Was it ever thus?

I still have a clear memory from my university days, of a particularly inspiring lecture on the work of Geoffrey Pearson, into the ways we continually perceive young people to be behaving worse now than ever. It comes to mind whenever I am asked whether the problem of parent abuse is either new, or increasing in frequency and severity. We can hark right back to ancient Greek philosophers or Shakespeare for examples of young people disrespecting the elders, but it’s probably fair to say that the new-found awareness dates from around the 1980s, with various attempts since then to quantify the amount, and to understand the causes, of teenage violence to parents.

The problem of assessing the increasing frequency of an event is well known from the fields of crime or unemployment figures.  Changes in categorisation, targeting, reporting or publicity all skew statistics. Many of the original figures for parent abuse were based on self-reporting – which brings its own problems – and do not distinguish clearly between types of family violence. As services are developed more professionals and parents become aware of the help available. Campaigning groups work to bring the issue into the public domain through reports, news items and media interviews. Essentially, we are not comparing like with like.

Nevertheless, practitioners in the field do report an increase in child to parent violence, and there are a number of societal factors that would tend to confirm these assertions. At the recent Bournemouth training day, Gallagher raised some of these issues, based on the experience of factors involved in his work with families in Australia.

Very rapid societal changes in the affluent world, with increased consumerism particularly, give rise both to an increased sense of entitlement to those who have, and to a sense of unfairness for those who do not have. Children are leaving home much later than they used to, and they have less respect for age and authority. They question and challenge more – not necessarily bad, and they experience a different, more open style of being parented – again not necessarily bad. More women are leaving abusive relationships – to be applauded, but leaving them vulnerable to children mimicking the father’s behaviour. We see how complex the issue is, with no easy causal explanation, but rather the overlaying of so many factors, including the personality of the child. Far more children do not abuse their parents than those who do, even with apparently the same life experiences.

Gallagher’s assertions derive from his clinical work going back over 20 years. As well as an increase in frequency, he has also mapped a change in the profile of abusers, the gender difference becoming significantly less over time. While boys abusing a sole mother following experience of domestic violence is the most common pattern of abuse, it represents just 25% of the total in his cohort, and girls are catching up. Gallagher refutes the figures of 5 – 15 % of the overall population, which are regularly bandied about from the early studies, preferring a “guestimate from the existing research (of) 2 to 4% of families with adolescents (having) a real problem with abuse of parents.”

Evidence from Parentline Plus (now part of Family Lives) supports the idea that frequency of parent abuse is increasing. They have been reporting on the volume and nature of calls to their helpline for many years, and they report having seen an increase in calls from parents of teenagers reporting extreme violence or abuse. In their 2010 report they find an increase from their 2008 report in number and intensity of calls relating to child to parent verbal and physical abuse. Of the total calls relating to child behaviour, 62% of callers, up from 60%, were seeking advice about their child’s verbal aggression and 31%, up from 30%, concerned physical aggression. While the comparison is not straightforward, as the two reports cover different lengths of time, the number of measured calls received over a year would appear to have increased by around 30%.

The fact that there is so little coverage in the media of the issue of parent abuse, and so little general public awareness still, could be seen to support the view that any increase in reporting by parents represents a genuine increase in frequency; though it should be acknowledged that as professional awareness grows and resources develop, parents may be encouraged to come forward who would not previously have recognised their plight or been aware that there was help available. At the end of the day, whether it is increasing or not, and whether we accept figures of 2% or 10%, this represents a group of parents who have been tragically neglected in the past, and who deserve our attention now.

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