Parental protective factors help prevent child abuse

  • Published
  • By Paula Spooner
  • 81st Medical Operations Squadron
Last week I returned home from a very special road trip. My daughter, grandson and I all traveled to Ohio to welcome the newest member of our extended family -- a gorgeous, healthy 7- week-old baby girl.

Her proud parents marveled at her tiny fingers and toes, pointed out features resembling specific family members and described milestones already accomplished despite her brief tenure on earth. As we all admired her, she lay happily propped on a Boppy, smiling at a world she clearly deemed friendly, warm and pretty darned fascinating. Watching my step-daughter so tenderly care for her newborn, I had tears in my eyes. It was perfect. It was just...right.

This week, back at work in family advocacy, I reviewed articles on recent child abuse incidents reported in the local paper. Given last week's visit, I couldn't help but be especially saddened as I considered the sharply contrasting lives of these children. Still later, preparing for the annual Keesler Medical Center "Pinwheels for Prevention" display, I researched the number of kids in the surrounding community substantiated last year for child abuse or neglect. For the display "garden," the family advocacy program plants one pinwheel to represent each of these kids - a total number that has risen by a whopping 30 percent since last year's display. This year we will be placing nearly 1,300 pinwheels.

Thirty years ago this month our president dedicated April as National Child Abuse Prevention Month. Although we all have a responsibility to children year-round, this is a time during which individuals and organizations are encouraged to dig a little deeper, to play a more active role in making our community a better, safer place for children and families. By ensuring that parents possess the knowledge, skills and resources they need to care for their kids, we can boost their social and emotional well-being and prevent maltreatment within families and communities.

Research shows that when parents possess six main protective factors the risk for neglect and abuse diminish, and optimal outcomes for children, youth and families are promoted. The six protective factors are:

Nurturing and attachment: Simply put, this is just good, old fashioned bonding. There is no shortcut through this one. Hold and cuddle your babies and spend time with your kids! A few years ago, I wrote an article about the importance of putting down your smart phones, I-pads and laptops, curtailing the texting, tweeting and gaming and giving your babies and children face to face contact. There is simply no substitute for time spent together. When your child calls out, "Mommy, watch me!" for what seems like the hundredth time, stop and watch! The quality and amount of the time that you invest in your children now will determine what they invest in you later on. When life passes by so quickly it leaves you breathless.

Knowledge of parenting and of child and youth development: What's normal? When should you seek outside support? Parents tend to worry and kids are full of surprises. The more parenting skills and tools we all have in our back pockets to manage concerning behaviors the more likely we are to react calmly and appropriately in a tense situation. So take parenting classes or enroll in FAP's new parent support program, not because you think you are a "bad parent," but because you want to prepare - because you choose to become the best parent you can be. By the way, I have consistently found that it's the invested, curious, open-minded parents who most frequently register for classes!

Parental resilience: How can we expect military parents to raise resilient kids if they cannot model those qualities at home themselves? Answer: We can't! This is where the comprehensive Airmen fitness modules come in handy. The more our master resilience trainers educate base personnel to effectively use the mental, physical, social and spiritual interventions to manage work demands, the more likely they will be to implement them 24/7. This will create a ripple effect. At home, partners and kids will be exposed to and learn these skills, creating a healthier family environment. Just envision neighborhoods and schools in which all the citizens know and practice the life management skills taught in these resiliency classes!

Social connections: Just as research has shown inadequate bonding to increase risk for shaken baby syndrome, it has also revealed social isolation to be a primary contributor for families at risk for violence. A close, caring, supportive relationship is the best protective factor against depression, PTSD, anxiety, physical illness, adjustment to unwanted change - the list goes on and on. Ironically, even as we have continually added to our options for electronic connection with others - Twitter, Facebook, Skype, LinkedIn, text messages - many of us report feeling more alone than ever. The Air Force has real-world opportunities for social networking and support, so let's use them. If you are a spouse, sign up to attend Heart Link and support the Key Spouse program. Active duty members should educate themselves about base resources and consider volunteering as victim advocates, mentors or peer trainers. The Exceptional Family Member Program provides support to families of kids with special needs and the base FOCUS program helps families adjust to all phases of deployment. Single parenthood is challenging; who can relate better than another single parent? Team Keesler, reach out!

Concrete supports for parents: Child abuse is more likely to occur when parental stress and worry reaches an unmanageable level, at which time even a minor event can trigger a loss of control. So when parents are overwhelmed about kids' unmet needs or what seems to be an unsolvable life situation, that's when concrete, or tangible services, can keep a family on an even keel. All parents need an occasional respite from the constant demands of parenting to relax, recharge and regroup. "Parents Night Out," held the first Saturday of each month at the child development center and youth center, is a wonderful opportunity for base parents to do just that. Register your kids and give it a try! Or when monthly bills threaten to overwhelm your budget, don't stress and worry in isolation - call the airman and family readiness center and discuss your options with a financial counselor. They are savvy, professional and responsive. This base is full of personnel whom, if they cannot help, know who can. From tax assistance to food stamps, to WIC to durable medical equipment, there is a solution to every need. If you are worrying or could use some support, talk to your leadership!

Social and emotional competence of children: While all six protective factors are important, this one is particularly critical. For today's children to grow into the socially and emotionally competent adults of tomorrow, they require healthy examples. This calls upon their parents and other adult role models to demonstrate effective communication skills, respect of others and their property, empathy, kindness, social consciousness, emotion regulation and self-discipline. And this is just the beginning! As a grandparent, I firmly believe that children need and benefit from the collective input of many adults, not just their parents. Of course, loving parents will hopefully provide the structural basics, but other caring adults may impart other lessons: the spirit of generosity, the value of hard work or the wisdom of preserving nature. It does indeed take a village.

What might you be able to offer the children in your community? This month, take the opportunity to consider just one way you could make a difference in the lives of the kids in your local school, neighborhood, county or state. It might be dedicating an hour a week to rock babies in a daycare, volunteering as a Big Brother/Sister, teaching a parenting class or offering to help out the family of deployed service member.

Everything helps; everything counts.

For more information call 228-376-3457.