When I’m not getting to watch a group of new moms hold their babies and talking with them about the transition to motherhood, my professional life revolves around working with school age children. In this part of my professional life, I get to talk to children about all kinds of things. I love my job…children are hilarious and fun and keep me on my toes with how they view the world. Children really are an amazing part of humanity. I cherish every little youngster who tells me a story or shares their dreams. But sometimes, far too often in fact, the stories are about the real life abuse and neglect that some of these children face. No child should be abused or neglected. Not a single one. But unfortunately, it happens and it happens at an alarming rate in this country.
The news has been swarming lately with stories of abuse. Jerry Sandusky was recently convicted of 45 counts related to the sexual abuse of 10 victims. A father was recently told that he would not be prosecuted for killing the man he found in the act of sexually abusing his daughter. There have been several teachers arrested in the last year for the abuse of their students. And this community had news this week of a 2 year old little girl dying from head injuries following alleged abuse and neglect by her mother and mother’s partner. But for all the stories that are told in the news…there are many more that are not.
The government recently issued the most recent (2010) statistics on Child Maltreatment (abuse and neglect). Data from the report shows that approximately four children die every day in this country due to child maltreatment. Although I spend a lot of time talking to school age children about abuse and neglect, the population most at risk for child maltreatment are newborns to one year olds. The victimization rate there was 20.6 per 1,000 children of the same age group in the national population. YIKES! Also heartbreaking to me was that almost 80% of children who died from abuse and neglect were under the age of four.
The report also has some other statistics of note. The people who are doing the abusing and neglect are mostly parents. Parents…the people who are supposed to love and protect these little innocent babes the most. There are some really horrible, awful people in this world that are strangers…but more than anything…parents, family members and the significant other of a parent are the ones causing the most damage to America’s children. It is FAR more likely that someone you know, maybe really well, will harm your child. Strangers aren’t the top offenders.
So, how does a parent go about protecting a child from abuse and neglect? Well, since parents are by far the most prolific perpetrators of abuse and neglect….reaching out when you need help. Therapy, social services, parenting classes, etc. can all help you be a better parent by helping you work on things that you need to improve upon. Or call a friend…say you are stressed out and need a break. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to report a parent for the physical abuse of their child because they have left a bruise on their child after spanking them. Most of the time, they haven’t meant to leave a bruise. But, that is abuse. If you leave a mark, even without intent, it is considered abuse. I have another problem with spanking (there are many studies out there on spanking, but that is a whole other post)…how is a young child to understand that it isn’t okay for his babysitter to hit him when mom or dad hit him? Spanking, in my opinion, teaches a child that his or her body can be harmed by an adult. Not a lesson I want children to learn. I want them to learn the following:
1. It is okay to say that you don’t like something that is happening to your body. I have discussed this in an earlier blog entry, but it warrants being repeated. This could be as simple as not wanting to hug a relative or not liking a medical procedure. That little body that you adopted or grew in your uterus or helped create isn’t yours. It belongs to your child. He has the right to say “no…I don’t want a kiss or a hug” or “I don’t like getting a shot”. Your job as a parent is to teach your child that her body is hers and hers alone. Yes, there will be times when it is absolutely necessary that someone does something to your child’s body that hurts…such as vaccines or blood draws or dental work. In those moments….you need to have an honest talk with your child about how it is okay to be concerned about this procedure, but that you wouldn’t make them do this to their body if it wasn’t necessary for their health. My kids and I talk about this as being brave. “It is okay to be scared about this” I will say. “But, you need to do this for your health and I need you to be brave. You can be brave and scared at the same time and I will be here with you.” It is also important that if you accidentally hurt your child (bump into her or pinch her leg in the car seat) that when she complains you say “I’m really sorry that I hurt you. I would never hurt you on purpose. Thank you for telling me.” Instead of “that didn’t hurt…you are fine.” The key is that your child learns you will listen to him about his body. No matter what.
2. Secrets always get told to Mommy and Daddy. Surprises are fun things that everyone learns about eventually. Birthday presents and fun stuff should be called surprises. Surprises are never kept a secret…they may have to wait to be told to the person getting the surprise…but they are NOT secrets and will be told soon. The reason for this is because children who are being abused may be told by the perpetrator (perhaps a neighbor or family friend or even the uncle or spouse of mom or dad) that they have to keep what is happening a secret. This may even be followed up with a threat. “If you tell your mom or dad, I’ll hurt them or your little sister or your dog” or “If you tell your Mom or Dad about this, they are going to be SO mad at you.” Children need to know that if they are EVER threatened or told to keep a secret…they need to tell you about it right away no matter what. Even if they are worried about the threat…they need to tell you. This will also be helpful if your child is ever the target of bullying.
3. When you dump milk all over the table…I’m going to remain calm. Let’s face it…kids are messy, they can cause havoc and can make even the best, most peaceful parent extremely angry sometimes. BUT, if you scream at your child when they mess up or tell them that they are worthless (which to me is psychological abuse and shouldn’t happen anyway) they may not come tell you if someone is sexually abusing them and causing them shame. They are going to worry that you are going to get mad at them. Because I guarantee you that the person that is abusing them is going to make them think that way. You have to make sure that your child knows that no matter what…you have his or her back. And that starts with not screaming at them when they mess up. If my kids come to me and say “Mommy…I accidentally drew on the wall” (true story)…I take a deep breath…and use a calm voice. You can still talk about your expectations. If it truly was an accident…then they learn that I accept them as imperfect people…because everyone makes mistakes. I always thank them for telling me (even when they do something on purpose) and tell them I’m proud of them for letting me know. There are still consequences, I just don’t scream at them when they tell me they screwed up.
4. Be visible wherever your child is. Babysitter’s house, daycare, soccer practice, dance class, youth group. Be there. Keep track of who is around your kids and what your child’s reaction is to those people.
5. Start early with body education. You teach your kids about body parts…teach them about ALL of them (and the anatomically correct names – penis, vagina…truly…they are words that are not going to hurt you). And as they get older, you can teach them that private parts are special and wonderful and should only be looked at and touched by Mommy, Daddy and a doctor and ONLY in order to keep them clean and healthy. You may have to add in a childcare provider for potty issues. But you could say something like “And Lisa if she needs to help you wipe your bottom after you go to the bathroom.” Make sure you aren’t shaming them about their bodies. You don’t want them to think their private parts are bad. I tell my kids that all of their body parts are special, but that their private parts are just for them to touch (unless they are sick or hurt thus the keeping them clean and healthy part from above).
I know that there are so many things to worry about in parenthood. I’m not trying to cause you more fear. But child maltreatment is a real monster in our world. We have to give our kids tools so that they will come to us if there is a problem and so that they don’t feel bad about telling someone “no”. It is one of the many things that our kids need us to teach them about. You can do it.
Disclaimer: The purpose of this blog is to raise awareness of issues that face parents in pregnancy and parenthood. This blog is not meant to replace treatment by a licensed mental health professional. The content of this blog does not constitute mental health assessment, diagnosis, treatment, support or advice. Please consult a licensed mental health practitioner if you have concern about your mental health or in the case of an emergency, contact 911. Reading this blog does not constitute a therapeutic relationship with Bronwyn Shroyer, Bronwyn Shroyer LLC or BloomingFamilies. firstname.lastname@example.org