A new review of mental health research indicates that social support may be the strongest protective factor against most types of child maltreatment. The systematic review looked at 68 studies of parental risk and protective factors in child abuse or neglect, and synthesized the findings. The most common protective factor preventing child abuse that the researchers found was social support. That term had different definitions in the various underlying studies, including concepts such as emotion support and friendship support for mothers, counseling, practical support, and companionship. Parents who reported high levels of these types of support showed the lowest risk of abuse or neglect of their children.
There were several high risk factors that showed up on the studies. Interpersonal violence in the home was the strongest risk factor, followed by single parenthood. It's not clear what parts of being a single parent create the high risk of abuse or neglect, but it's possible that the status is related to much lower levels of social support, such as friendships or practical help. Other risk factors included parental mental health problems, low income, low education, and high stress.
Social support was not the only protective factor that showed up in the underlying studies. Other significant factors included frequent and positive involvement from fathers and supportive parenting styles.
Youth organizations cannot do much to avoid the risk factors, but we should be aware of them so that we can watch for other signs of abuse. We need to recognize that the risk factors are not predictors, but only show risk. In other words, parents under a lot of stress have a higher risk of maltreating children, but most such parents have other protective factors at play and don't mistreat their children. So these risk factors alone don't warrant any reports to authorities, but they should prompt us to pay attention to the families.
Protective factors may offer us the best opportunities to have an impact. Organizations can help parents find affordable counseling, for example, or practical support and friendship to parents. Even if our organization doesn't offer a food pantry or counseling services, we can try to develop a network of places to refer our clients. To the extent that we can help families put these protective factors in place, we can better help the children that we serve.