April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. We are immediately reminded that infants and toddlers are at greatest risk for maltreatment, accounting for more than a quarter of substantiated cases of abuse and neglect each year.
The consequences of maltreatment for young children are profound. It can literally alter the brain’s architecture, giving rise to cognitive delays, poor self-regulation, and difficulty in paying attention. Maltreated infants and toddlers struggle to form attachments and face developmental challenges.
Our own challenge during April is to focus our attention, not on these consequences, but on what babies need to thrive and what we can do to make sure every baby has those supports. The HHS Children’s Bureau, which organizes activities for the month, frames the issue as one of promoting child wellbeing. Close, caring relationships, most often with parents, are at the center of wellbeing for young children. They are the context in which positive early development unfolds. They give young children the security to explore and learn about their world. Thus, the family is the nest in which child wellbeing is nurtured. But the family also needs a nurturing layer around it, a layer of other families and community.
Families today face many stressors. Economic struggles, housing instability, health problems, substance abuse or mental health issues all can place great pressure on families’ abilities to cope. Some young parents are unprepared for what it takes to care for a child. This is not to say that the presence of these conditions leads to child abuse—simply that they raise the risk of reaching the breaking point.
Caring communities look not so much for families that might be at risk for child abuse, but for positive opportunities to help strengthen all families so they can protect and nurture their children. The Center for the Study of Social Policy has identified five protective factors that are key to promoting child and family well-being: knowledge of parenting and child development; parental resilience; social connections; concrete supports for families; and social and emotional competence of children. Seeking to spread these factors to all families is a worthy goal for Child Abuse Prevention Month.
We often advocate for federal and state policies that support families in raising their children, for example, home visiting, Early Head Start, or mental health services. But this month, we urge infant-toddler advocates to focus on what families in communities can do to help each other and how community partners can play a role. Sometimes promoting family and child resilience is a matter of realizing a parent needs a helping hand, some time to herself, or other parents to connect with. Or it is local organizations creating ways for families to connect or access resources more easily. And it is showing children that they are valued not only in their own families, but in their wider community as well.
The National Movement for America’s Children, of which ZERO TO THREE is a founding partner, is observing Child Abuse Prevention Month by offering a month’s worth of tips for families and communities about simple steps they can take to support each other. Each week during April, the National Movement’s blog will have daily tips related to the six protective factors, with a list of resources at the end of the week. You can also follow the Movement on Twitter @movement4kids and tweet about tips or send them feedback on activities you have tried.
The National Movement, which is spearheaded by Prevent Child Abuse America, also contributed a new version of the calendars the Children’s Bureau posts annually for this month’s observations. This new calendar provides “30 Ways for Community Partners to Promote Child Well-Being During National Child Abuse Prevention Month.” The other calendars offer ideas to parents and programs.
These tips tell us that it is important to advocate for families at every level. They also remind us that it is important for us as parents, friends, family members, and neighbors, to take care of ourselves as part of caring for our children.