What parents need to know about recognizing and preventing child abuse

Child abuse is real. It happens—and not just to other people’s children.

The recent death of a toddler from injuries has frightened a lot of parents here in Massachusetts. While there are still many more questions than answers about what happened, a lot of parents are wondering what they can do to be sure nothing like this ever happens to their child.

This is a good thing to wonder—because there are absolutely things parents can do.

Be aware of signs of abuse.  Sometimes it’s obvious, like when a child is unconscious or has an obvious broken bone. But sometimes it’s not obvious. Parents should watch for:

  • Changes in behavior, such as sadness, anger or fear.  All kids may have occasional changes in behavior, and it doesn’t necessarily mean abuse, but anything recurrent or persistent should raise a red flag.
  • Unexplained injuries (including bruises or burns). There should always be an explanation, and it should make sense.
  • Recurrent injuries, explained or not.
  • Unusual behavior or statements from children—such as talking about sexual acts.
  • Nightmares, bedwetting or other signs of distress.

For more signs, in not just your children but others, check out this fact sheet from the Department of Health and Human Services.

Never shake a baby. Being a parent or caregiver is really, really hard—especially when you are exhausted or stressed. And when you feel that way, and your baby won’t stop crying, it’s understandable that you might get into a place of wanting to do anything you can to stop that crying. So it’s not surprising that the most common cause of “shaken baby syndrome” (SBS), which is when babies are shaken hard enough to cause brain damage, is inconsolable crying. SBS is the leading cause of child abuse death in the United States.

Crying is normal. Babies do it, and sometimes lots of it, especially in the first three or four months of life. If you ever feel overwhelmed and angry when your child is crying, take a moment for yourself to calm down. Put the baby in his crib or playpen or some other safe place, and go into another room. You can always call the Parental Stress Hotline at 800-632-8188 or visit their website. You can learn more about Shaken Baby Syndrome at the CDC’s Heads Up website.

It’s important to talk to everyone who takes care of your child, and make sure they know that they should never, ever shake a baby.

Speaking of everyone who takes care of your child…

Choose—and monitor—your child’s caregivers carefully.  If you use a daycare center or family daycare, be sure that they are licensed. This is harder to do with nannies and babysitters, who aren’t licensed—and most child abuse happens when children are left alone with caregivers. So ask lots of questions, get background checks (if at all possible, do them everywhere the person has lived) and get references.  Make surprise visits regularly (do this at daycares too!), and talk to friends and neighbors who interact with your nanny or babysitter during the day, to get their impressions.

It’s not possible to know everything about anyone, no matter how hard we try. So always be watchful, and if anything at all doesn’t seem right to you about your child’s caregiver, trust that feeling.

We will never be able to prevent all cases of child abuse—but we can prevent some by being aware, by educating others, and by speaking up and reaching out. Learn more at the website of Prevent Child Abuse America.