When Cindy's 2-year-old son poured hand lotion in the fish tank, "something exploded inside my head," recalled the 29-year-old mother.

"It had been one of those days when everything had gone wrong, and I just hauled off and knocked him across the floor. Then I said, 'Oh My God,' got on the phone and called for help."

With encouragement from the Prince George's County Protective Services Agency, Cindy joined a local chapter of Parents Anonymous - a self-help group for parents who have abused or who fear they may abuse their children. Group members meet with their sponsor - health-care professionals - once weekly and in times of crisis offer mutual support.

One out of every five families has a child-abuse problem, estimated Jim Harrell of HEW's National Center on Child Abuse. One out of 10 families has a very serious problem that necessitates intervention from the police or local juvenile service agency.

"Most abusive parents were themselves abused and never had a good family experience to draw upon in raising their own children," said Parents Anonymous sponsor Christine Comstock Herbruck, author of "Breaking the Cycle of Child Abuse."

"For most PA people, their group is the first good family experience they have had. Things parents learn in groups - like how to defuse situations before they lose control or how to do something other than abuse a child when they do lose control - can be taken home and used in the actual family environment."

Physical abuse is not necessarily the worst kind of abuse, added Herbruck. Verbal abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect can all leave a child with emotional scars, a lack of self-esteem and the feeling that "everyone hates me."

The most difficult step is making that first phone call for help, said Cindy, who had been abused sexually by her brother as a child, then neglected by her mother (who insisted she must have dreamed the incidents).

"I was afraid of what I'd find out about myself, that I was going crazy, or that they'd take my child away from me," she said. "But instead I found that I wasn't alone - that other adult human beings understood my feelings and would try to help me."

Now if Cindy feels she is losing control she calls another group member. Her "PA Pal" will talk with her to calm her or will come over to her house and watch her child while Cindy takes a walk to cool off.

Calling the PA sponsor for the first time felt "like warm water was pouring all over me," said one 38-year-old divorced mother who phoned from a friend's house after she left her two teen-aged sons and ran away from home.

"Everyone's supposed to love children and be a wonderful parent 24 hours a day, and to admit lapses in that is tantamount to ripping up the flag. But this woman didn't act like I was evil, sinful or immoral. She made it seem perfectly normal to want to run away from two teen-agers. She understood and she wanted to help."

Other PA members shared this feeling.

"In PA I'm learning how to be a better mother," said one 36-year-old who is still grappling with her own difficult childhood, during which the family never celebrated Christmas or any of the eight children's birthdays.

"I had to miss a lot of school to take care of my brothers and sisters, my mother never touched me unless she absolutely had to," she said. "But people here don't judge. We talk about how we handle situations and how to do better. And I am doing better. One day I was walking down the street and I realized I had my arms around my children. It felt good."

"I feel better about myself and I went out and took a job instead of staying inside the house with the blinds closed," said another member. "We may not be perfect parents. But we sure are trying."