A consideration of violence

I’d like to start the new year off with a hope that we will see a continuing growth in understanding around child to parent violence and abuse – at all stages of life – and that that understanding will be matched by resourcing and provision. I wish all of you reading this good health in 2022, a kinder year hopefully for all!

In the meantime I have a guest blog from Jason Mitchell of Semblance Theatre, considering our understanding of violence and the meaning we make of it. I came across the work of Semblance Theatre through a Google alert. Jason is the Developmental Lead for Semblance, an organisation that combines extensive experience in the field of childhood trauma, particularly around adoption, with therapeutic approaches and performance arts. Over to you Jason ….

Most of our work involves a violence of one kind or another. For the families that we support and work with, their own experiences can be wildly differing in terms of the behaviours they may encounter or the context within which their own particular experiences of violence may manifest.  The physical acts themselves can be incredibly wide ranging and we can often be working with attempting to form an understanding of what can feel like patterns of behavior which are very specific to the relationship and which may seem to share little or no common ground with the experiences of others. 

An element of this is true, certainly in terms of how these behaviours can manifest. However, there is also, more often than not, something underlying. A deeply buried theme which although remaining specific to the relationship, can be thought about in less specific terms. 

When considering violence from children to their parents or carers we consider two main points from which we attempt to approach understanding:

  1. Violence is always defence.
  2. Violence is what is left when all other forms of communication breakdown.

In terms of the first of these two points, it can often be incredibly difficult to form any kind of cognisant  mental image of what this statement means. If we think about violence, we will nearly always form in our minds the image of a perpetrator and a victim. Someone is giving and someone is receiving. Pain, hatred and attempted destruction are being passed from one to the other.  Such is the power of our instinct in the face of such calamity that the concept of that violence as an act of defence is much more difficult to grasp. It is incredibly difficult for us to look beyond pain. In his famous work On Narcissism, Sigmund Freud describes how a man with toothache cannot be considered able to think; pointing out that every aspect of the sufferer’s being becomes concentrated on the pain.  Pain transcends everything. 

However, if we think about the natural world, of which we as humans are still a part, no matter how unwittingly. If we consider the violence of an animal hunting another, this is a defence against hunger. If we consider the violence that occurs through territorial disputes, this too is a defence, perhaps against the loss of adequate food and shelter. If we were then to extend this kind of thinking to our own experiences of violence and attempt to think, perhaps retrospectively, around what these experiences could be attempting to defend against. There, maybe we might find some interesting and fertile ground for consideration. 

Most, but not all of the violence that we work with is in defence against annihilation. The total destruction of self or the acquiescence to a relationship which has moved from a position of hope, into a position of desperate attempts at coercion and compliance, as an act of survival. This position is often the culmination of a long and drawn out period of relational deficit, which has evolved from missed ‘bids’ at real contact which are so very easily confused with other things when delivered from a position of childhood trauma.  ‘Bids’ which if left unmet or unrecognized can lead to all kinds of relational difficulties for both parent and child. It is when these attempts at disturbed communication finally fail, either in actuality or in the imagined life of the child, that violence and the physical expression of pain remain the only viable option. 

But this is not the whole story. 

On the surface, or even at what would seem to be a reasonable depth, we can see violence, pain and hatred.  We see a relationship that trades in coercion, compliance, desperation and sadism. 

But the relationship trades nonetheless. Something exists, a goodness which is shrouded and difficult to see, but it is there. 

There is love, there is concern for the other and there is need. It is buried in desperate exchanges and it is confused and full of hurt, but it is there. 

From our position of pain, we cannot think. We have no room to consider or to explore. Our own defence is mobilized and we move from a position where we are capable of curiosity into a position where we ourselves are under threat and so, have to respond accordingly. 

 Our work and our unique approach gives us the opportunity to witness the dynamics of these incredibly complex situations from a position just removed enough to allow us to experience the pain, but not be debilitated by it. To stay with that pain and explore its depths and the subtlety of the dynamics which so often remain shrouded to us. To strip away behaviours and ask why these behaviours have become necessary; why there is no place left to go. 

