There has been much conversation in child welfare circles about the decreased number of child abuse and neglect reports being made to the Division of Family and Children Services.

COVID-19 and the shutdown of schools and daycares have led to a decrease in visibility of children. The worry is that families will become more stressed and, with no outside observer, children might be neglected or abused with more frequency.

Abuse and neglect are more likely to occur in families who are isolated, overwhelmed, have multiple or increased life stressors and/or who lack access to support networks. COVID-19 has brought these issues to most every home. That’s right — all of us are now considered at higher risk.

You may feel it within yourself already — that feeling of overwhelm, a bit of chaos, a more frequent snappiness in your voice. There is nothing wrong with you. You are human and normal (in a very abnormal time). Most parents I know feel elevated anxiety, have increased isolation, and are juggling multiple responsibilities.

So, how can we stand in the gap and take care of one another? What are our cues that another parent might be feeling overwhelmed or anxious or stressed, and what do we do about it? Below are some red flags that a parent may need an extra bit of support:

♦ Parents tell you that they are exhausted or stressed out.

Often this is couched in joking terms but while parents may well just be making a crack comment, this verbal cue is often a signal that they need empathy. Laugh at the joke but also ask about how they are doing and encourage them to take care of themselves.

Listen to what they have to say without judgment as they simply vent, if they choose to do this. Venting is a healthy way for parents to let off some steam and we can help families decrease stress by simply providing them with a safe place to do so. Parents may benefit from hearing about your own experiences and commiserating about how hard this parenting row can be to hoe.

Parents look exhausted.

All parents have days when they are off their game or don’t get a good night’s rest and most of us are looking a bit frazzled after weeks of social distancing. What we are looking for here is a regular pattern of exhaustion. If you see that strained look in a parent’s eyes more often than not while on the Zoom call or at the mailbox, check in with them. Ask how they are doing, offer support, and give them a word of encouragement.

You might also consider dropping by a care package — a nice candle, some bath salts, or a to go meal from one of our wonderful local restaurants. If you are their supervisor and can offer a little break to them (maybe a half day off or a get-out-of-a-zoom-meeting-free card), give that to them.

♦ Parents have a difficult time managing tasks that used to be easy for them.

This may evidence itself as disorganization, poor work, and distraction. When you see these symptoms of overwhelm, check in with parents and ask how they are, offer help if you can, and let them know you care. For some parents, it may become difficult to establish or maintain a regular routine with their children, there may be a decrease in supervision, or even difficulty in getting food on the table. These are indicators that outside help may be needed to help problem-solve and provide support.

♦ Parents have short tempers with others or their children.

Anxiety, fear, and worry can make us short with others. You may notice an inability to be flexible and modify schedules to meet the situation at hand or needs of the child. Again, it is the consistent pattern than is a red flag. When parents are short at a level that makes you uncomfortable, that is a signal that the parent may need some additional help.

Parents are alone and isolated.

It is hard to be a single parent and days get mighty long when you are trying to handle everything while your partner is at work. Being alone, isolated, or without a way to de-stress can set up an unhealthy situation. Help by checking in with parents and offering encouragement and words of support. You can also connect families with community resources. Our local United Way has a very thorough listing of community resources at uwrome.org.

By now, you notice a theme. The best way to help a parent who may be feeling overwhelmed and stressed is to make yourself available and accessible, ask questions, offer a caring and listening ear, and to be a good neighbor by helping out when you can.

If there is a lack of supervision, unexplained marks, domestic violence, or you feel concern about the safety of a child, it is time to reach for outside help. You can make a child protective services report by calling DFCS at 855-GACHILD. You can also connect families with community agencies, such as those listed at uwrome.org. Most of us are still in business and still helping families.

By being a caring neighbor and showing love — through your words and actions — you’ll help families more than you know and help keep children safe. If you have questions or would like more information about abuse/neglect or helping families under stress, please reach out to the Exchange Club Family Resource Center at 706-290-0764 or frcrome.org

Tina Bartleson is the executive director of the Exchange Club Family Resource Center, which provides in-home parent education and mentoring to families with children 0-12 years. She has 29 years experience working with families and may be contacted through www.exchangeclubfrc.org.

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