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- » Caregivers of Young Children: Preventing and Responding to Child Maltreatment: Caring for Maltreated Children
Caring for Maltreated Children
An early childhood program can be a respite for a child from a troubled family by giving the child positive, safe experiences with other children and adults. Most caregivers of young children professionals have the professional training and experience needed to provide care for children who have been maltreated because maltreated children need the same kinds of consistent, thoughtful, and developmentally appropriate care that other children need, "only more so: more patience, more time, more consistency, and more nurturing."33 Just as early childhood education professionals help all children to develop cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically, they can help maltreated children to overcome developmental delays that may result from the abuse or neglect. It is helpful for caregiving professionals to understand the kinds of developmental damage that maltreated children typically experience and learn what techniques are most effective in helping children to heal.
Developmental Issues Concerning Maltreated Children34
Erik Erikson defined a series of stages through which young children pass as they learn to trust the world and become independent. Most maltreated children have not passed through these stages, and therefore their development has been thwarted. Many maltreated children have had little experience learning to gain a sense of control over their own lives, which is crucial to their ability to make choices and decisions. Early childhood education professionals, through the provision of quality care, can help maltreated children learn to trust, develop independence, and experience appropriate levels of control over their lives.
Development of Trust
During the first year of life, most infants learn to trust their world. When their needs are met consistently and caringly, infants learn that they are valued and can count on the important adults in their lives to take care of them. As they grow older, they learn that, although their parents may leave them, they will return. This sense of basic trust allows infants to explore their environment, develop new skills, try new activities, and learn how to interact with children and adults. Children who have been maltreated, on the other hand, have lingering fears that they will be abandoned and have little trust in their environment. They may cope with their lack of trust by anxiously seeking attention or by appearing to be very independent and detached from others. Many young children have a hard time during transitions from one activity to the next; however, for children who have not developed trust, these transitions are particularly anxious times. These children feel most comfortable when their environment and daily schedule are consistent. Below are several examples of behaviors exhibited by children who have not learned to trust:
- Theresa cries desperately whenever her caregiver is out of sight. When her caregiver puts her down on the floor to play, she stays close by, never venturing to see what's going on in another part of the room.
- Peter follows Donnie around the room all day. When Donnie leaves an activity, Peter follows him to the next one. Peter doesn't interact with Donnie, he just wants to be near him.
- Kia spends much of the day worrying about her blanket. Her teacher insists that she keep it in her cubbie, but several times a day Kia goes to the cubbie to get it out. If she leaves the blanket at home, she is unable to get to sleep or participate in any activities.
Development of Autonomy
In the second year of life, most toddlers are struggling with their conflicting needs for dependence and autonomy. They want their parents and caregivers to be on call to provide assistance but only when they want the assistance and not necessarily when the adults think it is needed. They also want their parents and caregivers to allow them to do things for themselves even when they don't have the necessary skills. When toddlers are allowed to assert their autonomy within acceptable limits, they feel good about their growing abilities and develop a sense of self-worth. This can be a difficult time for parents who feel that they no longer can control their child's behavior.
Some parents would prefer that their children remain dependent because then the child's behavior will remain predictable and manageable. When parents want the child to remain a dependent infant, the child may be very timid and fear exploring the world beyond the home.
Other parents want their children to grow up quickly so they can take care of their parents or be companions. When parents expect children to grow up too fast, the children will usually comply. These children may learn to dress and feed themselves, but they will be immature in other ways. They usually feel great pressure to perform tasks that they know they aren't really capable of. Because they are confused about their own abilities and aren't really able to do everything their parents expect, they often lack confidence and have low self-esteem. Children who have to grow up too fast also may experience role reversal: they become overly concerned about taking care of their parents and perhaps act as the parent's friend or, in extreme cases, the parent's mate or lover.
Children who have not resolved their confusion about developing autonomy become confused about their identity. Their actions often vacillate from one extreme to another: at times they are very affectionate, and at other times they resist being held or touched.
- Justine never asks for help going to the bathroom, washing her hands, tying her shoes, and so on. In fact, she often helps the other children with their self-help routines. She won't try the new puzzles, however; she says that she knows they are too hard for her to do.
- Pablo's first reaction to any new task is to ask for help. He won't try anything unless his caregiver is right beside him telling him how to do it and offering lots of encouragement.
