Before the pandemic of COVID-19 descended upon New Hampshire, HAVEN was already supporting over 1,055 families whose children had experienced sexual assault and other forms of child abuse. These traumatic experiences in developing children and adolescents are classified as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which are stressful or traumatic events that include:
• Physical abuse
• Sexual abuse
• Emotional abuse
• Physical neglect
• Emotional neglect
• Witnessing a mother being treated violently
• Mental Illness in the household
• Substance misuse in the household
• Incarceration of a family member
• Loss of a parent
From the research done on the long-term effects of ACEs, we know that experiencing 7 or more of these factors increased the risk of suicide attempts 51 times among children and 30 times among adults. Exposure to toxic stress for extended periods of time has long-term and in some cases lifetime consequences on brain development.
The changes in the way schools have been meeting in session and remotely, to the stress many families are feeling from changes in or of employment, caring for family members who are at risk for the virus and the overall changes in the way communities can come together for shared experiences have placed enormous stress on everyone.
Current additional pandemic-related stressors that exacerbate these factors include:
• Changes in how schools have been meeting in session and remotely
• Stress many families are feeling from changes in employment
• Challenges of caring for family members who are at risk for the virus
• Increased worry about personal health and health care options
• Changes in the way communities can come together for shared experiences
Despite these challenges, there is hope for those who are struggling due to ACE’s and pandemic related stressors. There are ways to combat this toxic stress that are critical for the wellbeing of both children and adults. Connection with others is a vital part of that.
For children, connecting with trusted adults can offset toxic stress, particularly connection with others outside their COVID cohort or “bubble”. This could include teachers on zoom calls, the adult at the restaurant drive-through or pickup area, the librarian who answers the phone when a child calls to ask for a book, the mail carrier who delivers to the home everyday. These people may be the only other adults a child has access to besides the stressed adults at home.
Children in our community are all of our responsibility and we can all play an important role in keeping them safe by being open and friendly to them, and remembering that you might just be the only one they see or trust. This connection is an important part of building resilience, learning problem solving and getting help.
For adults who want to help children build that resilience necessary to heal and to thrive through trauma and stressful experiences, there are some specific action items that make a real and lasting impact:
1. Stay calm, be open, keep your own feelings of disgust or anger at the perpetrator in check. It is not the child’s responsibility to manage your emotions, don’t put them in the position of having to.
2. Believe them when they tell you they are feeling hurt, confused or scared. When the connection with a child yields a trusting relationship, that child may disclose that they are experiencing abuse at home, physical, emotional or sexual. Again, this is an important time to stay connected, calm and non-judgmental.
3. Understand that they may be feeling angry or powerless, let them feel and express that. The child or teen may be feeling ashamed or guilty, and be blaming themselves. Assure them that abuse is not their fault, it is an adult’s responsibility to protect children and keep them safe. Let them know you are proud of them for being so brave in telling you.
4. Call the Department of Children Youth and Families reporting line (800) 894-5533 to let them know what you have learned about potential abuse. You do not need to investigate or litigate a report. In NH any person over the age of 18 is a legally mandated reporter of suspected child abuse or neglect. Your call may be the first one related to a particular child or it might be the 15th report. To keep children safe, make the call and keep the lines of communication open with that child.
Lastly, reach out to a HAVEN advocate if you are the trusted adult navigating a child’s disclosure. Its normal to need additional support and resources for yourself as well. Whether you want to know more about how to support that child, or you yourself are feeling difficult and negative emotions because of your own experience. Our confidential, trauma-informed advocates are available 24/7 to support you through this process. Call 603-994-SAFE(7233).
HAVEN is here to help.