Within the Family
Most child abuse occurs within the family, often by parents or relatives who themselves were abused as children. Neglect and mistreatment of children also is more common in families living in poverty, and among parents who are teenagers or are drug or alcohol abusers. While there has been a recent increase in child abuse outside the home, it is still true that children are most often abused by a caretaker or someone they know, not a stranger.
The major reasons for mistreatment of children within the family are often parental feelings of isolation, stress and frustration. Parents need support and as much information as possible in order to raise their children responsibly. They need to be taught how to cope with their own feelings of frustration and anger without venting them on children. They also need the companionship of other adults who will listen and help during times of crisis. Support groups through local community organizations are often helpful first steps to diminish some of the isolation or frustration they may be feeling.
Preventing Abuse outside the Home
Personal involvement in your child's activities and supervision is the best way to prevent physical and sexual abuse outside the home. Any school or day-care program you select for a child should allow unrestricted and unannounced parental visits without prearrangement. Parents should be allowed to help in the classroom on a volunteer basis and be informed about selection or changes of staff members. Parents should pay careful attention to their child's reports about and reactions to his experiences at school. Always investigate if your child tells you he's been mistreated or if he is experiencing a sudden unexplained change in behavior.
While you don't want to frighten your child, you can teach him some basic rules of safety in a nonthreatening manner. Teach him to keep his distance from strangers, not to wander away from you in unfamiliar territory, to say no when someone asks him to do something against his will, and always to tell you if someone hurts him or makes him feel bad. Emphasize that he will not get in trouble if he tells you about abuse. Emphasize that you need to know this to be able to keep him safe and that he will be okay if he tells you. Instead of teaching him that he's surrounded by danger, teach him that he is strong, capable, and that he can count on you to keep him safe.
Excerpted from Caring for Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, Bantam 1999
© Copyright 2000 American Academy of Pediatrics