Improving our mental health, validating emotions, and providing real attention
By: Diana Bello Aristizábal
April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month and the perfect opportunity to remember that it’s possible to correct discipline, and teach without compromising the physical, mental and emotional health of children.
This message is particularly important to spread today in pandemic times that has brought many challenges in parenting and in the relationship between adults and children and has triggered child abuse and neglect, especially in families that are violent, dysfunctional, or live in poverty.
This is an ongoing issue around which it’s urgent to educate the population due to its magnitude. According to a report prepared by the Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in FFY (federal fiscal year) 2019 there were about 656,000 victims of child abuse and neglect nationwide.
Regarding the scope of the problem during the pandemic, although there are no consolidated statistics yet, it is known that factors such as isolation, overcrowding, loss of income, and an increase in the levels of anxiety, stress, and depression in the population are rising the chances for children to be physically, emotionally and sexually abused as well as neglected.
According to Sabina García, a child psychologist and couples and families therapist, cases of mild neglect have increased during the pandemic, mainly due to substance abuse. “Many parents use drugs and alcohol excessively because they don’t have to leave the house and we know that drunk or drugged people can abuse children because they are not in their five senses,” she adds.
And how can child abuse be identified? According to the definition given by Florida Statutes, a minor is said to be abused when he or she is harmed or threatened to be harmed by the actions or omissions of parents, guardians, or caregivers.
One sign that a minor may be suffering from abuse is when is fearful of his caregivers or parents. “When a child is afraid of a parent, there is some type of abuse present, because under normal circumstances this doesn’t happen,” says mental health therapist, Yusley Pérez.
But let’s not confuse fear with respect. When a minor has respect for an adult, he knows his boundaries on what he can or cannot do and say but expresses himself freely. On the other hand, when the child is fearful towards someone, he usually says everything is fine even when it’s not and is reluctant to speak in front of the adult.
Corporal punishment that leaves marks, humiliation, psychological abuse, name calling, child exploitation, abandoning minors, not meeting their basic needs, witnessing that an adult is being abusive and not reporting it and sexual violence are examples of child abuse.
Of all these types of abuse, according to Yusley Pérez, the most common one is child sexual abuse that refers to any activity or practice of a sexual nature or that involves the private parts of a minor.
“In my experience as a therapist, sexual abuse has increased significantly in the last 5 years. Previously, in a month I saw 5 or 6 cases, now more than half are for sexual abuse,” she says.
Unfortunately, numbers confirm that this problem is not little in the United States. According to Darkness to Light, approximately 1 in 10 children are sexually abused before their 18th birthday. Of these, 30% are abused by family members and 60%, by people the family trusts.
Communication, active parenting, and education
Taking care of a kid is not an easy task and many adults complain that children are more difficult to raise now than in the past. However, there are many parenting strategies that don’t involve physical or emotional violence, such as making it clear to children what are the house rules and the consequences that would apply if they break them.
It should be noted that regardless of the method of discipline used, this must be repetitive and include a lesson. Also, in the process, the needs of minors should be listened to and addressed.
“We have to understand that children have a different world to ours. If as adults we only invalidate their emotions, refer to them with derogatory words like ‘idiot’ or silence them all the time, which is emotional abuse and mistreats self-esteem, they begin to accumulate anger and frustration until one day they can’t take it anymore and explode in the worst way,” explains Sabina.
In the same line, it’s also not usually effective to spank or hit with an object as this only teaches them to be afraid of adults, that in front of us they have no voice or vote or that their feelings are not important. “When we hit children, we invade their space and their body and that is disrespectful,” adds Sabina.
About preventing sexual abuse, it is key to have a quality presence among children’s lives. “I know parents who apparently give everything to their children but are hardly present because of their jobs and come to therapy without having ever realized that their daughter or son has been abused for many years,” says Yusley Pérez.
It’s because of this that we must always pay attention to the behavior and changes that our children may show, which includes identifying warning signs such as a drastic academic regression, peeing on the bed when that stage had already been overcome, isolation, hair loss, sudden mood swings, or destructive behaviors such as cutting their skin.
In addition, it is key to have effective and close communication with teachers as well as talking about sexuality with children, teach them to take care of and respect their bodies, build trust so that they are able to express themselves when something is not right and choose well the people we are surrounded by that that could be close to them.
Finally, it’s important that adults strengthen their own self-esteem, establish quality connections with others, improve and take care of their mental health, educate themselves on a regular basis through therapies, online resources, or attending workshops on parenting so that they can recognize when they are being abusive, can solve the problem and change it.
To report a child abuse case, call line 1-800-422-4453 (option 1 for Spanish). In South Florida, you can call lines 850-300-4323 or 786-257-5148 of the Florida Department of Children and Families.