Each year, nearly 700,000 children are physically, emotionally, or sexually abused in the United States. Of that number, children in the first year of their lives have the highest rate of victimization, with neglect being the most common form of maltreatment.
“Although we can’t predict when or if a child might be subjected to abuse or neglect, there are factors that can contribute to the potential occurrence of child abuse and neglect,” says Esmeralda Santillano, a prevention administrator II at Denver Department of Human Services. “Similarly, there are protective factors that may buffer the impact of these same risk factors within a family and prevent child abuse or neglect from occurring.”
How can you protect your child? Be aware of the risks from the beginning, and learn how to inform and guard your child at each stage.
PROTECTING INFANTS AND TODDLERS
Infants are at the highest risk for maltreatment, especially neglect, since they must solely rely on caretakers for all their needs.
During the first four months of a child’s life, babies are vulnerable to being shaken by parents and caregivers who become overwhelmed by the baby’s crying. Studies have shown that children will bear spinal and brain injury but also evidence of fractures to the arms, legs, ribs, and skulls as a result of physical abuse.
In addition, evidence has shown that nearly 80 percent of two-year-olds are already being spanked by parents and caregivers. Frustration in parents and caregivers at this stage tends to result in physical violence.
“All of us can get stressed by a child that is really demanding and it can take a lot of patience,” says Desmond K. Runyon, doctor of public health. “If we have lots of other stressors in our lives, patience may be in short supply. (Parents) need to be able to pass the child or care taking responsibilities on to someone else when you’re at your wit’s end. Certainly plan ahead for those times because they”re going to come.”
Create a support system. Reach out to friends or family, join a mother’s group, or locate family resource centers for outside support, to help you handle parenting challenges and to protect your children from harm.
Speak for and to your child. Communicate specific safety boundaries that you expect for your child with other adults including body safety, verbal safety, and relationship safety. Reiterate to other adults that you are a family that is open and without secrets between each other. Begin teaching your toddler body safety rules that can become more in-depth conversations, as they get older.
Research your options. When looking into daycare, ask the right questions. For example, what is the ratio of kids to supervisors? How are kids kept safe from harm in this environment? What types of toys are in the areas where children play? Research state standards and licensing standards before enrolling your child.
PROTECTING ELEMENTARY AGES
Children ages five to nine fall under the highest risk of being hit by their parents and caregivers, according to the report, Child Maltreatment 2015 from the U.S. Administration for Children and Families. Another threat at this age is sexual abuse, which can happen at sports practice, school, or even a neighbor’s house. In fact, in nine out of 10 sexual abuse cases, the abuser is an adult that the child knows and trusts, according to Off Limits: A Parent’s Guide to Keeping Kids Safe from Sexual Abuse, by Sandy K. Wurtele, Ph.D., and Feather Berkower, M.S.W.
Ask questions. If your child is going to be somewhere outside of your immediate care, find out where they will be, who they will be with, what they will be doing, and what the environment is like. Communicate with the adult in charge of the plan beforehand. If your child has been invited to a new friend’s home and you don’t know the family at all, ask if you can stay during the playdate.
Answer Questions. Being open to your children’s questions is just as important. Reiterate to your children that you are there to answer their questions whether about sex or bullying or any other topic, and then hold yourself to that promise. “Always tell the truth, it’s all you have to do. By withholding (information) like ‘what is sex” and the answers to those questions, it’s only increasing their risk,” says Berkower.
Define consent. Talk to your children about the meaning of consent. Teach them that they are the bosses of their own bodies. As your children begin to spend more of their day away from you, make sure they know that there is such a thing as good touch and bad touch.
PROTECTING PRETEENS AND TEENS
During the preteen stage, children struggle in figuring out their own identities. This can leave them vulnerable to psychological abuse, which can lead to anxiety and severe depression.
“Kids developmentally at this stage are trying to figure out what kind of person they”re going to be, what kind of person they are,” says Runyon. “(They are) probably trying on different personalities and relationships and approaches to life, and if you’re being denigrated and told that you’re stupid or dumb or ugly you may take that much more to heart than it would”ve impacted you earlier or later in life when you”d have more judgment about who’s saying that.”
Teens, like children, are at higher risk of being abused by someone they know as opposed to a stranger. According to specialists, date rape, though most common among young adults, is also a concern for teenagers.
“Kids are having sex younger and younger. The date rape issue is relevant in high school—it’s so relevant,” says Berkower. “It comes back to this, you are the boss of your body and that (conversation) starts at age one. A child who has that foundation carries that into college. If you haven’t had that conversation, that’s the bottom line concept.”
Create a safe and trusting environment. Ensure your child feels comfortable communicating with you on a daily basis. If you haven’t had open communication but would like to change, create a safe and calm space. Don’t reiterate facts and information. Instead, ask your child about their day and what they are dealing with in their lives.
Educate and communicate. Revisit the importance of consent at this stage, but also protect your teens through sexual education, access to counseling and various resources for youth. If communication is difficult, reach out to your pediatrician. Doctors will help answer uncomfortable questions. If they don’t have an answer, they can at least point you in the right direction.
Lucy Beaugard is a Denver-based writer and photographer.