April is National Child Abuse Awareness Month. And the good news is that most people are already aware that child abuse is a problem. But when you’ll ask people about child abuse and neglect, you’ll usually get one of two responses.
Outrage or eye-rolling. Sometimes both.
You’ll hear the outrage people feel toward the extreme, notable and well publicized cases of physical abuse that they hear about in the media. How those parents are monsters and there’s no prison dark enough for the likes of them.
Then you’ll see the eye-rolling when people discuss how “child abuse” is an overused term that now applies to any kind of physical discipline. There’s a desire to preserve the parental prerogative of using corporal punishment without judgement from the oversensitive academics who are too quick to call even a light slap on the rear “abuse.”
So if the only true abusers are evil, abnormal beasts, is it even possible to prevent abuse and neglect?
It IS possible because the perceptions are inaccurate.
“Monstrous,” media-worthy abusers are the exception more than the rule. And parental prerogative is not sacrosanct. All caring adults in a community are responsible for creating safe, nurturing, healthy environments for our children. Preventing child abuse is something that we can all take part in.
Prevention lives between outrage and eye-rolling.
The truth is that most child abuse and neglect cases are not extreme or violent enough to get on the news. Abuse and neglect comes from a pattern of parenting behaviors that ignores the child’s basic needs or inflicts intentional injury upon the child.
But there’s good news there. If abuse and neglect is a pattern of behaviors, we can stop those patterns from forming. In short, Nebraska’s communities CAN prevent child abuse before it starts. But only if we let go of the idea that all child abuse is committed by monsters and embrace the idea that we all play a role in protecting our communities’ children.
How does prevention work?
If you ask anyone to name some risk factors for child abuse, they’ll usually give you the right answers. Poverty, alcoholism, drug use, low educational achievement, early parenthood, high stress – these are all factors that make patterns of abusive and neglectful behaviors more likely to occur in a given family.
While preventing these risk factors altogether is a worthwhile approach, there’s a more direct way. The counterpart to these risk factors are a recognized set of “protective factors.” By identifying at-risk families and helping them build in more protective factors early, development of abuse and neglect patterns can be curbed.
What are “protective factors”?
Protective Factors are buffers that help parents and children avoid harm when risk factors are present. The six proven protective factors are:
- Nurturing and attachment
- Knowledge of parenting and child development
- Parental resilience
- Social connections
- Concrete supports for parents
- Social and emotional competence of children
Do you see the silver lining? These protective factors can be taught. In families where risk factors exist, communities can focus on infusing protective factors into the mix through a variety of relatively simple programs, including:
- Infant care classes during pregnancy and on-going parenting classes during infancy and toddler years
- Home visitation and instruction for high-risk families
- Anger management and stress reduction training
- Creation of support networks and the active recruitment of at-risk parents into those networks
- Parenting resource centers in libraries, schools or hospitals, where parents can go to get judgement-free help with parenting challenges.
- Affordable, accessible early childhood education that will help at-risk children develop the social and emotional competence to overcome risk factors.
That should put the concept of prevention into a more concrete perspective. These are specific, effective actions that communities can take to protect their at-risk families from developing abusive and neglectful patterns of behavior.
This is a new way for most people to look at abuse and neglect.
But the old perceptions of monstrous parents and meek communities don’t solve the problem. A shift in perspective is required – a shift that sees prevention through the proactive creation of protective factors as a way to make a real difference in the lives of families at risk.
Visit the Prevent Child Abuse Nebraska website for more information.
I could certainly have been helped by outside support when my children were young. I’m glad we’re becoming more aware that children from almost any group may be at risk if there are stress factors present.
You’re right, Mary. I think EVERY parent can benefit from outside help sometimes. There’s still so much shame attached to reaching out and asking for support. I think the protective factors are a good framework for removing some of that shame.
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