Every year, thousands of children suffer from some form of maltreatment. In 2012, just fewer than 3,000 cases of abuse and neglect were substantiated by the state’s Office of Children’s Services. That represents only reported and substantiated cases. The number of unreported cases may be much higher.
We are not helpless in the face of this appalling fact. April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, a nationwide effort to raise public awareness about and take effective steps to prevent child abuse and neglect.
We are using Child Abuse Prevention Month to promote one of the tools that is most effective at preventing abuse: parent resiliency. Extensive research has found that five factors are key to safe, stable and nurturing environments free of neglect and abuse. When these factors are present, they function like a protective shield keeping families safe and healthy.
There’s no question that being a parent is stressful. The stress can come from all directions. A baby who won’t stop crying. Moving to a new community. Losing your job. A rocky relationship. Substance abuse. Those are just some of the stressors that can cause a parent to snap.
We can never rid the world of stressors, but we can help people cope with them. Researchers in the field have concluded that how a parent responds to stressors is much more important than the stressor itself, in terms of how it affects families. If parents can manage stress and function well in the face of challenges, adversity and trauma, the whole family will weather the situation far better. That ability to manage stress is called resilience.
When parents are resilient, when they can manage their reactions to stressors in their lives, they feel better and can provide more nurturing attention to their child. Children who receive nurturing attention and develop secure emotional attachments with their parents are better equipped to develop their own internal resilience in the face of stress.
Some people seem like they’re just born resilient, while others learn it from their own parents. Still others have never developed strong coping skills. The fact is, even parents who normally cope really well are human. Sometimes they lose it too.
The good news is that friends, relatives, neighbors and the community at large can help stressed-out parents become more resilient. Here’s how:
• Use humor — laughter is one of the best de-stressors around.
• Talk to friends about your own issues or struggles with kids. Knowing others face the same challenges can help put them in perspective.
• If a parent you know appears to have reached overload levels, offer to care for the children for an hour or two to give the parent a breather. Even a little free time can be very therapeutic.
• If a relative seems overwhelmed, remind him of positive times you have shared or that he’s recounted. “Hey, remember that fishing trip with the kids last summer and what fun they had camping?” Reliving good memories can have a downright visceral effect in diffusing stress.
Parent resilience is one of the five “protective factors,” so called because when they are present, families are much better able to cope with ordinary and not-so-ordinary challenges of daily life. In addition to parent resilience, the factors are having social connections, having concrete support in times of need, knowledge of parenting and child development and children with social and emotional competence.