Understanding Child Abuse
Lisa Jo Shields, PhD, LMHC
Family Life and Child Development Specialist
Through a presidential proclamation in 1983, Ronald Reagan declared April as Child Abuse Prevention Month. This month is designated as a time for people to gain awareness about the prevalence of child abuse and the importance of prevention (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2016). Nationally, it is estimated that 646,261 children were victims of child abuse or neglect; and 1,580 children died as a result of abuse or neglect (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016a). In New Mexico, approximately 18 children in every 1,000 children under the age of 18 were abused or neglected (New Mexico Voices for Children, 2015). The effects of child abuse are not limited to just children and their family members. Entire communities are negatively impacted and can also play an important role in the prevention of abuse. A great number of substantiated child abuse cases originate from situations and conditions that are preventable when community programs and systems such as Cooperative Extension are engaged and supportive. Extensive research has identified specific factors that are known to prevent and reduce child abuse and neglect. These factors include: (a) nurturing and attachment, (b) parental resilience, (c) parenting education and child development knowledge, (d) children’s social and emotional competence, (e) social connections, and (f) concrete supports for parents (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016b).
Nurturing and Attachment – Children who experience stable relationships with nurturing and affectionate parents have an increased chance for overall well–being. A secure attachments with loving parents or primary caregivers can act as a protective factor against maladaptive emotional and behavioral outcomes as children age (Lowell, Renk & Adgate, 2014). Studies on infant brain development discovered that attachment quality between a baby and their primary caregiver sets the stage for self-regulation and relational skills later in life (Jacobs, 2012). Although many parents feel overwhelmed with their daily strife, it is important to take time to connect with and nurture the parent-child relationship through physical and verbal affection, laughing and having fun, soothing hurt feelings and knees, and encouraging success.
Extension programs can help build nurturing and attachment in the following ways:
Use parent education strategies (workshops, lending libraries) as opportunities to share information about how a strong parent-child bond enhances brain development and supports positive behavior in young children.
Share resources available from your agency and throughout the community on how parents can nurture and connect with their children at every age.
Engage and include all important adults in a child’s life, including fathers, grandparents, and extended family, as part of a child’s “nurturing network.”
Acknowledge cultural differences in how parents and children show affection.
Recognize that when a child does not show a positive response to the parent (due to an emotional, developmental, or behavioral disability, for example), the parent may need additional support (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016b, p. 12).
Parental Resilience – Resilience is defined as the ability to recover from setbacks, adapt well to change, and keep going in the face of adversity (Ovans, 2015). Resilience is an important trait in parents because it determines their ability to cope with, not only, the daily stressors of life but also major crises or a pile-up of adverse events such as unemployment or underemployment, domestic violence, substance abuse, physical or mental health problems, and divorce and homelessness. On the other hand, studies show that “community-level protective factors such as a positive community environment and economic opportunities serve to enhance parental resilience” (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016b, p 15). Everyone has the capacity to build resiliency by utilizing their inner strength and personal resources. Having a sense of humor and hope, being able to communicate needs, having problems solving skills and being able to reach out to others, maintaining supportive and loving relationships, and believing in a higher power are just a few personal resources that serve in building parental resilience.
Extension programs can help build parental resiliency in the following ways:
Provide resources to help parents understand the causes of stress and how it affects health, relationships, and family life.
Teach parents concrete skills to prevent stress, such as planning and goal setting, anticipating difficulties, problem-solving, communication, and self-care.
Link parents with resources for stress management, such as exercise opportunities, relaxation techniques, and venues for meditation or prayer.
Train staff to observe and assess children for early signs of child or family distress and respond to children and parents with encouragement and support
Partner with resources in the community that help families manage stress and deal with crises, including programs that offer family-to-family help for personalized, sustained support, as well as services such as mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment, domestic violence programs, and self-help support groups (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016b, p. 15-16).
Parenting Education and Child Development Knowledge – Parents who have a limited or no understanding of child development can easily misinterpret normal behavior and react to their children in negative or abusive ways. Parents with child development knowledge are able to anticipate normal childhood milestones, set appropriate rules and limits, encourage developmental growth by understanding and supporting their children’s stages, and be able to take the appropriate actions when their children may be experiencing anything out of the ordinary (McMillin, Bultas, Zander, Wilmott, Underwood, Broom & Zand, 2016).
