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I have a confession. I am afraid of the mask from the movie Scream. The cold impassive face leering at me seems to convey a bloodless desire to do me harm. It makes my heart race every time I see someone wearing one, even if that someone is a young child prancing down the street on Halloween excitedly swinging a plastic bucket of candy. I know in my brain that this person is not going to harm me, but my body goes into threat mode anyway. That is why I was so appalled to see the video of adult daycare providers donning their scream mask and chasing their little charges around the room. One video showed the adult getting into a young child’s face in a menacing way. This would be frightening even without the mask. But the mask adds a level of horror and menace to the situation that will probably traumatize these children for years to come. The question that we must answer as a society is why adults would want to do this. And it most likely was not a spur of the moment thing. Someone had to buy or locate the mask. Someone had to choose to put it on and then proceed to terrorize the children. To be clear, I use the word terrorize for a reason. It is one of the six major types of psychological maltreatment according to the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children’s endorsed definition. Although these children were (presumably) not physically or sexually harmed in the making of that video, harm was done to them nonetheless. No one watching the video could deny that what was done to them was a form of abuse. Several years of research has now established that psychological maltreatment (including terrorizing) is a widespread and extremely impactful form of childhood maltreatment that can have long-lasting negative effects. It is an adverse childhood experience that is linked with a host of physical, emotional, and psychological negative outcomes. I wish that I could speak to the people who did this and try to understand why they thought this would be alright to do this to little children. But I suspect that they do not really know themselves why scaring little children brought them pleasure. Hopefully they have learned from this experience that it is not okay and perhaps others will think twice before showing their children a snapchat filter that creates the impression that a giant spider is crawling across a child’s face or participating in a “TikTok made me do it” prank at the expense of a child who places their trust in their caregivers to be safe, loving, and available. At the Psychological Maltreatment Alliance we provide state of the art research, training, and resources for professionals and caregivers. We invite everyone who cares about children to visit and to consider how we as individuals and society can better protect children from being harmed by the people who should be protecting them.

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  • Amy J.L. Baker

On March 31, 2022 the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released new data on the mental health of U.S. Adolescents. For the full story read here

Among the many alarming findings, this one stands out: More than half (55%) reported they experienced emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including being sworn at, insulted, or put down. In the report, the CDC Acting Principal Director notes that the data are a "cry for help." Prior to the pandemic, rates of PM were lower but obviously too high (about 10% to 30% lifetime exposure).

These new data can be understood in the context of the increased stressors on parents that occurred during the Covid-19 pandemic. That is, one of the risk factors for psychological maltreatment of children is parental and familial stress that reduces parental patience and effective discipline strategies. Needless to say, the pandemic has played a significant role in increasing parental stress in a number of ways such as inducing intense fear of becoming ill and/or taking care of sick family members, decreasing access to socialization and exercise which reduce stress; and losing one's job and/or having to juggle working from home, child care, and children's virtual learning. While overall reported rates of child maltreatment declined during the pandemic (perhaps because of reduced opportunity to be observed and reported by doctors and teachers), the CDC data demonstrate that self-report data tell a different story, with more than half of teens saying that they experienced themselves as being psychologically maltreated in their homes. The data highlight the importance of multiple perspectives when establishing prevalence rates.

Of particular importance, the CDC data demonstrate the negative impact on families during the pandemic. The CDC survey also found that more than a third (37%) of high-school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic, and 44% reported that they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year. These problems were already on the rise in the decade before the pandemic.

While the current Covid-19 crisis appears to be moving away from the pandemic phase (although this could change), there could be future surges of this or other viruses that result in renewed lockdowns, quarantines, and social isolation. The question remains, how can we as a society do a better job supporting parents so that they can support and promote their children's well-being regardless of the levels of stress being experienced. What can we be doing now to ensure that the next generation of teens is less likely to be emotionally harmed by their parents? Families, children, and even society will suffer unless we find answers to these important and timely questions. Guidance towards these answers can be found on the "intervention" sections of numerous resources on this site.

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Yesterday I took a walk around my neighborhood and passed a mother who was bustling out of her home, clearly stressed and unhappy. Her teenage daughter left the house a moment later, glum and tentative. As the mother approached where I was, she called over her shoulder to her daughter, admonishing her in a harsh tone. She yelled a variety of unkind and curse words at her daughter and threatened her loudly to get her act together. My heart went out to the teen who was being treated in such a harsh and demeaning way by her mother and in front of a stranger, me. As the mother approached me, I felt her hot glare at me seeming to dare me to say something about her behavior which was in her opinion obviously none of my business. I shrank in response to her hostility and went on my way with my walk. The experience brought to my mind the idea that my colleague Marla Brassard introduced me to of being an "upstander" as opposed to a "bystander." Being an "upstander" means standing up for children as opposed to just standing by while a child is being treated badly. Even though I had attended the training on what it means to be an upstander, I still did not feel comfortable -- in the heat of the moment -- to say something to this woman. I realize that I have some work to do in my personal journey as an upstander. One thought that comes to my mind is that perhaps I could have offered to help the mother -- she was clearly stressed about something. Perhaps if I started by thinking about her well-being, I would have had a foothold into the family and would have been in a better position to comment about her harsh treatment of her child. This is a good reminder that the child resides in the context of a family (and community) and that one way to help children is to help their parents. This is the lesson that Dr. Fontana himself wrote about so many years ago and is as relevant today as it was then.

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