Parent abuse: a psychological perspective

To what extent is it important to frame the understanding of parent abuse within a particular discipline?

Currently within Britain, and indeed around the world, different models of support have grown up as practitioners have identified the problem within their own working practice. Arguably, parents don’t care what it’s called so long as it works. So child and adolescent mental health services, youth offending teams, family assessment and support arms of children’s services, education officers and domestic violence practitioners have all variously developed their own programmes of advice and support which centre on allowing parents to share experiences, build strength in alternative ways of interacting as a family and rebalancing the power relationships.

The argument for developing a unique understanding emphasizes the current difficulties in understanding the issues from within either a domestic violence, youth justice or child welfare perspective. Dr. Amanda Holt addresses this issue in her 2009 paper for the Internet Journal of Criminology, in which she is concerned very much with the impact of positioning parents as contributory agents in their children’s offending behaviour – even when they might be experiencing violence directed against them within the home. This debate is echoed in a paper by Hunter, Nixon and Parr, in which the need to move away from a polarising model of power relations is propounded, if we are to develop a proper understanding of the complex issues involved; and is further taken up by Tew and Nixon, in a discussion of the complexity of family power relations.

Holt returns to this in a recent paper in The Psychologist, in which it is proposed that the field of psychology may offer a more fruitful discipline for furthering understanding and resource provision. Psychology, it is suggested, offers a new theoretical framework, a well-established model of work with both parents and young people and a potential critical role in informing future policy.

While academics focus on the need for further research to develop the understanding of these complex family dynamics, practitioners have been more concerned to act now, addressing the very real need for services at this point in time. The two fields cannot be entirely separated, as research is needed both to evidence funding applications and to ensure success and not further harm. Holt identifies both Gallagher’s Who’s in Charge programme and Break4Change (currently operating in Brighton and Hove) as examples of good psychology-inspired practice, which has emerged from a research base.

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