Strong Families Raise Strong Children: preventing child maltreatment

By Cheryl Arndt

In the media today we see a lot about “over-scheduled” children. Perhaps you know a child like that. These are the children who go from school play practice to scouting to academic enrichment to activities in their place of worship – maybe all in one week, if not all in one night. These children spend their summers in math camp, sports camp and violin camp. But, for many children, their biggest concerns are not which specialty camps to attend or how to keep up with school, family and extracurricular activities. Far from it. For these children, their biggest problem is that they are maltreated. In 2010 (the most currently available data), in the United States, there were an estimated 754,000 children victimized by maltreatment. Additionally, 1,560 deaths were reported to have occurred in 2010 as a result of abuse or neglect. Overall, parents were perpetrators in 82 percent of child maltreatment cases (USDHHS, 2011a).

The impact of child maltreatment on its survivors is well documented and includes numerous mental health difficulties such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, suicidal ideation and attempts, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse. Behavioral difficulties and risky behaviors associated with child maltreatment include aggression, teen pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, adult criminality, an increased number of sexual partners, earlier voluntary sexual activity and relationship difficulties. Physical health problems include musculoskeletal, respiratory and cardiovascular disorders; chronic fatigue; hypertension; sexually transmitted diseases and obesity. Finally, cognitive difficulties associated with child maltreatment include attention deficits and deficits in reasoning, language and problem-solving skills (Martin, Gardner, & Brooks-Gunn, 2012; Wang & Holton, 2007).

Costs associated with child abuse and neglect are economic as well as emotional and physical. An economic impact study published in 2007 (Wang & Holton) conservatively estimated that in 2007, the annual cost of child abuse and neglect in the U.S. was $103.8 billion. The direct costs included in this estimate were hospitalizations, mental health care treatment and costs of the child welfare and law enforcement systems. Of course, this figure does not include the intangible losses involved, such as the pain and suffering and reduced quality of life of the victims of child maltreatment. Given the scope of child maltreatment in the U.S. today, and the impact of maltreatment on its victims, understanding how to prevent maltreatment is critical to children, families and communities.

A good deal of the psychological literature that has been published in recent decades regarding child maltreatment has focused on the protective factors related to child maltreatment. In other words: what makes a parent more or less likely to maltreat a child? Specific protective factors have been identified, and government sources indicate that these factors are important in all families, regardless of ethnicity, marital status and socioeconomic status (e.g. USDHHS, 2011b). Protective factors have been identified as:

• nurturing and attachment,
• knowledge of parenting and child development,
• parental resilience,
• social connections and
• concrete support (Center for the Study of Social Policy [CSSP], 2012).

Nurturing and Attachment

Nurturing and attachment starts with the earliest experiences of child/parent bonding. In the late 1960s, John Bowlby, a British psychologist and psychoanalyst, conducted groundbreaking work on attachment. A major contribution of Bowlby’s work was his contention that infantile attachment to parental figures laid the foundation for all future relationships and for psychological development in general. After decades of research, these ideas are still generally accepted (Rutter, 2006). Attachment theory has been the underlying theoretical approach to understanding the impact of childhood maltreatment. Research on nurturing and attachment has shown that babies whose needs for love and protection are met are most likely to develop in ways that maximize their social, behavioral, cognitive and academic potential. Through contact with stable caregivers, babies and children learn empathy and relationship building (USDHSS, 2011).

Knowledge of Parenting and Child Development

Parents and their children benefit when parents understand both general normal childhood development and the unique needs of their children. Parents are more confident in their parenting when they understand the needs of their children as they grow and develop. This knowledge allows parents to understand and address their children’s needs and to more successfully meet the goals of parenting.

Beyond affection and protection, children also benefit from consistent rules and respectful communication. This will be more effective if parents are grounded in the developmental needs and abilities of their children. The ability to successfully model for, teach and discipline their children helps parents succeed in raising children who thrive (USDHSS, 2011). Since Diana Baumrind’s work in the 1960s, parenting styles have often been described as authoritarian (controlling), authoritative (firm but fair) and permissive (lax or uninvolved) (Baumrind, 1966). Although Baumrind’s original work did not address child maltreatment specifically, some recent studies have found a link between an authoritarian parenting style and child abuse (e.g., Rodriguez, 2010). And, parenting styles are known to be impacted by parental knowledge of child development.

Parental Resilience

Parental resilience involves the parents’ ability to cope with a wide variety of stressors. Stressors may include the parents’ own family history, physical and mental health, substance abuse, marital difficulties, financial challenges and neighborhood stressors.

