There are about 4 million cases of child abuse reported in the United States each year. In 2020, 32,919 cases of suspected abuse were reported in Pennsylvania. The majority of these cases involved sexual abuse, but physical abuse and neglect were also among the most commonly reported reasons.
While the number of child abuse cases in Pennsylvania has steadily decreased over the past 4-5 years, more cases could still be prevented. Let’s take a moment to consider what we can do.
1. Be aware of stress levels
Parental feelings of isolation, stress, and frustration often play a role in child abuse. Independence Blue Cross (Independence) Medical Director Stephen Higgins, MD, advises all parents to be aware of triggers for frustration and to distance themselves from their children in those situations.
“The pandemic has caused a lot of collateral damage,” says Higgins. “People are struggling financially. Housing is super expensive. Employment is improving, but there are financial stressors, particularly with inflation. Everyone is under a significant degree of stress. We may not even recognize it anymore because it feels like the new normal. But parents can get frustrated faster about things they didn’t have before.”
To avoid taking actions you’ll later regret, Higgins says, “When you feel yourself getting angry, breathe. Reduce speed. Put the child down, walk away for a few minutes and recover. When we are mired in frustration and anger, that is when we commit impulsive actions. And when we lose control, it doesn’t take much to hurt a little kid.” Know that it is okay to ask for help.
2. Help others calm down
If you suspect a friend or family member is stressed, Higgins advises, try to be a calming influence. Acknowledge her feelings. Offer to visit or babysit them to give them a break. Trusted family and friends can provide emotional support through the many challenges of parenthood.
If you see a parent yelling at their child in a public place, criticizing the parent could backfire, says Higgins. Instead, he adds, “Striking up a casual conversation might help lower the energy level.”
3. Prioritize the mental and behavioral health of parents
Parents can sometimes neglect their own mental well-being while caring for their children, and this can lead to negative outcomes, says Ryan Connolly, MD, MS, a psychiatrist and medical director of Independence.
Mental illness and untreated substance use can put people at risk of committing acts of child abuse. Many psychological conditions can increase irritability and worsen things like sleep, while at the same time reducing a person’s ability to control angry impulses. It is important for parents and other caregivers to take care of themselves, recognize the signs of behavioral health problems, and ask for help when needed.
“Some parents are afraid or embarrassed to ask for help, especially if they have angry feelings or negative thoughts about their children,” says Connolly. “This is exactly the wrong approach. Being mentally healthy is vitally important to being a good caregiver.”
4. Support children to protect themselves
It is important for children to understand that they are special and that they have a right to be safe. Encourage them to stand up for themselves and speak up when they feel uncomfortable with a person or a situation.
Children need to feel comfortable and empowered to say “no” and set limits, tell a trusted person if they have experienced something upsetting, and recognize that they are never, ever to blame if an adult behaves inappropriately toward them.
5. If you see something, say something
If you suspect child abuse, report it so families can get the help they need and children are protected. You can report suspected child abuse or neglect 24 hours a day, seven days a week in Philadelphia at 215-683-6100 or call the Pennsylvania State Hotline at 1-800-932-0313. Callers can choose whether or not to give their name when reporting. Call the police for the fastest response if a child is at immediate risk of injury.
• Report Abuse (PA.gov)
• Abusive Head Trauma: How to Protect Your Baby (HealthyChildren.org)
• Creating the future
• Center for Effective Parenting
6. Get help if you need it
If you or someone you know is in distress and thinking about hurting yourself, call National Lifeline for Suicide Prevention
toll free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also send a text message to crisis text line (HELLO 741741) or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.
To learn more about depression, self-care strategies, and where to find help, visit ibx.com/knowyourmind.
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