Arab springs” – is over. Humans today, including children, need ownership and to be actively part of the picture and the solution. Let us help children to think critically and objectively, explore alternatives together and guide them towards solutions that are safe, contribute to their well being and are aligned with their needs and interests. Let us explain the objective grounds or rationale underpinning decisions, and by doing so offer a framework of consistency and psychological security.

2. There is no greater motivation than self-motivation. The “cane or the carrot”, the sanctions or reward system, does not lead to sustainable and responsible behaviour. Freedom, and freedom of choice, are one of the deepest needs of all humans, including children. Conditional love makes children feel insecure and affects their self-esteem. I would even say it can be seen as an abuse of power and trigger violent behaviour.

3. Children need our presence, not only quantitatively in number of hours, but also qualitatively, which I admit can be difficult in today’s over-packed and fast-paced life. However, we all need to learn to actively listen so as to be able to capture our children’s needs, fears, concerns and desires and take the time to inter-relate, be and grow together.

Finally, nobody is born a parent. It’s an on the job learning process of trial and error, but conferences like this one focusing on positive parenting are so encouraging and so important! I look forward to learning from all of you and growing in insights so that we can together pave that path leading to families free of violence and fear, and full of love and care.

Thank you.


The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world's largest humanitarian organization, with 190 member National Societies . As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, our work is guided by seven fundamental principles; humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. About this site & copyright