Sadly, some 4 million cases of child abuse are reported each year in the United States. In Pennsylvania, a total of 32,919 cases of suspected child abuse were reported in 2020. The majority of these cases involved sexual abuse, followed by physical abuse/bodily injury and serious physical neglect.
While the number of child abuse cases in Pennsylvania has declined steadily over the last 4 – 5 years, more cases could still be prevented. Let’s take a moment to consider what we can do.
1. Be Conscious 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, M.D., cautions every parent to be aware of the triggers of frustration, and to step away from their children in those situations.
“The pandemic has caused a lot of collateral damage,” Higgins says. “People are struggling financially. Housing is super expensive. Employment is improving but there are financial stressors, particularly with inflation. Everybody is under a significant degree of stress. We might not even recognize it anymore because it feels like the new normal. But parents may be getting frustrated faster by things they wouldn’t have before.”
To avoid taking actions you will regret later, Higgins says, “When you feel yourself getting angry, take a breath. Slow things down. Put the child down, step away for a few minutes, and gather yourself. When we’re deep in frustration and anger, that’s when we take impulsive actions. And when we lose control, it doesn’t take a lot to hurt a small child.” Know that it’s okay to ask for help.
2. Help Others Calm Down
If you suspect that a friend or family member is stressed, Higgins advises, try to be a calming influence. Acknowledge their feelings. Offer to visit or babysit to give them a break. Trusted family and friends can provide emotional support throughout the many challenges of parenthood.
If you see a parent yelling at their child in a public place, it could be counter-productive to criticize the parent, Higgins says. Instead, he adds, “Striking up a casual conversation could help to bring the energy level down.”
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, M.D., M.S., psychiatrist and medical director at Independence.
Untreated mental illness and substance use can place people at risk for committing acts of child abuse. Many psychological conditions can increase irritability and worsen things like sleep, while at the same time reducing a person’s ability to control angry impulses. It’s important for parents and other caregivers to attend to self-care, recognize symptoms of behavioral health problems, and ask for help when they need it.
“Some parents feel afraid or ashamed to ask for help, especially if they’re struggling with angry feelings or negative thoughts about their kids,” Connolly says. “This is exactly the wrong approach. Being mentally healthy is critically important to being a good caregiver.”
4. Support Children in Protecting Themselves
It’s important for children to understand that they are special and have the right to be safe. Encourage them to advocate for themselves and speak up when they’re uncomfortable with a person or a situation.
Kids should feel comfortable and empowered to say “no” and set boundaries, to inform a trusted person if they’ve experienced something upsetting, and to recognize that they are never, ever to blame if an adult behaves inappropriately towards them.
5. If You See Something, Say Something
If you suspect that child abuse is taking place, report it so that families can get the help that they need and 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 may choose whether or not to give their name when reporting. Call the police for the fastest response if a child is at immediate risk of injury.
- Report Abuse (PA.gov)
- Abusive Head Trauma: How to Protect Your Baby (HealthyChildren.org)
- Raising the Future
- Center for Effective Parenting
6. Get Help if You Need It
If you or someone you know is in distress and is thinking about hurting themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You also can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741) or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.
For more information about depression, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.