April is Child Abuse Prevention Month: Risk and Protective Factors for Child Maltreatment

childabusepreventionlogoApril is Child Abuse Prevention Month. Child abuse is a serious problem in the US. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 686,000 children were abused or neglected in 2012. In that same year, an estimated 1,640 children died from maltreatment. Tragically, these estimates state that 57% of all victims were 5 years old or younger.

This grim picture illustrates exactly why Child Abuse Prevention Month is so important: knowledge and awareness can empower us to help prevent child abuse.

The CDC considers child abuse prevention on a scale. On one side of the scale, you have risk factors. Risk factors increase the likelihood that child abuse will occur in the home. Protective factors are on the other half of the scale and decrease the likelihood that child abuse will occur in the home. These factors tip the balance of the scale in one direction or the other, which translates to an environment where abuse is more probable or one where it is less likely to rear its ugly head.

Risk factors are complex, however. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that “no single factor on its own can explain why some individuals behave violently towards children.”  Risk factors have to be understood as part of a more complex system: the individual is within a relationship. The relationship is within a community. The community is within a society.

When it comes down to it, the blame for abuse is always at the feet of the perpetrator. That said, on the individual level, there are many factors that can make it more likely that a caregiver will abuse. The WHO lists many reasons:

  • Parents who are having difficulty bonding with a newborn child – as a result, for example, of a difficult pregnancy, birth complications, or disappointment with the baby.
  • Parents who do not show nurturing behavior towards a child.
  • Parents who were abused as children.
  • Parents who do not know about typical childhood development or have unrealistic expectations of their child. For example, parents who view a child’s misbehavior as an offense against them, rather than a normal part of a child’s development.
  • Parents who approve of physical punishment as means of disciplining children, or believe in its effectiveness.
  • Parents who suffer from physical or mental health problems that impair their parenting ability.
  • Parents who lack self-control when angry.
  • Parents who misuse drugs and/or alcohol.
  • Parents who exhibit poor parenting skills as a result of a young age or lack of education.
  • Parents under financial duress.

At the relationship level, parental interactions and associations with other individuals can increase the risk for child maltreatment. These include a lot of the same factors at the individual level, but they are applied to members outside of the immediate nuclear family. They include items such as:

  • The lack of a support network to assist with difficult family situations.
  • Discrimination against the family because of ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, or lifestyle.
  • Isolation in the community.

At the community and societal level, factors such as high unemployment, poverty, and lack of government or other services for families all increase the likelihood for child abuse.

So what about protective factors? How do we balance the scale? The evidence is not entirely clear. The only thing scientific evidence has shown is that a supportive family environment and a supportive social network help mitigate risk factors. The CDC considers this lack of evidence a serious problem and is currently focused on establishing more scientific evidence to determine how effective protective factors are. In the interim, they have published some factors they suspect can reduce the risk for child abuse:

  • Having nurturing parenting skills.
  • Stable family relationships.
  • Household rules and child monitoring.
  • Parental employment.
  • Adequate housing.
  • Access to health care and social services.
  • Caring adults outside the family who can serve as role modules and mentors.
  • Communities that support parents and take responsibility for preventing abuse.

Whether you have children or not, there are ways to help prevent child abuse. As suggested above, reaching out to friends who have young children and providing them with a listening ear can make a world of difference. If they’re struggling, let them know that they’re not alone; you can even offer to help them by babysitting for a while.

If you’re struggling as a parent, guardian, or caregiver, know that experiencing difficulties with your child is completely natural and that there are resources out there to help. The US Department of Health and Human Services runs a site dedicated to the well-being of children and their caregivers. This site has a wonderful resource guide that is useful for both parents and community support organizations. One thing we’d particularly like to note is the activity calendar. Not everything on the calendar may be possible for you, but things like exploring the world from your child’s point of view on April 7th and making time to hold, cuddle, and hug your children on April 19th may work for you. That type of bonding will hopefully decrease your stress level and make parenting easier day-to-day.

If you feel as though you need professional support, you have not failed as a parent. Meritage Medical Network would love to help you and your family. You can call us toll-free at (800) 874-0840, or you can simply use the “find a doctor” feature on our site to find a healthcare professional or specialist near you.



Butchart, A., Harvey, A.P., Mian, M., & Fuerniss, T. (2006). Preventing child maltreatment: A guide to taking action and generating evidence. World Health Organization and The International Society for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. Retrieved from: https://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2006/9241594365_eng.pdf

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). Child maltreatment: Facts at a glance 2014. CDC. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/pdf/childmaltreatment-facts-at-a-glance.pdf

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Child maltreatment: Risk and protective factors. CDC. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childmaltreatment/riskprotectivefactors.html

US Department of Health and Human Services. (2015). Activity calendar. National Child Abuse Prevention Month 2015. Retrieved from https://www.childwelfare.gov/topics/preventing/preventionmonth/resource-guide/activity-calendar/

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