Because all children are unique, parents need to be flexible and adjust their parenting strategies to fit various circumstances and their children’s temperament. This is especially true for parents who have children with special needs. Children with special needs are 1.68 times more likely to be abused or neglected in comparison to children without a disability (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2012). One parenting style does not fit all children.
Extension programs can help build knowledge of parenting and child development in the following ways:
Offer informal, daily interactions between parents and program staff, plus coaching from staff on specific developmental challenges when they arise (e.g., inconsolable crying, eating or sleeping problems, biting, sharing toys, lying, problems with peers).
Educate staff on parenting and child development so that they can play a more effective role in coaching parents on these issues.
Provide parent-child interaction training opportunities through classes or workshops that address topics parents request or that respond to current issues.
Provide observation opportunities such as video monitors or windows into classrooms and outdoor space, where parents can watch their child interacting with other children and learn new techniques by observing staff.
Give parents opportunities to participate in conversations with other parents about their own experiences as children and how they want to change their parenting.
Offer a lending library of educational materials about parenting and child development (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016b, p. 14).
Children’s Social and Emotional Competence – As children grow, they develop increasing abilities to effectively express their feeling, solve problems, and regulate their own behavior which enriches the child’s relationships with parents, peers and family members. As a result, parents’ frustration levels decrease due to the increasing ease in the parent-child relationship (Russell, Lee, Spieker & Oxford, 2016). Parenting can be challenging when children are unable to communicate or “act out” as a means of getting their needs met. Delays in children’s social and emotional competence can place them at greater risk for abuse (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016b). Early detection of developmental issues is key to ensuring the well-being of children.
Extension programs can help build children’s social and emotional competence in the following ways:
Use both structured curriculum and informal interaction to teach children to share, be respectful of others, and express themselves through language.
Include discussions about the importance of feelings in programming for children and parents.
Create and post a chart that describes which social and emotional skills children typically do and do not possess at different ages.
Provide art programs that allow children to express themselves in ways other than words.
Foster ongoing engagement and communication with parents about their children’s social and emotional development and the actions the program is taking to facilitate it. Children often take home what they are learning at school.
Encourage and provide opportunities for parents to share resources with each other and exchange ideas about how they promote their children’s social and emotional development.
Take timely action when there is a concern—this might include asking another experienced person or staff member to help observe a child, talking with the parent, or bringing in a consultant (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016b, p. 20-21).
Social Connections – Parents with a stable social network consisting of family, friends, coworkers, and neighbors are better able to meet the needs of their children and themselves. Families who are isolated with limited social connections, especially in times of need, have an increased risk for child abuse or neglect (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016b). Parents need a network of people that can provide both tangible and emotional support. Parents may need assistance in identifying community resources that help with building social connections such as churches, community programs, and support groups.
Extension programs can help build social connections in the following ways:
Set aside a welcoming space for parents to mingle and talk. Provide coffee, snacks, or other “perks.”
Create opportunities for parents to plan social events that reflect their interests or culture.
Use regular potluck dinners with parents and children to reach out to new parents and foster new friendships.
Sponsor sports and outdoor activities for parents, including fathers.
Provide classes and workshops on parenting, cooking, health, and other topics of interest.
Create special outreach activities for fathers, grandparents, and other extended family members.
Offer parents who seem interested specific suggestions, information, or services to help them make social connections.
Offer resources to help parents overcome transportation, child care, and other barriers to participating in social activities (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016b, p. 17).
Concrete Supports for Families – Parents facing a lack of basic needs like food, housing, transportation and clothing are far less able to support the ongoing well-being of their children. Families dealing with employment loss, parental incarceration, natural disaster, or health crisis may need help accessing resources in an effort to limit the stress that can lead to child abuse (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016b).
Extension programs can help build concrete supports for families in the following ways:
Connect parents to economic resources such as job training and social services.
Serve as an access point for health care, child care subsidies, and other benefits.
Provide for immediate needs through a closet with extra winter coats and a direct connection to a food pantry; facilitate help from other parents when appropriate.
Help families access crisis services such as a battered women’s shelter, mental health services, or substance abuse counseling by helping families make initial calls and appointments, assisting with transportation, and providing the name of a contact person in addition to a phone number.
Link parents with service providers who speak their language or share a similar background, when available.
Train staff to listen for family stress and initiate positive conversations about family needs.
Let parents know about all available community resources, so they may select what is most appropriate for their needs.
Develop processes for parents to share information about formal and informal resources that they find helpful (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 2016b, p. 20).
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