- Identify protective factors that prevent child abuse and neglect.
- Describe the stress factors related to family trauma.
- Identify critical resources in your program and community for supporting families.
Think about these three words: safety, stability, and nurture. What do they mean? Think about a relationship in your own life that was represented by these three words. What did the other person do that made it feel safe, stable, and nurturing? What impact did that relationship have on your life? Whether you recognize it or not, relationships like these likely shaped your outlook on the world and your ability to succeed. Let’s take a look at a few relationships that could be considered safe, stable, and nurturing.
- Chandra is 2 years old and has been attending the child development center since she was 10 weeks old. Chandra’s mom, Jayne, is very involved in the program. She communicates daily with the teachers about Chandra’s day and attends all the events that the program holds. Chandra was born premature and suffered severe complications during delivery. She has been receiving early intervention services since birth. Chandra has also been dealing with severe feeding and swallowing disorders since birth. Because of this, Chandra’s meals at the center look much different from the meals other children receive. Over the summer, however, her family and an occupational therapist have made a lot of progress. When Chandra returns to the program, her family provides updated feeding information to center staff. While some days are better than others, the center staff is encouraging and supportive of Chandra, and her eating habits continue to grow and develop.
- Charlotte was just about to turn 4 years old when her family received orders to move across the country for her father’s job. Charlotte was very excited about her upcoming birthday, but her mom and dad knew that the move would likely change some of their plans. As soon as they arrived at their new home, Charlotte’s parents saw a flier for a preschool playgroup at the recreation center. Charlotte and her parents went to the playgroup and met other families who lived on their street. Staff members at the recreation center warmly welcomed the family and expressed excitement about her arrival. Charlotte was thrilled that she had new “best friends” before she even started attending the new child development center.
- Ravi waits patiently for his father to pick him up from the school-age program. His mom is coming home tonight from a 6-month deployment. He can hardly wait. He spends most of the day glancing out windows and trying to see the parking lot. He is almost constantly asking staff how much time is left in the day. Instead of showing frustration, the staff at the center talk to him about how excited he is to see his mom and ask him questions about her. Finally, as the day is coming to a close, he sees his dad’s car pull into the parking lot. Sharon works at the front desk. When she buzzes Ravi’s dad into the building, she takes a minute to tell him how thrilled the staff is that they will be reunited with Ravi’s mom tonight. She encourages Ravi’s dad to reach out if there is anything the family needs or ways the program can support their family. When Ravi’s dad enters the program area, Ravi rushes over and hugs him. They drive together to the welcome site and chat about Ravi’s day, and the things they’ll do with Ravi’s mom over the next few days. By taking an active interest in Ravi’s life, the staff at his center created a positive environment and allowed Ravi and his parents to have a positive transition.
Like all families, Chandra’s, Charlotte’s, and Ravi’s families have experienced some stress. Whether faced with single parenting, relocation, separation, financial or job-related stress, strong families are resilient and bounce back. No matter what, they make sure their children have safe, stable, and nurturing relationships. Jayne has a close bond with Chandra and is invested in her relationships with Chandra’s caregivers and specialists. Charlotte’s parents understand her emotional needs and help her to build connections with new peers. Ravi’s family communicates and spends time connecting and reconnecting. All of these families experienced support from child care center staff in various roles. Chandra’s family was supported by food service staff members who accommodated and supported her unique dietary needs. Staff members at Charlotte’s new program welcomed her openly and her parents were able to relax, knowing her emotional needs were being supported. By supporting Ravi’s excitement about seeing his mom again, and encouraging Ravi’s dad to reach out for support, caregivers and front desk staff helped his family approach a difficult transition with a positive outlook and celebration.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider safe, stable, and nurturing relationships like these one of the “essentials of childhood.” Let’s explore how the CDC defines these three words.
- Safety: Safety is “the extent to which a child is free from fear and secure from physical or psychological harm.” This means that adults protect children from harm. Adults regulate their own emotions and monitor children’s development.
- Stability: Stability is “the degree of predictability and consistency in a child’s environment.” This means the child comes to learn that the world is a manageable place. Consistent family routines are one way stability is provided for children.
- Nurture: Nurture is “the extent to which a parent or caregiver is available and able to sensitively respond to and meet the needs of their child.”
Safety, stability, and nurturing relationships are important throughout our lives. Unfortunately, trauma (like abuse or neglect) can damage or destroy a child’s sense of safety, stability, and nurturing relationships. This impacts development. Now think about the children and youth in your program. Do all of them have relationships that are safe, stable, and nurturing? Based on what you have learned already in this course, it is clear that for some children the answer is, “no.” We do not have to accept that for an answer, though. One of the critical roles of a child care program is to help strengthen families, enrich the community, and help each and every person look back on their childhood and answer, “yes.”
You can strengthen families by being aware of the stressors affecting the families in your program and where to direct them so that they can receive the supports and resources they need. Being involved in a suspected case of child abuse or neglect can bring a great deal of stress to a family. The rest of this lesson will focus on (a) the behaviors or issues you might see after a family has been involved in a report and (b) the critical resources and supports your program can offer to families that have experienced this kind of trauma. Remember, families might ask you questions that make you uncomfortable or that you don’t have an answer to. When a family has difficult questions or is in need of resources outside of your expertise, direct them to the program manager or a social worker so that they can get the support that they need.
