Preventing infant violence with parental support

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by Allison Scobie, LICSW, MBA

How many times have we heard the old adage that parenting is the toughest job? The reality is that parenting, while quite rewarding, can at times also be extremely challenging. In fact, caregiver stress is virtually universal. What many parents don’t know, however, is that their private experiences of frustration, guilt and exhaustion in response to the demands of parenting are extremely common. Parents who inflict serious injury on small children are often “at the end of their rope,” frustrated with a young child’s crying or other behaviors, and have allowed their own frustration to reach such a level that they impulsively harm their child. Parents who access formal and informal social supports, practice self-care and are well-informed about child development will be much better equipped to manage the inevitable difficulties associated with parenting.

A recent study in Pediatrics examining infant homicides showed that approximately 75 percent of the total infant deaths (over the study period) were the result of impulsive acts of violence perpetrated by primary caregivers. Although these caregivers typically attempted to access emergency treatment, in approximately 50 percent of these cases, the caregiver first told a false story about how the child got injured. What these statistics appear to suggest is that individuals who value and love their children are still capable of inflicting devastating injury when frustrated, and that the parents know their actions are wrong.

So, if some caregivers act impulsively when frustrated and inflict irretrievable damage to young children, how do we help keep them from reaching the boiling point?

  1. Parents need support! The opportunity to discuss the challenges of parenting with other parents, a mental health counselor or a stress line volunteer (such as Parents Helping Parents 1.800.632.8188) can be extremely helpful. For centuries, parenting was provided by extended family groups. The entire tribe or village was involved in raising children. In our current society, families don’t have the benefits of extended familial support and are simultaneously discouraged from seeking help. Sharing one’s trials and tribulations and asking for help can be an enormous strength—one that will improve the quality of life for both parents and their children.
  2. Parents need rest! Sleep deprivation reduces our ability to process information, to manage our moods and to tolerate frustration. Parents need to prioritize their own sleep, particularly when their children are young and require significant physical energy and patience from their caregivers.
  3. Parents need a break! Often parents don’t feel that it’s acceptable to take time away from their children. They believe that if they were good parents they would spend every waking moment attending to their needs. Leaving your child in the care of a trustworthy adult to get some exercise, see a friend, take a class or take a nap can be extremely restorative. When you’re reunited with your child after such a break you may find that you’re much more able to respond patiently and enjoy your child.
  4. Parents need information! Understanding child development is essential. Caregivers often become angry or frustrated because they don’t understand that a child is not just a little adult, but instead has a lot of developmental milestones to reach before they can regulate their feelings or act with the rationality of adults. For example, most infants cry for approximately two hours each day. This is part of their normative development. Some caregivers who are unaware of this may blame the child, believing that the child is manipulative, spoiled, trying to “push my buttons” or rejecting them. Accurate information about child development can help parents respond more patiently and be more comfortable about their own parenting.

Parenting can be an incredibly joyful and rewarding experience, but it’s also fraught with challenges. We can all contribute to the quality of parents’ and children’s lives by lending a supportive ear, offering to give parents a break by providing child care, and directing parents to formal supports, including their pediatricians, educators and mental health resources to access information relevant to child development.

If you suspect a child is being maltreated, please contact the Child at Risk Hotline at 1-800-792-5200.

Allison Scobie, LICSW, MBA, is a senior social worker with the Child Protection Program at Children’s Hospital Boston.