We can explore the evolution of the relationship, witness how attempts at communication have been unmet or have been confused. We can witness how the repetition of these patterns over time have degraded the ability of all within the relationship to make real contact with eachother. We can begin to understand how, these patterns of missed communication and unfulfilled needs can lead to the relational currency devolving into something much more desperate. 

But most importantly, we can begin to understand the possibility of there being some needs beyond the violence that can still be met. The underlying and driving forces of the relationship, however confused, however disturbed and twisted they may have become, do still exist. They are present and can be not only recognized, but named and felt. 

This is the ultimate focus of our work and is where its effectiveness lies. 

A consideration of violence may seem a strange choice to welcome in a new year of hope, but there is much hope in understanding where the act of violence comes from, and in bringing a different perspective to our responses. Semblance Theatre offer a number of courses and programmes for both families and professionals. You can find out more about the work they do from their website.

I always welcome contributions from organisations about particular work and approaches they have developed. Please do contact me if you would like to write something for the blog.


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Some seasonal thoughts

We* are all feeling a little emotional at the moment (covid, Strictly Come Dancing final, new grand daughter, Christmas songs on the radio), so I might be forgiven for maybe shedding a tear when I read the letter from Nikki Rutter to her co-researchers, published in entanglements. Please read it yourself – I won’t try to comment on it.

The last year has seen incredible advances in many ways in people talking about child to parent violence and abuse, in media coverage, in government funding for the development of support, and in the publication of new research. But the months of covid have, we know, also been difficult beyond our imagination for those living with this as part of their daily lives. This knowledge MUST temper our celebrations. And it should also sharpen our determination to listen to your voices, to learn from you and to hear what works, what makes things worse, what brings hope and what makes you angry or despairing. That should be our new year resolution if we make them, and that will be my hope for the next year of writing.

In the meantime, I was going to write something fairly bland and dry about opening hours over the holiday. I’ll just leave you with these links to organisations offering support at this time. Wishing you peace, and hope for 2022.

Capa First Response


Family Lives

Young Minds


* Royal we, meaning me, obviously!

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Adolescent to parent violence – hearing from the young people themselves.

Exploring adolescent violence and abuse towards parents: the experiences and perceptions of young people, Victoria Baker. A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Central Lancashire, August 2021.

Much work exploring child and adolescent to parent abuse comments on the difficulties inherent in hearing from the young people themselves, skewing the literature towards an interpretation of the phenomenon through a particular lens. Sometimes parents feel uncomfortable putting their children forward, sometimes agencies express concern that it would be inappropriate or potentially damaging, sometimes ethical factors around risk preclude the involvement of these voices in research. As a result, there is a focus on the point of view of parents and practitioners, and an important aspect of understanding and analysis has been absent up to now.

Dr Victoria Baker’s PhD thesis, published in 2021, represents “the most in-depth examination of young people’s accounts of violence and abuse towards parents to date, exploring the forms it takes, the people involved, its causes and contexts, and its impacts. It also generates new insights into how it might be prevented or addressed.” Indeed, it is full of firsts, including also being the “first UK study to take a focused look at the patterned physical and non-physical aggression towards parents using a survey and the first to apply a threshold for what ‘counts’ as parent abuse for this age group” (14 – 18 years).

Despite being a relatively small sample (and there is considerable discussion about the problems both in achieving a larger group for research and in drawing conclusions from this sample size), there is still significant material for providing new insights and learning around the way that young people understand their use of violent and aggressive behaviour, the impact it has on their own lives as well as those around them, and possible routes for prevention and change. There is emphasis on the multiple factors affecting young lives (rather than looking for specific individual causes), a useful discussion about intention, and some helpful mapping of gender issues. ‘Space’ is mentioned as a particular issue, both in contributing to escalation and in enabling improved relationships – a factor which has been foregrounded during the last two years of the pandemic and lockdown in particular. Of note also is the focus on the harm caused to the young people through their use of abusive behaviour, and their own concerns about shame, guilt and wanting to find a resolution. Some of the barriers to engagement in services identified by the participants also go some way to answering the question, “what if the young person won’t engage?”

