Even though Child Abuse Prevention Month has passed, this topic desperately needs to be addressed.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which dovetails perfectly with last month’s cause.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Jamye Coffman, M.D., medical director of the Cook Children’s Center for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect and its Child Advocacy Resources and Evaluation (CARE) team. “We’ve seen a substantial increase in serious child abuse cases at Cook Children’s recently. We can’t say for certain if the effects of COVID-19 are driving this increase. All we can do right now is sound the alarm about what we are seeing.”
“It’s concerning to see this spike coincide with the pandemic,” said Anu Partap, M.D. director for Cook Children’s Center for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, “especially witout knowing when it will come to an end or the ultimate toll it will take on our communities. With stay-at-home orders in effect, coupled with the loss of jobs, support systems, and routines, the results can be disastrous.”
We know that families are under more stress, whether related to income or children being out of school,” said Dr. Coffman. “There’s a lot of pressure on parents and caregivers right now. What’s most concerning for us is that we saw a similar rise in child abuse during the [2008 economic] recession. We don’t want to see that again.”
She explained that prior to the recession in 2008, the most common cause of traumatic death in children was car accidents, but during the recession, it changed to abusive head trauma.
Dr. Donald Plumley is the medical director for pediatric trauma at Arnold Palmer hospital in Orlando, Florida, where medical personnel has seen a similarly concerning increase in severe child abuse injuries. “These are children with, I’m talking multiple fractures, head injuries that go to the operating room, severe burns,” said Dr. Plumley. “These are critical.”
“He/she/they/I would never” is a dangerous way of thinking about child abuse and neglect. HelpGuide.org, which provides information on mental health and wellness, has a great article about the subject that you should definitely read. Among other information, it tackles some myths and fact about child abuse and neglect that I will quote here:
Myth: Only bad people abuse their children.
Fact: Not all abusive parents or guardians intentionally harm their children. Many have been victims of abuse themselves and don’t know any other way to parent. Others may be struggling with mental health issues or substance abuse problems.
Myth: Abuse doesn’t happen in “good” families.
Fact: Abuse and neglect doesn’t only happen in poor families or bad neighborhoods. These behaviors cross all racial, economic, and cultural lines. Sometimes, families who seem to have it all from the outside are hiding a different story behind closed doors.
Myth: Most child abusers are strangers.
Fact: While abuse by strangers does happen, most abusers are family members or others close to the family.
Myth: Abused children always grow up to be abusers.(HelpGuide.org, Child Abuse and Neglect)
Fact: It is true that abused children are more likely to repeat the cycle as adults, unconsciously repeating what they experienced as children. On the other hand, many adult survivors of child abuse have a strong motivation to protect their children against what they went through and become excellent parents.
Among other risk factors for child abuse and neglect, HelpGuide.org cites “stress and lack of support.” During this stressful time, we’re all susceptible to feeling like we’re overwhelmed and alone. The article says, “Parenting can be a very time-intensive, stressful job, especially if you’re raising children without support from family and friends, or you’re dealing with relationship problems or financial difficulties. Caring for a child with a disability, special needs, or difficult behaviors is also a challenge. It’s important to get the support you need, so you are emotionally and physically able to support your child.”
I can’t even begin to tell you how strongly I feel about that segment of the article. I’m raising a child with a variety of diagnoses, special needs, and difficult behaviors, who is not only bright, intelligent, and wickedly funny but also irritable, easily triggered, and volatile, so I fully understand how difficult it can be. I can also tell you from years of personal experience that there is help available. Don’t hesitate to reach out to someone, be it your child’s pediatrician, a psychiatrist, or a therapist; that’s a good starting point.
In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, another place to start would be PerformCare, a care management organization focusing on “prevention and early intervention by connecting a young person with the care they need in the most appropriate setting.”
My child’s mental health providers helped connect us with PerformCare, which, among many other things, set us up with family support, in-home therapy, and a CMO worker who assisted with my child’s placement in various programs and facilities and even advocated for my child in IEP and other school meetings. I am eternally grateful for the services they provided and, as a result, the progress my child — and by extension, my family — has made.
Also integral in that progress is my personal therapist, who helped me weather the end stages of an abusive relationship while dealing with my child’s increasingly difficult and frustrating behaviors and everything that resulted from both. She helped me drill deeper into my well of inner strength any time I thought it had completely run dry, and she also taught me many skills to use to cope with my challenges — skills I was subsequently able to teach my kids. (Shout out to you, S.W.!)
Another excellent resource my therapist shared with me was Family Connections, a New Jersey non-profit organization supporting families facing difficult challenges. Through that organization, I found a support/education group that taught me even more specific skills I have been able to use to help my child, including radical acceptance, which was the most difficult for me.
Every state has resources like these. Reach out to a mental health professional for help connecting with yours.
Dr. Partap also recommends reaching out to friends and family who have children to check in and offer support. “We can offer help, a listening ear, or even just empathy for a parent who is struggling.”
For everyone, but especially for parents and caregivers, it’s essential that we recognize when we are struggling and — I can’t emphasize this enough — ASK FOR HELP.
I’ve had to learn this lesson the hard way, so let me impart it on you: there is no shame in asking for help. It does not mean you’re weak or inferior or a bad parent. It means you’re human. It’s actually a sign of strength. It shows you care enough to want to be better, to do better, for your children and for yourself. We all get stressed out. How we cope with that stress is the important thing.
“Stress is not an excuse for abusing your child,” said Dr. Coffman, “but rather we hope that caregivers can recognize their stress and ask for help rather than accelerate dangerous behaviors, and that others can recognize and intervene as well.”
