We can all play a part in preventing child abuse – here’s how

Approximately 4 million cases of child abuse are reported in the United States each year. In 2020, 32,919 suspected abuse cases were reported in Pennsylvania. Most of these cases involved sexual abuse, but physical abuse and neglect were also among the most frequently reported reasons.

While the number of child abuse cases in Pennsylvania has been steadily declining over the past 4 to 5 years, more cases can still be prevented. Let’s think about what we can do.

1. Be aware of stress levels

Parents’ feelings of isolation, stress and frustration often play a role in child abuse. Independence Blue Cross (Independence) Medical Director Stephen Higgins, MD, cautions every parent to be aware of the causes of frustration and to distance themselves from their children in those situations.

“The pandemic has caused a lot of collateral damage,” Higgins says. “People are having a hard time financially. Housing is super expensive. Employment is improving, but there are financial stressors, especially with inflation. Everyone is under a significant amount of stress. We may not even recognize it anymore because it feels like the new normal. But parents may be more likely to get frustrated with things they wouldn’t have before.”

To avoid taking actions you’ll regret later, Higgins says, “If you find yourself getting angry, take a deep breath. Slow things down. Put the kid down, leave for a few minutes, and get back together.” “When we are deeply frustrated and angry, we take impulsive actions. And when we lose control, it doesn’t take much to hurt a small child.” Know that it’s okay to ask for help.

2. Help others to calm down

If you suspect a friend or family member is stressed, Higgins recommends taking a calming influence. Acknowledge their feelings. Offer to visit or babysit to give them a break. Trusted family and friends can provide emotional support through the many challenges of parenthood.

If you see a parent yelling at their child in a public place, it can be counterproductive to criticize the parent, Higgins says. Instead, he adds, “Engaging in casual conversation can help lower energy levels.”

3. Prioritize Parents’ Mental and Behavioral Health

Sometimes parents can neglect their own mental well-being while caring for children — and this can lead to negative outcomes, says Ryan Connolly, MD, MS, psychiatrist and medical director at Independence.

Untreated mental illness and substance use can put people at risk for committing child abuse. Many psychological conditions can increase irritability and make things like sleep worse, all the while reducing a person’s ability to control angry impulses. It is important for parents and other caregivers to devote themselves to self-care, to recognize symptoms of behavioral problems, and to ask for help when they need it.

“Some parents are afraid or embarrassed to ask for help, especially if they are struggling with angry feelings or negative thoughts about their children,” says Connolly. “This is exactly the wrong approach. Being mentally healthy is critical to being a good caregiver.”

4. Support children in protecting themselves

It is important that children understand that they are special and have a right to safety. Encourage them to stand up for themselves and voice their opinion if they don’t feel comfortable with a person or situation.

Children need to feel comfortable and able to say “no” and set boundaries, to inform a trusted person if they have experienced something upsetting, and to acknowledge that they have never, ever be blamed if an adult behaves inappropriately towards them.

5. If you see something, say something

If you suspect child abuse, report it so that families can get the help they need and the children are protected. You can report suspected abuse or neglect of children 24 hours a day, seven days a week in Philadelphia at: 215-683-6100 or call the Pennsylvania State Hotline at: 1-800-932-0313. Callers can choose whether or not to include their name when reporting. Call the police for the fastest response if a child is at immediate risk of injury.

Useful Links

• Report Abuse (PA.gov)
• Abusive head trauma: how to protect your baby (HealthyChildren.org)
• Raising the Future
• Center for Effective Parenting

6. Get help when you need it

If you or someone you know is in distress and thinking about hurting themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text to the Crisis text line (HELLO to 741741) or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.

Visit ibx.com/knowyourmind to learn more about depression, self-care strategies, and where to find help.

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