The work concludes with a series of recommendations for both future policy and practice, and for future research. High on the list is the need for a more consistent and explicit definition of parent abuse, and a scheme for measuring prevalence, to avoid the inclusion of one-off incidents, retaliatory violence, and what might be termed more normal teenage behaviour. We have been calling for these for many years. We have to hope that each year brings the answer nearer!

Please do take the time to read this in its entirety. An important work, bringing timely new insight to the field.

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Understanding CAPVA: a rapid literature review

Last week saw the launch of a report commissioned by the Domestic Abuse Commissioner’s Office and produced by Respect, Understanding CAPVA – a rapid literature review of child and adolescent to parent violence and abuse (CAPVA). I was privileged to co-author the report with Dr Vicky Baker, who recently completed her PhD at UCLan, exploring young people’s accounts of using violence and abuse towards parents.

One of the purposes of the review was very explicitly to identify gaps in knowledge and provision, with a view to exploring how these needs should and could be met. The report is in two parts, looking first at our understanding of the issue – what we know, what CAPVA looks like, who it effects and some of the theories about how it comes about; and then in part 2, how it is addressed. Finally there are a significant number of recommendations made, both in terms of further research and, importantly, in the way it is gripped by government in departmental oversight, funding and provision.

The recommendations section is not insignificant! In some ways it’s frustrating to think we are still here in making some of the requests after so many years of pressure and campaigning. For instance, the call for a nationally agreed terminology and the proper collection of data seem to have been around for ever. Recommendations about the type of response needed though are becoming more refined as we learn more and have opportunities to work with colleagues to examine how we can work together and what this should look like and include.

One recommendation covers the importance of updating the Home Office Guidance which was originally written and published in 2015. Thankfully this is now well underway and we look forward to seeing the final document (in the next year?)

Obviously I commend the report to you! It is hopefully easy to read, despite covering so much ground in significant detail. It should be of interest particularly to commissioners and policy makers, as well as those within central government whose remit covers any aspect of family life; but the overview of the literature on this topic makes it an important summary for all involved in supporting families, whether in management or on the frontline.

The full report is here.

The Executive Summary is here.

You can read Vicky Baker’s PhD thesis here.

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Positive feedback

People who know me will probably tell you that I tend to shy away from conflict. Not quite “peace at all costs”, but nearly so. I’m sure it’s something I’ve carried from my childhood and, as I’m more aware of it, I reflect on when it can be a helpful stance to take – or not!

It’s something I hear of a lot, listening to parents who are living with violence and abuse from their children, as they become more and more restricted in the space they have and the lives they live in an attempt not to trigger ‘an incident’. Something that can seem helpful at the time perhaps, but ultimately this is going in only one direction. 

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Child to Parent Abuse Covenant

Time and time again I hear about the impact that child to parent violence and abuse can have on a parent’s ability to maintain employment. Whether in terms of embarrassment about injuries or taking time off sick; or having to be at home to supervise a child excluded from school, many parents have told me about the strain this places on their working life, often leading to a decision (not always voluntary) to leave a job, with all the changes this brings in terms of finances, social contact, and even housing.

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CPV: Challenging (my) assumptions

In early research it was reported (Charles) that child to parent violence (CPV) was an issue more likely to be found in white families, as black or Hispanic parenting practice was considered to offer greater protection through a more rigid and traditional style. And yet, in Britain, we see Afro-Caribbean young people over-represented in the police statistics when the figures are broken down. For many years now, children and young people’s violence and abuse towards their parents has been documented right around the world, whether through research or via media reporting. When I was studying the issue in 2005, I came across stories from Saudi Arabia, China, Singapore, Malta, and Nepal. Amanda Holt references work from both north and south America, Europe, Australia, South Africa, Iran, India, and Sri Lanka; and of course we have research too from New Zealand, Japan and Egypt. Simmons et al suggest that this is a phenomenon of industrialised nations wherever they are. But how do we interpret this sort of information, and what conclusions do we draw? What do assertions and data such as these really tell us about what is going on? What assumptions underlie the work we do?