It’s important to recognize the signs of abusive behavior in yourself. The HelpGuide.org article I quoted above lists the following warning signs that you may be close to crossing that line:
You can’t stop your anger. What starts as a swat on the backside may turn into multiple hits getting harder and harder. You may shake your child more and more and finally throw them down. You find yourself screaming louder and louder and can’t stop yourself.
You feel emotionally disconnected from your child. You may feel so overwhelmed that you don’t want anything to do with your child. You just want to be left alone and for your child to be quiet.
Meeting the daily needs of your child seems impossible. While everyone struggles with balancing dressing, feeding, and getting kids to school or other activities, if you continually can’t manage to do it, it’s a sign that something might be wrong.
Other people have expressed concern. It may be easy to bristle at other people expressing concern. However, consider carefully what they have to say. Are the words coming from someone you normally respect and trust?(HelpGuide.org, Child Abuse and Neglect)
From various sources and personal experience, some tips on managing stress during this unprecedented quarantine include:
- Stay in contact with family, friends, and neighbors by phone, social media, video chat, or other technology, even just for a few minutes a day.
- Take part in healthy activities. Exercise. Go outside. Take a walk. Play with your pets or your kids.
- Do things that make you happy. Find joy. As I mentioned on my most recent episode of Suffer the Little Children Podcast, I didn’t realize how much I needed to laugh until I took an hour and sat down to watch a new stand-up comedy special and literally wore myself out laughing. Do what makes you feel good. Read, write, play video or mobile games, watch comedy, check out funny YouTube videos, go outside and look under rocks for salamanders — whatever puts a smile on your face.
- Prioritize. Your to-do list may look daunting, especially with kids at home, but putting it in order can put it into perspective.
- Set a routine at home. I created one for my kids (15 and 12) that I’ve been doing my best to stick to, because it helps both me and them maintain some kind of normalcy. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or (sorry, Pinterest) color-coded!
- When you need help, ask for it! Every therapist I know is offering virtual and/or telephone appointments that insurance is covering the same as it would in-person visits.
- Walk away. If your kids are driving you nuts, first ensure their safety (obviously, don’t leave them unattended in the bathtub or anything like that) and then step outside, upstairs, downstairs, into the bathroom, onto the deck, into your car, or wherever you can take a few minutes of relative peace and quiet. Sometimes that’s all you need to reset, at least temporarily.
- Take your medication. If you’re on any type of prescription medication for any mental health condition, don’t skip doses. Don’t let your prescription lapse. If you’re not feeling like yourself, it might be time to talk to your doctor (medical doctors these days are also doing appointments virtually).
- Don’t use alcohol or drugs to cope! That’s a dangerously slippery slope that has led to the deaths of many of the kids I’ve written about on this blog.
- Use healthy coping skills! I repeat: USE HEALTHY COPING SKILLS!! They’re also known as coping mechanisms, grounding techniques, self-soothing techniques, etc. There are a million of these, and almost anything can be a coping skill if it helps you. I keep some of these things handy wherever I go, and I’ve made multiple baskets/bins of coping skills for my kids to use. The key is using your senses to distract yourself and reroute your mind. Some I’ve learned or use include:
- Mindfulness exercises*
- Aromatherapy (to use on-the-go, pick up a diffuser necklace or bracelet or a scented lotion)
- Temperature (eg. take a hot bath, drink a hot cup of tea, use a heat or cold pack, splash cold water on your face, etc.)
- Breathing exercises
- Meditation or yoga
- Adult coloring
- Putty, slime, or Play-Doh
- Fidget spinners or cubes or other small toys
- Facial skin care masks
- Galaxy bottles
- Weighted blankets
- Squishies or a favorite stuffed animal
- Word search, crossword, sudoku, or jigsaw puzzles
- Blow bubbles
- Chew gum or eat a hard candy (or these all-natural, calming Rescue Pastilles)
*One mindfulness exercise I use all the time and even taught my kids to use is the countdown technique, which I learned in my Family Connections support group and employs all five senses. It has helped us many, many times — you can even use it while driving!
I’ll end this post with a few resources to keep handy. Keep in mind that many of these are available to United States residents only, but for those outside the US, help is just a quick Google search (or conversation with your doctor) away.
- SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline offers 24/7, 365 days per year immediate crisis counseling for people experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-made disaster. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a government agency leading public health efforts to advance the behavioral health of the nation.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 to provide free and confidential support for people in distress, as well as and prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones. You can speak with someone by calling (800) 273-8255, or connect with a counselor through their online Lifeline Chat service.
- Crisis Text Line provides 24/7 crisis counseling via text message. Simply text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor.
- ChildHelp.org aims to help victims of child abuse through education, treatment, and prevention programs. You can call or text them at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) or even live chat with a support specialist on their website. I mentioned ChildHelp.org recently in my blog post and podcast episode about Ame Deal. The lead investigator on Ame’s case, Greg McKay, is now the organization’s Chief Operating Officer. I have tremendous respect for him!
- HelpAndHope.org offers advice and resources to parents for the daily challenges of raising children, including parenting tips, fun ideas for kids, and (obviously) help and hope.
- HelpGuide.org, which I mentioned earlier, helps you help yourself by showing you how to start improving your mental health and wellness today.
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is a bottomless well of information and resources. The NIMH is “the lead federal agency for research on mental disorders” and provides education on a variety of mental health disorders as well as resources, clinical trials, and much more.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness.
Stay healthy, fellow parents (and humans)! You are not alone!
Sources: Cook Children’s Center for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, ChildHelp.org, HelpAndHope.org, HelpGuide, PerformCare NJ, Family Connections of New Jersey, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Crisis Text Line, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Amazon.com, and SO much personal experience
Author’s Note: This article was originally going to be part of the story of Amari Boone, which I will be posting shortly, but it took on a life of its own, and I think this information will do the most good standing alone. Please share it far and wide!