Experts Are Worried About Child Abuse During the Pandemic

As stress, frustration and tension build up, violence against children may increase. Here’s what you can do to help.

Updated April 29, 2020; 11:30am EST

It’s something child advocates have seen time and again: Whenever there’s a public health crisis, children are especially vulnerable to abuse and neglect. Now, experts worry that the COVID-19 pandemic may not only put at-risk kids in further danger, but could create safety issues in homes that were previously untroubled by violence.

The fear and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 creates a perfect storm for abuse, especially for families with young children or those with special needs, says Meira Ellias, LCSW-C, a social worker, psychotherapist and director of DC Therapeutic Services in Washington D.C. Family members are confined together, often in close quarters, and parents may be unemployed, financially strained and trying to homeschool—all while battling their own health fears as the disease spreads across the nation.

While it’s too early to know if violence against children has increased, some signs indicate it may be on the rise. The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, for example, reported a 20 percent increase in calls and a 439 percent jump in texts between March 1 and March 24 compared to the same period last year.

So, how might the pandemic affect family dynamics? Where can you turn if you feel like you’re approaching a breaking point? And what can you do if you think someone else’s child is being abused or neglected?

How the pandemic can affect behavior
During times of extreme stress, kids often act differently than they do in normal times. They may be clingier or disobey more frequently, Ellias says, and parents may be perplexed by the sudden change.

In these situations, parents should try to look at the crisis through their children’s eyes. Kids may not understand why their routine is upset, why they have to do schoolwork at home or why they can’t see their friends. And depending on their age and the individual child, they might be unable to communicate their fears and concerns effectively.

The pressure of the pandemic can push parents to change their usual behavior, as well. Many moms and dads feel sad, lonely and anxious, which may contribute to them lashing out or using a heavier hand with discipline.

In fact, one survey of 568 adults launched by the University of Michigan on March 24—about a week after the White House issued social distancing guidelines—found that many parents were disciplining their children more, and sometimes in aggressive ways. Nineteen percent of parents said they yelled or screamed at their children more often since the pandemic started. A troubling 20 percent had spanked or slapped their child at least once in the previous two weeks.

If you feel overwhelmed
When you find yourself feeling angry or upset during a conflict with your kids, Ellias recommends taking time to cool down before reacting in the moment. As long as your children are in a safe place or your partner can handle them, she suggests you “just walk away for a minute, have a good cry or call a friend.” Separating yourself from the situation can help you feel less agitated and better able to respond in an even-handed way.

In the longer term, keep these important strategies in mind:

Give yourself a break. These are unprecedented times, so don’t hold yourself to your usual work or parenting standards. Be more flexible with your kids’ screen use if you need to, Ellias suggests, whether it’s so you can get dinner on the table or finish a work call.

Limit your alcohol intake. People may drink to cope with the stress of the crisis. But overdoing alcohol is part of the perfect storm, Ellias says. “Alcohol lowers your inhibitions, and it’s very easy for things to take a turn for the worse very quickly,” she warns.

Get help. The pandemic is a mental health crisis, and most people don’t know how to deal with it, Ellias says. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, she suggests reaching out to trusted friends, family or a healthcare provider to discuss your situation. You can also dial a mental health hotline. The National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline, for example, can be reached at 1-800-950-6264 or by texting “NAMI” to 741741.

See something, say something
Under ordinary circumstances, teachers, daycare workers and medical professionals are required to report suspected cases of abuse or neglect. But stay-at-home orders and school closures can mean at-risk children may fall through the cracks.

If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, report it to local law enforcement or child protective services for investigation. Signs of child abuse may be difficult to spot during the pandemic, but some of the more common ones include:

  • Unexplained injuries like burns, bruises or broken bones
  • Sudden, drastic changes in behavior or new behaviors such as aggression, passivity, anger, depression or hyperactivity
  • Fear of parents or shrinking away around other adults
  • Persistently appearing unclean, hungry or without age-appropriate supervision

Pay attention to what parents say, as well. They could be at their limit if they complain that they can’t handle their child anymore. It does not necessarily mean a child is being or will be abused, but it may indicate the child is in danger, especially if other signs of abuse are present.

Right now, the old saying “It takes a village to raise a child” may be truer than ever. And by remaining aware and taking a few smart steps, you can help keep kids safe.

Medically reviewed in April 2020.

Ashley Abramson. American Psychological Association. “How COVID-19 may increase domestic violence and child abuse.” April 8, 2020.
The Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. “New Resource Pack: Positive Parenting in COVID-19 Isolation.”
Childhelp. “The Importance of this April and the Coronavirus Pandemic.”
Child Welfare Information Gateway. “How to Report Suspected Child Maltreatment.”
University of Michigan. “Stress and Parenting During the Coronavirus Pandemic.”
Child Welfare Information Gateway. “What Is Child Abuse and Neglect? Recognizing the Signs and Symptoms.”
Mayo Clinic. “Child Abuse.”

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