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Practitioners’ Networks

It’s always encouraging to be able to share with peers, to hear of new developments and learning, swap tips and good practice, and offer advice and ideas when things get tricky. In a relatively new area such as Child to Parent Violence and Abuse we are all learning, and so opportunities to hear from others involved in similar work, whether through formal learning or through less formal sharing and discussion are much appreciated and sought after!

There are 2 such opportunities coming up:

Family Based Solutions instituted a professionals’ network during lockdown, and their next session is on October 18th. More details here.

If you work in Sussex and can’t wait that long there is a newly established Sussex Child to Parent Abuse Network, a shared venture between The Rita Project and Capa First Response, which has its inaugural meeting on December 9th*, supporting professionals working with families across the county. More information and booking here.

Please do make use of these opportunities, and also check out the Directory to see if there are other agencies near where you are based, to promote further opportunities to learn and grow together. I am always happy to post announcements such as these, so let me know if there are other similar networks out there!

*Please note change of date from that originally posted.

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Raising awareness #FASD

You may have noticed on social media that today (September 9th) is International FASD awareness day – and in fact the whole of September is FASD awareness month! FASD (which stands for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) is now recognised as affecting more people than autism or ADHD. FASD is a group of lifelong conditions affecting people in different ways physically, emotionally and behaviourally, and because not everyone will be affected in the same way it is not always diagnosed early on. As a developmental condition there is no cure, but early diagnosis is important in order to be able to put support systems in place to help families cope and thrive.

Because some of the effects of alcohol on the developing foetus relate to later difficulties in processing information or in regulating emotions (for instance) some children with FASD will show patterns of difficult and challenging behaviour, sometimes using violence in the home and towards their parents and carers. Understanding more about FASD can help with understanding what is going on behind child to parent violence, and can be an important start in putting in place the networks and systems that are so vital for families in this situation.

The National Organisation for FASD is a good place to start (in the UK) if you want to develop your own awareness and understanding. There is a very helpful Preferred UK Language Guide on their website. Sandra Butcher, their CEO has been busy tweeting all day and you will find a lot of links to other resources from her, and news of anticipated policy changes.

If you’re on social media and you want to keep in touch with the latest research findings, policy and training, these are some people that I have found helpful to follow:

There are many more, I’m sure you’ll find the people who you can connect to best!

FASD is just one of the many different issues which can lead to families experiencing CPV. Its good to see that this condition is closer to getting the attention it deserves.

See the Government website for Guidance published September 9th on health needs assessment of families affected by Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

To download factsheets about FASD produced by FASD Hub Scotland click here.

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In July, the Government published the draft statutory guidance on Domestic Abuse with a consultation period ending on 14th September 2021.

The key objectives of the guidance are to:

  • provide clear information on what domestic abuse is in order to assist with its identification
  • provide guidance and support to frontline professionals, who have responsibilities for safeguarding and supporting victims of domestic abuse, for example through outlining relevant strategic and operational frameworks
  • improve the institutional response to domestic abuse by conveying best practice and standards for commissioning responses

The guidance extends to England and to Wales insofar as it relates to reserved or non-devolved matters in Wales. 

You will find links to various versions of the draft guidance and information on how to submit a response. 

Child/adolescent to parent violence is specifically mentioned on pages 20 – 23, including an illustrative case study; and there is discussion about age on page 36, the impact on a child of living with domestic abuse from page 59; and chapter 5 deals with multi-agency cooperation. However, there is real value in reading the whole document, with a recognition of the many different vulnerabilities experienced by families, and multiple points of discrimination and stigma. 

Whether or not CPV should be considered as a form of DA remains a contentious issue, but, nevertheless, it is contained within the Act and strong arguments have been made regarding the connections with DA. So regardless of whether you feel this is the right place for a response to be sited, please do take the time to read the draft guidance and consider whether there are comments you can usefully make to improve the document – and policy and practice – as it stands. 

Thank you!

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