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COVID-19 social isolation measures are designed to make the population safer, but the stresses of isolation can exacerbate the risk of child abuse. How can this pandemic period affect at-risk children, and what can we do about it? DailyNurse asked Dr. Normajean Colby, RN, PhD, CNE, CPN, Coordinator of Pediatric Nursing at Widener University’s School of Nursing, about the concerns of child abuse experts in what she describes as a time of “unprecedented changes… with tens of millions of our nation’s children at home instead of in schools or daycares.”

Normajean Colby
Dr. Normajean Colby

Why children at risk of abuse are in particular jeopardy now

Dr. Colby: The number of factors that contribute to the risk for child maltreatment may have potentially increased for families in our nation. Even where those factors themselves haven’t changed, what has changed is that parents and children are now isolated together 24/7 and for an undetermined length of time.

Another vital reason that this unprecedented time in our history makes this period a particularly dangerous time for children at risk of abuse is that the eyes that are generally on these children as a safety valve are not present. What I mean by this, is that teachers, daycare workers, Sunday School teachers, coaches, etc., are not seeing these children on a regular basis. When business is as usual, these are individuals in a child’s daily life that can recognize if abuse may be occurring. In fact, during this time, it is expected that the number of child abuse reports will decrease temporarily, but that in no way means that the actual incidence has decreased.

How can we reduce the dangers of child abuse at this time?

Dr. Colby: We need to truly “come together” as has been the mantra in our nation lately. It is our responsibility to help each other to successfully get through this period of time. What we can certainly do is to check on our neighbors and friends, give a phone call, drop off a note, and connect with others, while maintaining physical distance.

As pediatric healthcare providers, pediatrician offices, daycares, early intervention programs, etc. we can reach out to the caregivers, particularly those who may have more of the risk factors that can contribute to the risk for abuse. Reach out and check in, see how they are doing, how the kids are doing, and offer an empathetic ear and ideas for the kids. These folks know the families and have a relationship often with the families, so reach out!

Also, nurses and healthcare providers are mandated reporters, therefore it is federal law that they report suspected child abuse. The reporter does not have to “prove” such abuse; that task is up to the Child Welfare Agency. But any suspicion of child abuse must be reported. [To make such a report, contact your state child abuse protection agency or call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453 ]

Dr. Colby: tips for all parents and caregivers to reduce family stresses

  • Give yourself a break! Keep expectations of yourself as a caregiver and of your child/ren realistic and in check. [many times abusive caregivers have higher expectations for a child, that may even be above their capacity developmentally, and when the child does not live up to that expectation, the caregiver becomes frustrated and that is when physical abuse may be more likely to occur]. It’s OK if there are dishes in the sink, or laundry in the basket. There are really worse scenarios.
  • When you feel yourself getting frustrated, take a slow deep breath, hold a few seconds, and slowly exhale, then slowly count from ten to one backwards, before you respond or react.
  • Look for silver linings. Maybe even make it a family activity, before bed or during a meal, ask “What is a good thing about today?” Even if it is a small or silly good thing.
  • Never ever shake a baby! If the baby is clean, and fed, and seems all right, place the baby in its crib and step away, put on the TV or put headphones on and listen to music, being sure to check on the baby periodically, but never ever shake a baby!
  • Practice self-care. Get enough sleep, eat healthy if possible, get exercise or incorporate movement into every day, go outside, yoga, meditation, prayer, relaxation techniques, stay connected to others whether email, text, phone, skype/zoom. Turn off the news – you don’t need to be exposed all day long to the news.
  • Know that you are not alone – Frustration with stress is normal. Childrearing is rewarding, but also can be tiring. If you can connect in some way with other parents/caregivers to share ideas and empathize, across back yards, via phone or technology. Talk to someone you know. Reach out to a healthcare provider or clergy member.
  • Always remember: children pick up on the anxiety of those adults around them!
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