Last weekend, Bartlesville’s Children’s Musical Theatre put on an excellent performance of Annie. Already familiar with the movie, I knew the plot and ending. This time when watching through an older lens, I was particularly struck by Miss Hannigan.
Full disclosure, Miss Hannigan was portrayed by one of our community’s kindest, brightest, most warm-hearted teens, who also happens to babysit my children. So maybe I was seeking some light in this beloved story’s well-known antagonist because I saw actress Kassidy Girard shining from within her. But I began to wonder, how did Miss Hannigan become such a villain?
Let’s be clear, we don’t condone Miss Hannigan’s behavior, as she certainly crossed many lines well into child maltreatment. But from her underdeveloped moral compass and questionable upbringing (“Easy Street”) to her isolation and overwhelmed mental state (“Little Girls”), she was clearly a woman on the brink. Throw in some substance abuse, and the stage was set for disaster.
It may sound foolish, but I kept watching and thinking, “Wow. That IS a lot of kids to manage. She needs a parent day out or has got to find a support system.” As art often imitates life, what does that mean for people within our community? How can we, as a community, recognize parents at risk and step in to help or take appropriate action to protect the children?
A great step is understanding some factors that may add stress to a parent and increase the risk of child maltreatment, including the following from the American Psychological Association:
Parent or caregiver risk factors
- Low self-esteem, poor impulse control, depression, anxiety or antisocial behavior.
- Experiencing or witnessing violence as a child, which teaches violent behavior or justifies it as proper behavior.
- Substance abuse, which interferes with mental functioning, judgment, self-control, ability to be protective of one’s child and making the child’s needs a priority.
- Lack of knowledge about normal child development and unrealistic expectations, frustration and/or inappropriate methods of discipline.
Family risk factors
- Children living with single parents are more likely to live in poverty with fewer social supports, which may contribute to stress and increase risks of maltreatment.
- Children in violent homes may witness intimate partner violence, may be victims of physical abuse themselves and may be neglected by parents or caregivers who are focused on their partners or unresponsive to their children due to their own fears.
- Stressful life events, parenting stress and emotional distress (e.g., losing a job, physical illness, marital problems or the death of a family member) may worsen hostility, anxiety or depression among family members and increase the level of family conflict and maltreatment.
- Maltreating parents or caregivers are less supportive, affectionate, playful and responsive with their children and are more likely to use harsh discipline and verbal aggression than positive parenting strategies (e.g., using time outs, reasoning, and recognizing and encouraging the child’s successes).
Child risk factors
- Infants and young children, because they are small and need constant care, are more likely to experience certain forms of maltreatment such as being shaken by parents or caregivers frustrated or overwhelmed by persistent crying.
- Children with physical, cognitive and emotional disabilities or chronic illnesses may be at greater risk of maltreatment. Parents or caregivers of children with disabilities are more likely to experience high levels of stress, depression and anger. Children with disabilities may not understand that abusive behaviors are inappropriate and are unable to defend themselves.
- Aggression, attention deficits, difficult temperaments and behavior problems in children have been associated with increased risk for maltreatment, especially when parents have poor coping skills, are unable to empathize with the child or have difficulty controlling emotions. Maltreatment often exacerbates the problem. A physically abused child may develop aggressive behaviors that lead to recurring maltreatment and perpetuate the cycle.
Environmental risk factors
Please note, the vast majority of parents or caregivers who live in these types of environments are not abusive. However, these stresses can increase the risk of abuse for some.
- Poverty and unemployment can increase the likelihood of maltreatment, especially in combination with family stress, depression, substance abuse and social isolation.
- Parents with less material and emotional support and who do not have positive parenting role models feel less pressure to conform to conventional standards of parenting behaviors.
- Children living in dangerous neighborhoods are at higher risk than children from safer neighborhoods for severe neglect, physical abuse and sexual abuse. It is possible that violence may seem an acceptable response or behavior to individuals who witness it more frequently.
If you know any families living with increased risk factors, you may consider reaching out to offer support such as babysitting, occasional child transportation or simply inviting the family over for a casual meal. A healthy support system can make all the difference for any parent or child – we all rest easy knowing we have people who care and want to help when we are backed in a corner or have an emergency arise. As we have said before, raising children takes a village of caring, loving adults (i.e. NOT Rooster or Lily St. Regis).