April is child abuse awareness month, but April 2020 is definitely different from other years. Usually there would be events bringing awareness to this issue and encouraging people to watch for signs of abuse or neglect and to reach out to families in stressful situations.
This year we are all faced with anxiety, fear and uncertainty. Our routines have been upended. Many of us are working from home while helping our children with school work. Others have lost our jobs or had our employment hours cut. Either way, our daily environments are more stressful than normal for all us – adults and children alike.
Ironically, at Abbott House we are helping children who have lived with this feeling of uncertainty for much of their lives. Our children aren’t just experiencing concern about a virus, they have lived in extremely stressful environments for most of their lives. You see, children who have lived through abuse, neglect and other negative events understand this feeling of vulnerability better than most of us.
In South Dakota 1,339 children were victims of abuse or neglect in 2017, an increase of 36.1% from 2013 according to the Child Welfare League of America. Of these children, 89.8% were neglected, 11.8% were physically abused, and 4.4% were sexually abused. The report goes on to say that of the 1,339 abused children, 664 were boys, 673 were girls and 2 were of unknown sex. As I read and re-read information like this what turns my stomach most are these numbers – 1,045 of the 1339 children were “first-time” victims, meaning no previous abuse had been reported. How could we have prevented this? How could we have protected 294 children from being abused a second, third or fourth time?
This information is alarming, especially during times like these when we have even more stress on families. Many kids typically rely on going to school to socialize and find trusted adults with whom they can share their struggles. Right now they don’t have access to anyone outside their home. But we can help each other during these challenging times.
Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. Children and teens react, in part, on what they see from adults around them. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, children, teens, older people with chronic diseases, and people who have mental health conditions often respond more strongly to stress during crisis conditions. When we deal with stress, like the Coronavirus, calmly and with accurate information, it reassures our children.
According to the CDC, not all children and teens respond to stress the same way. Common changes in behavior to watch for include:
- Excessive crying or irritation in younger children
- Returning to behaviors they have outgrown (for example, toileting accidents or bedwetting)
- Excessive worry or sadness
- Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits
- Irritability or “acting out” behaviors in teens
- Difficulty with attention and concentration
- Avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past
- Unexplained headaches or body pain.
If you see these behaviors in your child(ren), make sure you:
- Talk with them about the coronavirus outbreak
- Answer questions and share facts in a way your child or teen can understand
- Reassure your child or teen that they are safe. Let them know it is ok if they feel upset. Share with them how you deal with your own stress so that they can learn how to cope from what you do
- Limit your family’s exposure to news coverage of the event, including social media.
- Try to keep up with regular routines. Create a schedule for learning activities and relaxing or fun activities
- Be a role model to your children. Take breaks, get plenty of sleep, exercise and eat well, reach out to friends and family.
- Reach out to others you think may be struggling and talk with them – it will help you and it will help them.
Today we have the opportunity to spend more time with our children than ever. I encourage you to use this time to make great memories with your children and help others do the same. Together we can stop abuse and give our children valuable skills they will use to face future challenges and crisis situations.