Covid-19 and child abuse

Children and young people are normally seen by lots of different adults every day, like neighbours, grandparents and teachers. But due to coronavirus (COVID-19) we’re self-isolating, social distancing and spending much more time at home.

This means some families might need extra support with parenting. And if a child is experiencing abuse, there aren’t as many opportunities for adults to spot the signs and help.

We know isolation can put some children at a greater risk of domestic abuse, neglect, physical abuse, emotional abuse and sexual abuse.

Efforts are being made to keep school places open for vulnerable children. But It’s everyone’s responsibility to keep children safe, spot the signs of abuse and report concerns. We all need to play our part by checking in with families and reaching out for support and advice if we have any concerns.

The world has suffered through epidemics and pandemics in the past. Experience tells us that child abuse and neglect increase during such periods.

Apart from increasing mortality and morbidity all over the world, the Covid-19 pandemic will cause mental health problems in some children and will hit hard on children prone to abuse.

It is a known fact that children are more vulnerable than adults to suffer heightened emotional distress when their routine life is disrupted by such events.

Every child’s reaction is different. Some may show obvious signs of fear and anxiety; others may present as if nothing is happening.

The stress may manifest in them as aggression or reclusion. It is important to understand and validate their feelings.

As adults, we sometimes ignore the fact that our children are living in the same environment as us and are trying to decipher the gravity of the situation as best as they can.

Parents and caregivers need to remember that children are good observers – your reaction to stress is their best tool to assess the situation. It is normal for anxiety and stress to develop in an adult when there is uncertainty about the future, but it is abnormal when one is unable to contain it. This may lead to violent behaviour towards children, who are, in general, the most susceptible targets.

We also know that more than 80 percent of the time perpetrators of sexual abuse are someone known to the child.

During lockdown, children are home 24 hours or, in the circumstances of a parent contracting an illness, may be sent to relatives and acquaintances, making them even more vulnerable to sexual abuse. Particularly at risk are children who have undergone previous trauma, have mental or physical health problems, have parents who have mental health problems or are at high-risk of emotional disturbance because of current medical, financial and social conditions.

This pandemic is going to significantly affect children’s safety unless we prepare for it and spread awareness at the same level as we are doing for hand washing, social distancing and isolation.

Besides keeping them safe from the coronavirus, how can we make sure our children are protected physically and mentally? It is reassuring to know that with the provision of a consistent supportive environment, most children do well.

The most important way is to make them feel safe and secure. This can only be done if the parent or caregiver is feeling secure themselves. It is important to understand that everyone in the world is affected by the pandemic.

Some of us are hit harder than others but the feeling of uncertainty is universal. Therefore, the best solution is to focus on what is in our control. Taking care of our own mental well-being is the best gift a parent can give to their child.

Instead of leaving children to interpret the current situation on their own, explain what is happening around them in an age-appropriate way. Do not wait for them to ask questions; be proactive in sitting down with them and asking them about their opinions and concerns of the current environment. Find out if they are worried about their or their family’s safety and if they feel scared, angry or sad. Reassurance that you are there to protect them is invaluably helpful.

Use child-friendly materials on Covid-19 to teach them simple hygiene activities such as proper handwashing technique and using your elbow when sneezing among other measures. This will not only make them feel like they are contributing to positive outcomes but will also make them feel like they are in control of the situation.

It is also important to limit their exposure to news, social media and discussions of the pandemic as these are often difficult to process for a child.

Creating routine in the child’s life helps diminish the stress stemming from the chaos outside. Furthermore, social distancing may have isolated some children from their only source of emotional support – friends or family. It is important for them to stay connected through letters, telephone or video chat.

It is vital to know the whereabouts of your child inside and outside of your house. Do not leave them with anyone you do not wholly trust. This is a good time to teach them about safeguarding their body and differentiating between safe and unsafe touches.

Internet safety rules should be explained to children who have access to the internet and great care must be taken to see that the rules are being adhered to. Professional help should be sought for children that are going through significant emotional or behavioral changes at any time.

Spotting the signs of abuse

Social distancing, self-isolating and quarantine can cause stress and changes in everyone’s behaviour. Families are under new pressures and you may worry a child is withdrawn, anxious or depressed. Spotting the signs of abuse might be more difficult and it can be difficult to know for certain if something is wrong.

Any abuse is always wrong and should always be reported.

Some of the signs you may spot include:

  • aggressive or repeated shouting

  • hearing hitting or things being broken

  • children crying for long periods of time

  • very young children left alone or are outdoors by themselves

  • children looking dirty or not changing their clothes

  • children being withdrawn or anxious.

What to do if a child reveals abuse

It can be upsetting or scary when a child reveals abuse. You might not know how to respond and be tempted to take control of the situation. We recommend you:

  • Listen carefully to what they’re saying
    Be patient and focus on what you’re being told. Try not to express your own views and feelings. If you appear shocked or as if you don’t believe them it could make them stop talking and take back what they’ve said.

  • Give them the tools to talk
    If they’re struggling to talk to you, show them Childline’s letter builder tool. It uses simple prompts to help them share what’s happening and how they’re feeling

  • Let them know they’ve done the right thing by telling you
    Reassurance can make a big impact. If they’ve kept the abuse a secret it can have a big impact knowing they’ve shared what’s happened.

  • Tell them it’s not their fault
    Abuse is never a child’s fault. It’s important they hear, and know, this.

  • Say you’ll take them seriously
    They may have kept the abuse secret because they were scared they wouldn’t be believed. Make sure they know they can trust you and you’ll listen and support them.

  • Don’t confront the alleged abuser
    Confronting the alleged abuser could make the situation worse for the child.

  • Explain what you’ll do next
    For younger children, explain you’re going to speak to someone who will able to help. For older children, explain you’ll need to report the abuse to someone who can help.

  • Report what the child has told you as soon as possible
    Report as soon after you’ve been told about the abuse so the details are fresh in your mind and action can be taken quickly. It can be helpful to take notes as soon after you’ve spoken to the child. Try to keep these as accurate as possible.