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14 Apr 2023

Reflections and Preventions for Child Abuse Awareness Month

By , Graduate Research Assistant

Being a parent is hard and comes with many challenges. Children misbehave because they often have difficulty following directions, and they may push their parents’ buttons to get what they want. It’s important for parents and caretakers to put support in place (e.g., a go-to person who can help when needed) to ensure they can raise their children in a healthy, effective way regardless of the challenges they face. When parents’ actions harm their child emotionally or physically, they are committing child abuse (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.). And while child abuse is on the decline, it’s still a pervasive problem in the United States today (Children’s Bureau, 2020). This article will discuss a few contexts in which child abuse can occur, stress management suggestions for parents, and available resources for child abuse prevention, specifically within the military.

Understanding Child Abuse

Children who experience abuse can suffer long-term effects on their physical and mental health, such as depression, anxiety, and chronic health conditions (Maschi et al., 2013). Research and social learning theory (i.e., modeling behaviors observed in one’s environment; McMillen & Rideout, 1996) show that child abuse often occurs within a family cycle: if you have experienced abuse yourself, you are more likely to abuse as a parent (Morgan et al., 2022). Similarly, children who see fewer examples of emotional regulation from their parents or caregivers will have fewer opportunities to learn such skills and become more likely to perpetuate the cycle (Osborne et al., 2021).

In addition to the role of generational abuse, the challenges that new parents face also can also contribute. Parenthood is stressful enough, but the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated how compounding stress affects families. The pandemic heightened stressors for parents, but their typical resources (e.g., daycare, school), perceptions (e.g., thoughts about how a stressful event may affect their family), and coping strategies (e.g., creating positive meaning, social support) were less effective, which, in turn, increased child maltreatment (Wu & Xu, 2020). When parents have reduced coping skills and a decreased ability to regulate their own emotions, their children can be less likely to develop the same skills (Osborne et al., 2021). Additionally, parents with maltreatment histories themselves often struggled with regulating their emotions then passed the struggles to their children (Osborne et al., 2021), in turn hindering an effective coping skill these children might use when experiencing stress as an adult.

How to Cope

Identifying healthier coping skills and means of emotional regulation (e.g., not holding onto anger) can be one way for parents to improve their well-being and limit opportunities for abuse. Some potential coping skills are:

  • Creating a community for social support
  • Talking with other parents about their coping skills
  • Taking relaxation breaks (e.g., deep breathing, listening to music), even if only for 5 minutes
  • Asking for help (e.g., with errands, babysitting) from community and friends
  • Finding and using professional support when stress begins to pile up or when parents can no longer manage their stressors alone (APA, 2011).

Prevention Efforts and Resources for Military Communities

Just like civilian populations, military families can experience child abuse, and may even perpetrate it. Thankfully, the military has developed programs to support families and children experiencing abuse. One such program is the Family Advocacy Program (FAP), which works to prevent abuse and provide treatment for those affected by abuse. FAP also supports military families and connects them to local resources.

Another program for Service members and their families is the After Deployment Adaptive Parenting Tools (ADAPT) program. At-risk families can use this program to build resilience, strengthen emotional regulation, and improve overall family well-being. The ADAPT program (which has been researched extensively) seeks to improve family functioning by teaching core parenting skills, such as teaching through encouragement, problem-solving, and emotional socialization.

The New Parent Support Program assists military parents and expecting parents with transitioning into parenthood and developing a nurturing home. The program’s goal is to help parents build strong, healthy bonds with their children and manage the demands of parenting within the context of the military and its already-stressful job demands (e.g., deployment).

Support and Resources for Those Who Have Experienced Abuse

Having community support is essential to creating a buffer between oneself and the negative outcomes of child abuse. We know that experiencing abuse can lead to repeating the cycle with a child’s future family; however, there are also protective factors predictive of greater long-term psychological well-being for children (Siddiqui, 2015). Examples of such factors include receiving love from siblings or people outside of the family and participating in activities outside the home (e.g., school sports). These experiences can heighten a child’s sense of social support (Fasihi Harandi et al., 2017) and self-esteem (Liu et al., 2021).

If you or your loved one experienced childhood abuse and still struggle with its effects, know that you are not alone. Below is a list of resources to help improve your well-being.

It is important that we find healthy ways of coping with our stress so we can be positive role models for our children and families. If you need help coping, look within your community for mental health support programs or parenting classes (APA, 2008). Helping professionals should stay on top of reporting requirements and help their families create safe, loving environments for their children (APA, 2008). We still have a long way to go in preventing and limiting child abuse cases – ultimately, though, prevention starts with us.

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