Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Stressful Times Can Increase Risks for Child Abuse

By Nancy Vincent

For the past several years, the City of Falls Church has recognized the month of April as Child Abuse Prevention Month — and 2020 is no different. Over the next several weeks, we’ll continue to remind City residents and neighbors of the many ways they can help protect children from neglect and harm in our community and beyond.

But this year’s Child Abuse Prevention Month is unique, for obvious reasons. Covid-19 has disrupted our ordinary lives. We greet each day with new challenges. All of us have a new sense of fragility — including the parents and families who are now under more stress than ever.

While we celebrate the many homes where children are able to thrive, as individuals, as families, and as a community we should be concerned, supportive, and vigilant about those who may be experiencing difficulties or mistreatment. Even in families that normally have low-stress and a great support network, parents may lash out due to the unusual pressures of these uncertain times.

We ask that you be mindful of your neighbors who may be struggling. As a community, we have to fill the gaps of the mandated reporters (such as teachers, counselors, and child-care providers) who are no longer in frequent contact with children and families. Pay attention to the children in your neighborhood, and watch for signs of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse that might go unnoticed or under reported.

It’s not just the adults who are worried about Covid-19; children and young adults have anxieties about this deadly disease, too. Even small children, while they might not know exactly what’s happening, can sense something’s wrong. As children look to us for guidance, let’s do our best to model mature coping skills. Show them patience, empathy, and resilience. Treat everyone with respect and kindness. We all deserve it. We all need it.

Parents, that means you, too. Treat yourself with respect and kindness. Practicing and prioritizing self-care is essential for your own well-being and benefits your whole family. Be intentional about creating space to recharge and decompress. Set realistic expectations for yourself, at home and at work. Turn off the news if it gets overwhelming. When you take care of yourself, you’ll be in a position to offer comfort and care to your children when they need it most.

For practical advice, HOPE (Healthy Outcomes from Positive Experiences), recommends the following to reduce stress during the Covid-19 pandemic:

1. Continue to nurture close relationships with friends and relatives online and on the phone.

2. Talk with your children. Children may be fearful or simply missing their routines. Ask them about their concerns. Their answers will guide you on how to talk with them.

3. Reach out for support, particularly if you have an infant at home. Infants exhaust and frustrate their parents. If your baby won’t stop crying and it’s getting to you, put the baby down, and gather yourself. Maybe call a friend, put on headphones, and wait it out. If you have a friend or relative with infants at home, check in with them. Try to listen without offering advice.

4. Address concrete family needs. Stay at Home orders may lead to families struggling to meet basic needs. Offer to help by getting diapers, cook a meal, or drop off food.

5. Address parental mental health needs. Recognize common signs of depression: anger and irritability, loss of energy, loss of interest in daily activities, and feeling helpless and hopeless. Family doctors are well trained in recognizing and treating signs of depression.

6. Check in with the children in your life. Teachers can recognize signs of abuse or neglect. Children who are out of sight because their schools are closed are more vulnerable.

7. Be on the lookout for family violence. Many professionals expect an increase in family violence due to changes in routines, economic stress, and simply being cooped up together. Reach out to the National Domestic Violence hotline (800-799-7233) for advice.

8. Engage with your community in whatever ways are possible. Helping others gives adults and children a sense of purpose that can help counter stress.

9. Create positive moments. Go for walks, play games, or bake something together. Many families are growing closer as we face this crisis together. Look for those moments that will create happy memories.

For this year’s Child Abuse Prevention Month and beyond, remember that for the rest of their lives, today’s children will recollect how their families and communities pulled together through unprecedented times. Let’s look out for others and lead the way.

If you witness or suspect child abuse and neglect, report it to Child Protective Services (CPS) at 703-324-7400. Fairfax County’s CPS hotline workers support Falls Church residents and can provide families with help, guidance, and referrals to supportive services.

Nancy Vincent is the director of Housing and Human Services for the City of Falls Church.