Helen Bonnick is a consultant, speaker, and trainer on child to parent violence and abuse.
When I speak about child to parent violence, it is still commonplace for the listener to assume I mean violence from parents instead. Unless we have personal experience, the notion that those generally considered most vulnerable and in need of protection might themselves be a threat to their carers is hard to fathom.
"When we understand behaviour as communication, we start to see the need to build understanding and support structures early on around childhood difficulties and around whole family systems."
The presumption might be that parents are being inconsistent and lax in their approach or perhaps overly harsh: and the "testing of boundaries" is then to be expected, maybe with the comment “but all teens do that" thrown into the mix.
Research into child to parent violence
Over the last ten years, a number of researchers have dissected this issue, encouraging greater understanding in the world of academia and practice. As campaigning has become established we have seen it tackled on a number of TV soaps and in mainstream media reports, bringing the issue into everyday conversation. Within housing, youth justice, substance use, and adoption services, researchers began to hear about behaviour that looked and felt very like domestic violence but from young people towards their parents.
Increasing in severity over time and with impacts on the mental and physical health of all family members, these once hidden behaviours gradually became more widely discussed: from verbal, physical, emotional, and financial abuse, to coercive and controlling actions. There is not one single cause but many often overlapping factors and vulnerabilities. Child to parent violence has been seen to be associated with – amongst other things - early trauma, learning disability, neurodiversity, later loss, poor mental health, poor physical health, parental difficulties, and the experience of witnessing domestic violence. When we understand behaviour as communication, we start to see the need to build understanding and support structures early on around childhood difficulties and around whole family systems.
But this is not a new phenomenon. In the past we have talked about poor parenting, children with emotional difficulties, or delinquent behaviour, and our solutions have been along the lines of greater structure, punishment, or counselling, with the blame often on the parents for "allowing" it to happen. Continuing shame and fear of being blamed means that parents may not come forward for help until the situation is desperate, and indeed they may not identify the problem as abusive themselves until this point. And so, it is difficult to suggest a number or have a sense of prevalence. Nevertheless, the reports that we do have - and anecdotal testimony from services - suggests that as many as 10% of families with teenagers may experience violence and aggression at "beyond normal" rates and that for around 3% families, this might be extreme and dangerous.
Turning our "normal" understanding of family relationships on its head, child to parent violence does not seem to fit easily into the remit of any particular agency, adding to the difficulty families find in accessing support. Parents have typically found themselves passed from agency to agency: police, health, domestic abuse, children’s services, and back again. It is by understanding that each family’s situation will be unique that we see that there is still no one place to signpost people to. However, by developing a greater understanding of the circumstances of families as a whole, we have begun to see how each agency will have responsibilities to respond.
We might first come across a parent experiencing child to parent violence when they present with stress, depression, or anxiety. Their mental distress may be such that they experience suicidal ideation or may even have attempted to take their own life. We might observe injuries consistent with domestic abuse, but a gentle curiosity reveals the aggressor to be a young child rather that a partner. Siblings may also be affected, presenting with injuries, inability to sleep, anxiety, or perhaps missing school. And the young person themselves should not be forgotten for the impact on their own health and well being. Threats to harm themselves or others are not uncommon and cannot be ignored. This is not a happy or safe environment for anyone to be living in, and they may be as desperate for a way out as is every other member of the family.
The importance of listening
When we ask parents what is the thing that is most helpful to them, it should not be surprising to learn that they report “just to have someone listen – and believe what we say”. Years of being dismissed and blamed take their toll. One good listener counts for a lot in restoring hope and beginning the healing process.
That, of course, is only the beginning. A full assessment will often highlight specific areas of need as well as the violence itself, and work is needed in each aspect of the family’s situation if healthy relationships are to be restored and the violence to be eliminated or brought down to manageable levels.
There are now a number of specific programmes addressing child to parent violence, with enough history to give convincing indications of effectiveness. Many of these offer group work, either with parents alone or in parallel sessions with young people. Others find the practice of Non-Violent Resistance (NVR) extremely helpful in that it offers a different way of relating and a new parental authority. NVR is based upon the principles of resisting provocation, resisting verbal and physical aggression, and establishing a supportive dynamic for everyone involved.
- See more: Mental health services 'should always enquire' whether domestic abuse has occurred
- See more: The resilience narrative obscures the wider causes and solutions for children's mental health
Some agencies work full time to support families holistically, and there are a number of charities offering helplines and peer support. Whichever approach is taken, there are commonalities: a naming of the issue and acceptance of responsibility for change, the teaching of de-escalation techniques, measures to build in support and to keep everyone safe, and a relearning of positive experiences. If help can be offered early on, it might be possible to bring about a change in a relatively short time. Some families will require help over a protracted period.
In the four years since Wilcox and Pooley wrote their report on child to parent violence, we hope that this form of violence is less hidden, stigmatised, and misunderstood: but we know that there is still a long way to go before families can easily access timely support. It is by being curious, by gentle questioning, and by empathetic listening that we can all maintain this progress and help to develop a more comprehensive and effective system of support around the family and young person, bringing about a decrease in violence and restoring healthy relationships.
Buy Helen's book "Child to Parent Violence and Abuse: A Practitioner’s Guide to Working with Families" here.
Visit Holes in the Wall, a resource hub for parents, practitioners, and academics about child to parent violence.