April Shines a Light on Child-abuse Awareness and Prevention

SPRINGFIELD  — During April, National Child Abuse Awareness Month and National Child Abuse Prevention Month, as well as throughout the year, Baystate Children’s Hospital encourages all individuals and organizations to play a role in making the community a better and safer place for children and families.

It is important to recognize that, while sexual, physical, emotional, and neglect are all different types, they share one thing in common: they can be prevented, said Dr. Stephen Boos, medical director, Family Advocacy Center at Baystate Children’s Hospital.

“When talking with the media and the public during this special time, I believe it is important to stress prevention,” Boos said, adding that it’s important to consider two words: communication and connection.

According to a new research study in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect, in communities where people feel that they share values with their neighbors, their neighbors are willing to help each other, and the neighborhood is close-knit, there is less involvement with the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Connections in the community protect the community as a whole from child abuse.

“This is really no surprise. Community connections are one of the six protective factors in the ‘strengthening families’ approach to child resilience, making children stronger and able to tolerate the hard things in life,” Boos said.

The Family Advocacy Center (FAC) is home to the Prevention Collaborative, a group of volunteers at the FAC who teach sexual-abuse-prevention programs for parents and childcare institutions. Boos noted that a big part of what they talk about is communication.

“For example, many abused children have no words for their private parts and no knowledge about sexual touching other than that it is shameful and gets you in trouble,” he said. “They have been shushed for ‘potty talk,’ and they regularly see their parents get upset about other behaviors they think of as ‘bad.’

“To prevent abuse,” he went on, “we need to communicate better about what is and isn’t acceptable. To end abuse early, we need to prepare kids to talk about sex. What we cannot do is wait for the school to do it at age 10 or event older, if ever. This needs to become part of parenting at every age. We can teach proper names for private parts alongside of ear, eye, nose, and toes. We can teach values about proper and improper touching of genitals together with hitting and hugs. When discipline for misbehavior leaves a child feeling loved, safe, and free from shame, they are more likely to communicate about the trouble they find themselves in.”

The Baystate pediatrician notes that, even if every family followed all these recommendations, abuse or other bad things are going to happen to some kids and families.

“Kids who are resilient are kids who will get through those bad things with the least long-term harm. Parents can start building that resilience in the first years of life in very simple ways,” he said. For example, he recommends spending time every day (hopefully lots of time) face to face, and talking to children.

“Be calm, rock, soothe, and hug your baby when he or she is upset. Make them feel safe; help them settle. Think about and talk about babies’ emotions and coping. Also, as children get older, talk about your own emotions and coping, but always calmly,” Boos explained. “These behaviors develop language necessary for communication, teach babies to settle successfully after an upset, which is necessary for school and social success, and builds a healthy attachment, the ultimate connection between children and their caregivers. These strengths are the same ones that help kids cope and do well after abuse and other life tragedies.”