Preventing Child Abuse- Thriving Families

According to the CDC, at least one in seven children experienced child abuse and/or neglect in the past year, and this is likely an underestimate. Here in Fairfax County, more than 3,600 children were involved with Child Protective Services last year. As we recognize Child Abuse Prevention Month this April, we must re-visit our community’s responsibility to help families thrive and prevent child abuse and neglect. Today, we have an abundance of information on what makes families vulnerable to child maltreatment and how we can support them to stop child abuse before it happens. There are six key protective factors that, when present, can act as armor for the families in our community. 

The term “protective factors” refers to characteristics in a family or community that help reduce a child’s risk for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and promote the health and well-being of children and families. By understanding these positive attributes, we can recognize the strengths and weaknesses within our community and make improvements to help families thrive. 

Protective Factor 1: Nurturing and Attachment 

Research suggests that early experiences of affection and bonding with a caring adult can greatly impact a child’s development. Children need to develop a level of trust in their parents that will later be associated with success in school, positive peer relationships, ability to cope with stress, and overall healthier behavior.  

Protective Factor 2: Knowledge of Parenting for Child and Youth Development 

Children are not born with instruction manuals, and successful parenting looks different for everyone. However, knowledge of child development goes a long way. Aside from affection, children thrive off of respectful communication, rules and expectations, and opportunities to build independence. When parents understand child development and parent in a way that aids appropriate development, their family is at lower risk of child abuse and neglect. 

Protective Factor 3: Parental Resilience 

Everyday life, even before parenthood, is stressful for many adults. From family history to financial management, to marital conflict and beyond- parents are dealing with more than the day-to-day stresses of raising their children. Parents who can effectively cope with their stresses have resilience and flexibility, allowing them to bounce back when crisis does strike.  

Protective Factor 4: Social Connections 

There is a lot of truth behind the common phrase “It takes a village.” Parents and caregivers need a network of family and friends who are emotionally supportive. Having social connections can lighten the load of life stressors and act as a safety net to parents and their children. Those with fewer social connections are found to be at higher risk for maltreating their children.  

Protective Factor 5: Concrete Supports for Parents 

During times of struggle, families will turn to their community for support. We need to have resources in place that help families succeed and may directly allow them to prevent unintended neglect. Some examples of community support include food assistance, housing assistance, crisis support, health care services, etc.  

Protective Factor 6: Social and Emotional Competence for Children 

A child’s social and emotional competence shapes their relationships with family members, adults, and their peers. Parents and caregivers can help children develop the skills necessary to recognize and manage their emotions as well as communicate their needs. These skills lead to greater resilience for both the child and their family.  

Building Protective Factors in Your Community 

Every community member can play a role in building protective factors. The first step is educating yourself and your network on protective factors and how they can help prevent child abuse and neglect. You can do more by creating a list of resources offered to families in your community and sharing that with your network or advocating for policies and programs in your community that boost protective factors. By working to promote these protective factors, you are actively preventing child abuse and neglect in your community. 

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