Common Triggers of Maltreatment

The Protection Services Team at Lurie Children’s believes that prevention begins by understanding normal childhood behaviors that trigger child maltreatment.  As children grow and develop, they pass through many stages that can sometimes prove difficult for the best of parents. For example, all infants cry. All infants are dependent on others to care for them. Most toddlers have challenging behaviors, especially during the “terrible twos.”

Establishing rules, toilet training and parenting in general can be very trying during this time. Some of these stages may pose particular difficulties for some parents or caretakers, especially those who are stressed by other life events and those who have little experience or knowledge about how to care for children.

Since children do not come with instruction manuals, parents often don't know what to expect from young children. Parents may believe children are being difficult or misbehaving, while their behavior is actually normal and expected for their age. Learning about normal behavior for different age groups can help alleviate some of the stress parents feel, and make child maltreatment less likely.

Some of the most common triggers for child abuse include crying, discipline issues and toilet training.


Crying is a common trigger for child abuse, especially of infants. Crying is normal. All infants cry. It is the way infants express themselves. This crying usually begins in the first month of life and peaks between 2 and 4 months. Most people are stressed by the sound of an infant's cry. For caretakers who have not had sufficient sleep or who have other worries, crying may be particularly stressful.

If you know someone who is struggling with their child's crying, you can help by:

  • Listening: Offer to listen or be the person they call if they are feeling frustrated.
  • Reassuring: Let parents know all babies cry a lot and it is hard for most parents to listen to their infant cry. This doesn't mean something is wrong with the child or that they are not being good parents. 
  • Encouraging: Encourage parents to check the baby to see if the baby is hungry, wet or sick. If not, crying may just be a way for the baby to release tension. Sometimes the baby may just need to cry.
  • Promoting understanding: Help them understand that crying will not harm the child. If parents are frustrated because the infant will not stop crying, they should put the child in a safe place, such as a crib or a bassinet, and take a break.
  • Reminding parents that a call to the doctor is okay: Encourage the parents to call their child's doctor if they are concerned that the child is ill.


The Erikson Institute's Fussy Baby Network's Warmline is available to parents free of charge. Parents can speak to an infant specialist who will listen and help parents deal with infant crying, sleeping or feeding issues.  The Warmline is open Monday to Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  On weekends, an infant specialist checks the voicemail and returns calls to families in need of support and information. For more information, call 1.888.431.BABY (1.888.431.2229).

The National Center on Shaken Baby Syndromes Period of Purple Crying is a comprehensive website dedicated exclusively to infant crying. The site includes:

  • Information on normal crying
  • Advice on how to soothe a crying baby
  • Ways to deal with the frustrations of crying
  • Information specifically for dads


Everyone wants to raise good children. Parents expect to have to teach children how to do a lot of things, such as how to ride a bike and how to cross the street safely. Parents also need to teach their children how they want them to behave, and they need to set limits to teach children how to get along in the world.

However, parents need to understand their child's development and what they can expect from the child at each age. Sometimes discipline may be used inappropriately as a response to a child's normal developmental stage; for example, is it the “terrible twos” or normal exploratory play? Discipline that uses corporal punishment may not only escalate to more serious child abuse, but is also found to be ineffective in teaching children good behavior.

When a child misbehaves, these techniques may be more appropriate and more effective than corporal punishment:

  • Set up the home environment so that the child can succeed: For example, remove all breakable objects from children's reach, install safety gates and make developmentally appropriate toys available.
  • Use distraction: For example, if a toddler reaches for every item at the grocery store checkout line, redirect his attention by offering a small toy brought from home.
  • Use "natural" and "logical" consequences: The punishment should fit the crime. For example, if a child writes on the walls in crayon, an appropriate punishment might be to have them help to clean up their mess.  
  • Making sure the child knows what they did wrong: Clearly outline what the correct behavior should be, and give the child a chance to try again relatively soon (in child time) to succeed.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is one of the most effective methods of teaching children. We all appreciate hearing what we did well. A good general rule is to provide about four or five times as much positive reinforcement as negative reinforcement (such as “don't do this” and “stop it”).

While it may seem easier to respond to behavior in negative ways, positive reinforcement is much more effective in the long run, since children want to receive praise and please adults. Also, like adults, children tend to tune out when they hear too many “don'ts."

Time Outs

Using time outs or removing children from activities they are enjoying can also be effective discipline for children over age two. Time outs are more effective at changing behavior than corporal punishment (such as spanking or hitting). A good general rule is one minute of time out per year of age.


A child's pediatrician can be an excellent resource for further information about appropriate discipline for your child’s age.  In addition, the following resources may be helpful:

Toilet Training

Toilet training and toilet accidents can be stressful for parents and other caretakers. This stress can be increased if parents have unrealistic expectations of what their child is developmentally capable of doing. Most children begin to show signs that they are ready for toilet training between ages 18 and 30 months. Only the child can decide when they’re ready to be trained.

Some of the signs of readiness include: 

  • Can understand and follow directions
  • Can dress and undress themselves
  • Has a dry diaper for at least two hours during the day
  • Expresses an interest in using the toilet
  • Initiates toilet behavior
  • Tells someone that they’re urinating or having a bowl movement

We encourage families to talk with their child's physician about toilet training.