Development of a Sense of Control
From the time they learn they are separate individuals from their mothers, all children are struggling with the issue of control. As they grow and develop, children want and need to gain some control over their own lives. How much control, over what decisions, and how soon are determined by adults based on the child's age, stage of development, skills, temperament, personality, and so on. In infancy, a parent might offer a child two rattles and let the child choose one or the other. A toddler might be offered the choice of wearing her blue overalls or her red ones. A parent might allow a preschooler to decide which of his friends to invite over on the weekend. It is appropriate and healthy for children to control some parts of their lives, and it is what children are eager to do. Despite this eagerness to gain control, children feel most secure when they know that the adults in their lives are making the important decisions. As children grow older, they negotiate with their parents for more control, and when this negotiation is successful, they learn to make their own decisions and to take care of themselves.
Abusive and neglectful parents may attempt to control many aspects of their child's life or give the child too much responsibility. Typically, children who grow up in abusive homes lack consistency. For example, one day a behavior results in a slap, and the next day the same behavior is ignored. This causes the child to feel confused and insecure. The child may exhibit this confusion in the following ways:
- Sara has a very hard time falling asleep at nap time. Even when she is very tired, she can't relax enough to get to sleep.
- Michael is a real tough guy who rarely cries. When he fell off the climber, he just picked himself up and gritted his teeth. Yet when his cookie fell on the floor and broke, he cried hysterically. His teacher had to hold him and rock him for a long time before he calmed down.
- Raoul won't use the big slide in the playground. He's afraid that he might fall off the ladder and get bruised or scraped.
Children who lack a sense of control are likely to express their frustration by being either overly compliant or overly aggressive. It is extremely important that caregiving professionals do not overlook the overly compliant child. These children obey all the rules and do everything they are asked to do because this protects them from the discomfort they feel when they must make choices and decisions. Overly aggressive children gain control of situations by using their misbehavior to provoke adults to lose their tempers. They have learned to get attention through their negative actions and need to learn that they also can get attention through more positive behavior.
Caregiving Skills and Techniques35
Helping Children Learn To Trust
Maltreated children need to learn to trust others. This process begins when they learn to trust an adult, such as an early childhood education professional, and continues as they develop positive relationships with their peers. At first, children may withdraw from interactions with staff, or may be very hostile and aggressive. They may expect that the educator will exhibit the same kinds of abusive behavior as did their parents. Over time, they will learn that their caregiver is a person who will maintain an appropriate level of control in their lives and keep them safe. As the children learn to trust, they will feel secure enough to develop relationships with other children and explore their environment and try new activities. Some caregiving practices that help children learn to trust include:
- Staff should follow a consistent schedule each day. If the group is going on a field trip, caregivers should let the child know in advance that a change will be made, and reassure the child that the regular schedule will be followed the next day. Educators may be used to changing the schedule to take advantage of spontaneous "teachable moments." They should continue to do this; however, the maltreated child will need some extra attention to adjust to the change.
- Caregivers can help the child learn to trust by holding a hand on the ladder to the slide or pushing the child on a swing no higher than he/she wants to go.
- Staff should respond to a child's crying even when the child is crying to get attention. Maltreated children have not learned what most children learn in infancy: that their needs will be met by caring adults quickly and consistently. To develop trust, they need to feel that caregivers are available to respond to their cries.
- Where possible, care providers should set up opportunities for the child to cooperate with others. Two children can carry the water table outside or wipe a dirty table. Successful experiences working alongside other children will eventually lead to successful experiences playing together.
- Staff can provide many opportunities for children to participate in dramatic play, stepping in and asking questions to extend the play and providing additional props. Maltreated children can learn to trust from pretending to be the baby in the family. As the other children join in providing bottles, blankets, and attention, the child can learn what it feels like to be cared for.
- Educators should observe children over time to see how behavior has changed. It takes a long time to develop trust, and care providers may not notice the small signs that a child is making progress. Observation notes may show this progress.
Helping Children Develop Autonomy
Children who have not learned to do things for themselves need to learn self-help skills. Children who have been forced to develop too many skills, too soon, need opportunities to relax and develop their real interests and skills. The following are suggested ways to help children learn to feel competent and independent.
- A wide variety of materials should be provided so children can select what they want to use. Staff can display materials so children can get them out and put them away without adult assistance.
- Because a child can do something does not mean that the child should do something. For example, although the child may be very capable of tying all the other children's shoes, he/she should be encouraged to spend time playing with rather than taking care of the other children.
- Educators can provide many open-ended activities that involve no beginning or end and no possibility of failure. For example, children can decide when to join in and leave sand and water play, and there is no right or wrong way to play with these materials.
- Caregivers should provide opportunities for maltreated children to comfort themselves. These include highly repetitive activities such as punching holes in paper and behaviors that might seem regressive such as thumb sucking or rubbing the edge of a blanket.