Parents living in poverty have a multitude of stressors to handle. In 2008, a study was done that asked “what makes urban families living in poverty resilient?” (p. 429). Overall, Mullin and Arce concluded that families living in poverty are more likely to be resilient when they form connections through both giving and receiving support, when they have nourishing spiritual beliefs and when they take active steps to “control their destiny” (p. 435). Flexibility, faith and problem-solving skills have also been found to be resources that can help parents cope effectively with stressors (USDHHS, 2011).

Social Connections and Support

When parents have supportive social connections, they have people to go to when they need assistance. Social support has been shown to buffer stress, reduce depression and increase family functioning. In contrast, a lack of social support has been found to be related to neglect within families as well as to increased risk of physical violence (Lietz, et al., 2011). As early as the 1970s, a link was noticed between child abuse and the support system of the mother (in Urie Bronfenbrenner’s seminal book, The Ecology of Human Development, 1979). This theory has stood the test of time. A 2012 study by Martin, Gardner and Brooks-Gunn found that social support directly impacted parenting behaviors. For families who live in neighborhoods with moderate or high levels of violence, social support was also found to indirectly impact parenting behaviors by lowering caregiver depression. Overall, “family support directly lowers the risk of child maltreatment in all neighborhoods” (p. 936).

Concrete Support

Concrete support includes factors that influence the ability of parents to meet the basic needs of their children. These needs include food, healthcare, transportation and housing. Parents need to have access to services that can help them meet these needs, and the services must be provided in ways that are culturally acceptable to them and in a language they understand. Parents may need information and advocacy in order to learn about and access such services (USDHHS, 2011).

The relationship between poverty and child maltreatment is clear. While the vast majority of poor families do not abuse their children, poverty is still the single best predictor of child abuse and neglect. Children in low socioeconomic status households experience some type of maltreatment at more than five times the rate of other children. They are also more than three times as likely to be abused and seven times as likely to be neglected (CSSP, 2011, para. 3). These statistics are particularly impactful since the poverty rate in 2010 was 15 percent, which is the highest rate since 1993. The Center for the Study of Social Policy suggests that in order to decrease the rates of child maltreatment, poor families need to be connected to financial supports that are both concrete and long-term.

Summary and Conclusion

Because of the scope of the problem of child maltreatment in the United States, it is critical that we understand how to protect against it. Successfully measuring the identified protective factors will continue to be important in effectively determining what families need to prevent child maltreatment.

The future of child abuse prevention also rests in the development of high quality practices. Services and supports put in place to assist families and children must abide by rigorous and proven standards. Specific outcomes must be identified for programs, and clear goals and objectives must be established to show how families are working toward those outcomes. Diverse programs must be offered in order to meet the needs of a wide variety of families. Strategic partnerships must be formed among service, governmental, education and community-based agencies to make the most effective use of the limited resources that are available for prevention. “Preventing child abuse is not simply a matter of parents doing a better job, but rather it is about creating a context in which ‘doing better’ is easier…When the problem is owned by all individuals and communities, prevention will progress, and fewer children will remain at risk” (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2011, p. 11). |

•Baumrind, D. (1966). Effects of authoritative parental control on child behavior. Child Development, 37(4), 887.Retrieved from Ebsco Host Database.
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•Lietz, C. A., Lacasse, J. R., & Cacciatore, J. (2011). Social support in family reunification: A qualitative study. Journal of Family Social Work, 14(1), 3-20. doi:10.1080/10522158.2011.531454
•Martin, A., Gardner, M., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2012). The mediated and moderated effects of family support on child maltreatment. Journal of Family Issues, 33(7), 920-941. Retrieved from Ebsco Host Database.
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•U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2011a). Child Maltreatment 2010. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from
•U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2011b). Protective factors for strengthening families: 2011 resource guide.
•Wang, C-T., & Holton, J. (2007, September). Total estimated cost of child abuse and neglect in the United States. Chicago, IL: Prevent Child Abuse America. Retrieved from about_us/media_releases/pcaa_pew_economic_impact_study_final.pdf

With roots in expressive arts therapy, Cheryl Arndt has spent many years in mental health program development and management. Several years ago, she rediscovered her love of data, and shifted her focus to research and performance improvement. Her position as Quality Assurance and Compliance Manager at KidsPeace’s Orchard Hills Campus allows for a perfect blend of her two loves: children’s mental health and data. Cheryl is pursuing her Ph.D. in psychology. Given the appropriate behavioral reinforcers, she can, at times, be pried away from her keyboard.