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April 2020Vol. 21, No. 3Maintaining Emotional Connectedness While Physically Distant

Written by Melissa T. Merrick, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer, Prevent Child Abuse America

April showers signal new life, prosperity, and sunshine for the months to come. It is the perfect month to plant pinwheel gardens for child abuse and neglect prevention and to don our blue ribbons in support of our commitment for a bright, thriving future for children and families. Certainly, this April feels different—because it IS different. Images of an empty Times Square and National Mall seem like blockbuster movie sets, and the news of death counts and insufficient tests and medical supplies are equally cinematic (and barely conceivable just a few weeks ago). But, as we create social distance for the public's health, we must do something else for the public's health: we must not allow our physical distance to create emotional distance from our loved ones, support systems, and communities. Now, more than ever, we must stay emotionally connected if we are to truly protect children and strengthen families and communities.

Undoubtedly, in times of extreme economic and emotional stress and uncertainty such as these, the risk to our children for experiencing child abuse and neglect is quite high, and the likelihood that such experiences will go undetected is possibly even higher. Without the safe spaces and caring, supportive hearts, eyes, and hands that protect them from harm, children and families find themselves in an unprecedented, overwhelmingly precarious scenario. School and workplace closings increase stress in parents' and caregivers' lives. These closings can result in loss of income due to lack of paid leave and job loss; an unexpected or irregular need for child care, let alone affordable and available child care; and food insecurity when school meal programs and other valuable social resources become unavailable. With routine and consistency interrupted, our caregivers are trying to navigate virtual learning environments—if they even have access to such technology—while simultaneously performing remote work duties—if they are afforded such opportunity—while also trying to remain emotionally regulated and stable not just for themselves but for their children.  And, our children find themselves with more unstructured, idle time or with developmentally naïve understandings about what is happening in the world around them or, worse, an exact understanding of the unpredictability, instability, and fragility of life and circumstance.

We all want what's best for our children—for them to be happy, healthy, and safe. We want this for our communities and neighborhoods, too. Unfortunately, we have not always shared these same hopes and dreams and commitments to action for everybody's children, communities, and neighborhoods. While we are flattening the curve of this global public health pandemic, we are simultaneously exposing the gross inequities in our systems that give rise to the urgent public health crisis that is child abuse and neglect and other forms of adversity that plague our families, communities, and society at large. 

When we create conditions for health and health equity—through supporting economic supports for families, for example—families and communities are strengthened and better equipped to be resilient and thrive after encountering even a sustained stressor, and our children are protected from harm.  When we truly embrace the fact that we all have a role to play in assuring the public's health and well-being, everyone wins, not just children in my community or in my family but everyone. Indeed, we are more likely to achieve multiple public health goals if our children are healthier, and our children are more likely to be healthier if their parents are healthier. This intergenerational assertion can be supported through expansion of evidence-based home visitation programs, through family-friendly policies such as paid family and sick leave, and through providing concrete supports to families. Of course, we can all play a role, too, in checking in on family, friends, and neighbors; encouraging and maintaining routine and normalcy where we can; and taking a deep breath and a timeout when we need it amidst the chaos.

In recognition of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, let's physically distance yet remain emotionally connected to protect our own mental health and well-being—and our children's. Let's get creative to harness the collective impact we need to prevent early adversity and set our youth on a trajectory of lifelong and intergenerational health and prosperity, making them more resilient in the face of the global pandemic of their day.
Together, we can prevent child abuse, America, because childhood lasts a lifetime!

Prevent Child Abuse America's resources related to COVID-19, or coronavirus, can be found in the article, "Prevent Child Abuse America Provides Coronavirus Resources for Families and Professionals," in this issue's Resources section.