To reflect on the stressors that families in your program might experience and how you might have a positive impact on a child or family, take a moment to watch the following video on toxic stress and how connections and concrete supports can buffer the effects of toxic stress: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/stress-and-resilience-how-toxic-stress-affects-us-and-what-we-can-do-about-it/.
Ways to Support Families
Many families who are involved in allegations of child abuse or neglect have experienced some kind of trauma. This might mean they experienced abuse or neglect themselves as children. There may also be domestic violence toward adults in the home. They may experience family or community violence.
Trauma can influence how a family interacts with you. Look for these characteristics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s publication Preventing Child Maltreatment (2013):
- Families that have experienced trauma may find it difficult to build trusting relationships with staff members in the program. It might not be easy for them to trust anyone.
- Families might perceive aggression or danger where it does not exist. They may struggle with keeping themselves or their children safe. You might find yourself questioning their decision-making.
- They may abuse drugs or alcohol.
- They may have a hard time controlling their emotions.
- They may seem numb or “shut down.”
You should approach all families, especially families that have experienced trauma, with patience, kindness, and understanding. Regardless of whether a family has been affected by abuse or neglect, all families benefit from positive, friendly, and supportive interactions. Watch this video to learn more about how you can support families affected by stress or trauma.
The following list of strategies is from the Preventing Child Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being: A Network for Action 2013 Resource Guide. Consider ways you can use these strategies to support families who have experienced trauma:
- Talk to your program manager, or administrator for support any time you have a concern about a family.
- Be aware of the resources available to families in your program or on your installation and know where to direct parents in need of resources.
- Understand that parents’ reactions (including anger, resentment, or avoidance) may be reactions to trauma. Do not take them personally.
- Remember that parents who have experienced trauma are not “bad.” Blaming or judging them is likely to make the situation worse.
- Recognize that all parents want the children to be safe and healthy. Compliment parents’ good decisions and healthy choices when you see them.
- Stay calm and keep your voice as neutral and nonthreatening as possible. Model direct and honest communication.
- Be consistent. When you make a commitment, follow through.
- Be aware that you could experience secondary traumatic stress, which can occur when you see or hear about trauma experienced by others. This is more likely if you have been affected by abuse or neglect in the past. Take care of yourself and take time to address your own reactions when you feel you are getting overwhelmed.
As a support staff member, there are many ways that you can support children and families that are experiencing stress. For example, the cook might share healthy recipes that are prepared at the program for families to try at home or make food accommodations for children with special dietary needs. The custodian might put together a resource list of cleaning supplies that are good for sanitizing or disinfecting. The maintenance staff might hold a parent workshop on fun building projects to try with school-agers. Finally, the front desk staff provide children and families with a consistent, friendly, warm interaction to start each day in a positive way. Support staff members play a critical role in supporting and strengthening families each day by creating and maintaining a program environment that is healthy, clean and safe.
The best ways you can support children and families in your program is by engaging with them in positive ways, directing them to appropriate staff or resources in the program, and by keeping children safe from harm. Your role as a mandated reporter is an important one. By taking it seriously, supporting the families in your program, and taking care of your own mental health, you have the ability to strengthen your community and effect positive change in the lives of others.
Based on what you have learned in this lesson, think about the ways that you can support children and families in your role in the program. Use the Reflecting on Supporting Children and Families activity to record your answers. Based on your role and expertise, are their resources or tip sheets that you could provide to families or add to the program’s family resource collection? Discuss with your trainer or program manager additional ways that you can support families in your program.
These tip sheets from Preventing Child Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being: A Network for Action 2013 Resource Guide are designed to be distributed to parents and caregivers to address a particular parenting concern or question. The information is easy to read and focuses on concrete strategies parents and caregivers can use to take care of their children and strengthen their families. Each tip sheet is available in English and Spanish.
Download and print the tip sheets. Share them with families or put them in your program’s family resource area.
Browne, C. H. (2014). The Strengthening Families Approach and Protective Factors Framework: Branching Out and Reaching Deeper. Washington, D.C.: Center for the Study of Social Policy. Retrieved from https://cssp.org/resource/the-strengthening-families-approach-and-protective-factors-framework-branching-out-and-reaching-deeper/
Center for the Study of Social Policy (n.d.). Strengthening Families: A Protective Factors Framework. Retrieved from https://cssp.org/our-work/projects/protective-factors-framework/
Felitti, Vince J. et al. (1998) Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 14, 245-258. doi:10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html
Harris, N. B. (2014). Nadine Burke Harris: How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/nadine_burke_harris_how_childhood_trauma_affects_health_across_a_lifetime
Karageorge, K. & Kendall, R. (2008). The Role of Professional Child Care Providers in Preventing and Responding to Child Abuse and Neglect. Office on Child Abuse and Neglect, Children’s Bureau.
The National Center for Fatality Review and Prevention. (n.d.) Child abuse and neglect fact sheet. See also https://www.ncfrp.org/
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.). Strategic Direction for Child Maltreatment Prevention: Preventing Child Maltreatment Through the Promotion of Safe, Stable, and Nurturing Relationships Between Children and Caregivers.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2013). Preventing Child Maltreatment and Promoting Well-Being: A Network for Action 2013 Resource Guide.