Helping Children Develop a Sense of Control
It is important to encourage maltreated children to make their own choices. For overly compliant children, the caregiving professional should begin as with a very young child by offering limited options such as, "Would you like a slice of apple or a slice of pear?" As they become more skilled in making decisions, these children can be encouraged to decide what they will paint, what they will build with the blocks, who they will sit next to at lunch, and so on. Some maltreated children will be used to making their own decisions. They are likely to resist attempts to provide them with guidance; however, they will feel more secure knowing that a staff member is looking out for them. Such children may benefit from playing with puppets. They can safely control what the puppets say and do and what happens next. Some other ways to help children gain a sense of control include the following:
- A program should have clay or play dough and a variety of tools children can use to safely cut, poke, roll, and otherwise manipulate the material. In addition to having a calming influence on children, playing with these materials helps children to establish a sense of control. When they poke it they make a hole; when they cut it they make two pieces; when they roll it they make a snake. In short, they decide what to do and witness the concrete results of their actions.
- Caregivers can help children to see the logical consequences, the cause and effect, of their actions. Children need help learning what effect their actions have on what happens to them. It is important to let children know what will happen if they break rules, such as: "If you throw the blocks you will have to find something else to play with." Program staff should show children the effects that their actions have on the other children: "Erik doesn't want to play with you any more because you knocked down his tower." Understanding the relationship between their actions and what happens next will help children learn to make decisions and to gain control over their lives.
- Educators should respond to negative behavior without reinforcing the child's feelings of abandonment. Staff must let the child know that no one will hurt him/her, but the child won't be permitted to hurt anyone else. This lets the child know that the care provider is in control of the situation and will help the child learn to gain control of the negative behavior.
- Caregivers should try to avoid power struggles. If such struggles do occur, it is important that the educator win them. The child will be angry, but he/she will actually feel worse if the care provider is not in control.
Helping the Sexually Abused Child
Sexually abused children have experienced a great deal of upheaval. They need to feel safe and know that they can trust the caregiver not to tell others about what has happened to them. They need to predict their caregiver's behavior and understand expectations for their behavior. Initially, the program's structure will serve as their security. They will need to be told what to do and how to respond. They must borrow from the caregiver's strength and direction until they can mobilize their own.
It is best not to touch a sexual abuse victim, for a touch may cause a chain of flashbacks. After establishing a trusting relationship, the staff member may ask the child if he/she would mind a hand on his/her shoulder and, with the child's permission, the staff member may feel free to touch the child occasionally. To allow the child to experience appropriate intimacy, the caregiver might develop some special way to communicate (a special morning handshake) or share personal information (you liked to climb trees when you were a child).
Children who have been sexually abused may attempt to touch a caregiver in an inappropriate way. The caregiver should discourage this in a kind, friendly way. Sexually and physically abused children need to feel that they are likable. It helps to give children some information about themselves. For example, "You are someone who makes friends easily," or "You are someone who really tries hard to solve difficult problems." These children need to know that program staff look forward to seeing them each day and that they belong in the group.
Educating All Children About Abuse and Neglect
One of the major responsibilities of early childhood education professionals is to protect young children from harm. For this reason, many early childhood education programs include personal safety education in the curriculum to help young children learn ways to cope in potentially harmful situations. Children learn that they have a right to privacy and that they do not have to allow adults to touch them if they would prefer not to be touched. Children also learn to express their feelings and discuss their experiences. While such programs do not eliminate all possibilities of abuse or neglect, they help children to develop a sense of when adult behavior toward them is inappropriate. Personal safety education should not give children the impression that they are responsible for their own safety. Instead, it should help children learn, in developmentally appropriate ways, how to seek help from caring adults.
At a basic level, personal safety education can teach children their telephone numbers; how to dial "0'' or ``911''; how to get help at the courtesy desk if they get lost at the store; and what kinds of places to stay away from, such as alleys, garages, and parked cars. This kind of knowledge about the world does not make children fearful. Children feel more in control if they are aware of potential dangers and how to handle them. Personal safety education also addresses more specific topics such as "good or nurturing" versus "bad or harmful" touch, how to say "no" to adults' requests to touch them or otherwise invade their privacy, and telling someone what has happened to them even when another adult tells them that they must keep it a secret. It should also be made clear to the child that the responsibility for protecting him/herself is not entirely on his/her shoulders. Sometimes even when children say "no," the adult sexually abuses the child.
There are many appropriate books and curriculum materials on child sexual abuse and personal safety. Because it is difficult to sift through these to determine which ones would be appropriate for a particular program, administrators should seek expert advice before making a final selection or using these materials. Figure 6 provides a list of questions to consider during the selection process.36 Early childhood education programs should provide staff training on this topic that is delivered by a professional who is thoroughly familiar with the topic and can help staff to resolve their personal feelings about these complex issues.
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