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Utah pediatrician touts child abuse prevention resources for overwhelmed parents

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Standard-Examiner | Apr 21, 2024

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April is Child Abuse Prevention and Family Strengthening Month and experts from Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital say preparedness is key.

During the past year, approximately 1 in 7 children in the United States experienced child abuse or neglect, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome also reported inconsolable crying to be the No. 1 trigger for shaken baby syndrome, a fatal condition in nearly 25% of cases.

Utah’s Children’s Justice Center received 40,364 reports of child abuse and neglect in 2020, the latest figures available. Several thousand of those cases were confirmed to involve child endangerment, domestic violence-related child abuse, sexual abuse, neglect, physical abuse, physical neglect, emotional abuse, fetal exposure to alcohol or other substance use, nonsupervision and medical neglect. Prevent Child Abuse Utah also reports 1 in 7 children are sexually abused before the age of 18.

April is Child Abuse Prevention and Family Strengthening Month. The purpose is to bring about awareness to the disturbing trend by focusing on ways to strengthen families to safely care for their children.

Experts from Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital said preparedness is key.

“Child abuse is preventable, and planning for challenging times is critical to help prevent child abuse,” said Dr. Tagrid Ruiz, a child abuse pediatrician from University of Utah Health and Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital. “No one plans on abusing their child, but it happens, and it might happen in my family or your family.”

Ruiz, who specializes in child abuse, said the majority of her job involves ruling out abuse. However, about 40% of suspicions are worrisome. That’s why she said conversations need to be initiated to talk about the kind of stress that comes when, for instance, a baby won’t stop crying, and then create a plan to help parents and caregivers respond to the stress rather than react to it.

“It’s really important for caregivers to have a plan in place beforehand,” she said. “Be sure you know where to access resources. Write down the numbers and put them somewhere where you can easily access them. Find a trusted person you can turn to when you need a break. In fact, I would encourage parents to find more than one person to help.”

Ruiz said it’s a big mistake for people to assume this is someone else’s issue. In fact, she said anyone can feel overwhelmed and frustrated when raising their children.

“We need to acknowledge that it can happen to anyone and everyone. It’s not a matter of if, but when,” she said. “That’s why I strongly advise people to have a plan of action in place beforehand, so things don’t escalate into a crisis situation where those emotions escalate to dangerous situations.”

The Center for Study of Social Policy shows that families who demonstrate five strengths are often better able to navigate life’s challenges. Those include parental resilience, social connection, knowledge of parenting and child development, concrete support in times of need, and the social and emotional competence of children. These are key to helping families cope in times of stress.

“Sometimes, babies cry and cannot be soothed no matter what you do,” Ruiz said. “This is a normal part of child development and doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent. Parents need to know they’re not alone. They can talk about their frustrations and safely get through that moment with support.”

Ruiz said it’s a natural instinct to pick up a crying baby and try to calm them down, but in reality, if the baby has been fed and their diaper has been changed, parents should do the exact opposite and place the baby in their crib and leave the room to calm down. She said it won’t hurt the baby to cry it out as long as they are in a safe place.

When it comes to older children, parents can become frustrated and overwhelmed when faced with temper tantrums or unruly behavior. Ruiz said in those cases, parents can benefit from Parent Child Interactive Therapy by calling the center at 801-662-3601.

Ruiz also said to designate a safe, supportive, trusted person you can contact when you’re feeling frustrated. You also can contact the National Parent Helpline at 855-427-2736 to receive emotional support from trained counselors.

There also are free, temporary safe havens for kids up to age 11 that parents can access when they need help.

“Parents, remember to write this plan down and keep it where you can easily find it when (you’re) frustrated and not thinking clearly,” Ruiz said. “That way, you’ll know you have a safety net when you need it. Also, realize you’re not alone. So many parents feel isolated and feel like something is wrong with them and they’re doing something wrong when their child won’t calm down or when they act out. We need to move into a space where we can acknowledge that those feelings are normal and you’re not the only one. If you were, we wouldn’t have all of these specialties out there to help you.”


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