Understanding Parent Abuse in under 90 minutes?

Writing some training materials recently, I’ve been forced to be more concise than usual about the main issues facing practitioners working in the field of parent abuse at the moment. An hour and a half doesn’t feel very long when there is so much to say!

So far, this is what I’ve come up with.

Cause vs correlation. Early research tried to quantify and explain parent abuse. but the methods of counting were generally flawed. (see Eddie Gallagher’s masters thesis for a thorough discussion of this.) Links have been established with early trauma, family dysfunction, poor mental health, substance use, criminality, over-entitlement …. the list goes on. But it is also the case that many young people and families will experience these difficulties and not become involved in parent abuse, and so it is important not to see them as causative. Understanding the way trauma particularly affects later vulnerability makes the need for early intervention and support all the more vital. With children becoming abusive towards parents from an increasingly young age, this cannot be overstated.

If it doesn’t exist we cant help you. It is shocking that parent abuse remains, in many parts of the world, unnamed in understanding and policy. As recently as 2011, the UK Home Office action plan to end violence against women and girls made no reference to the issue of child to parent violence. The lack of a name, or category, has often been held up as the reason why it is impossible to count, or to offer a clearly defined response when parents seek help from formal agencies. It is not any one agency’s responsibility. This is why raising awareness nationally is so important.

What happens when young people won’t engage in work? This question is as old as the hills.  There is much to be gained from simply supporting parents. Within a mental health arena parents can be offered individual counselling until the young person can be persuaded to engage. Reading through the numerous internet forums, parents express relief from simply finding they are not alone and that other people understand their situation. Some have set up peer support groups, either spontaneously, or with encouragement. Ultimately though, the young person does need to own and address their behaviour and so change can only be limited without their commitment. Successful models of support have parents and young people meeting in parallel, with regular joint work as well.

Can work be successful if it is mandated by the courts? This is a complex question as the issuing of parenting orders can leave parents feeling as if they are being punished for their  own abuse. There is an interesting article from Mark Drakeford and Kirsty Calliva, which examines the decision making process behind the issuing of orders, but which confirms the generally held view that voluntary attendance in programmes is more productive. Lily Anderson recently wrote to let me know that, as it becomes well known,  Step-Up is increasingly being run as a successful voluntary community programme in the States, and not only for court involved youths. The Center for the Prevention of Abuse, in Peoria, Illinois has now run Step-Up successfully for 18 months, all with voluntary families. The particular model of police and court involvement also has an impact. Local policies and protocols are vital in ensuring successful passage through the system.

What does a safeguarding response look like? For those outside the UK, this refers to the responsibility of social care services to offer a broad protective service to children and young people, which goes beyond the rescuing of children experiencing abuse. It is often the sticking point in families receiving help from social services, who identify their prime responsibility to the child as victim rather than as abuser. When parents seek help from this avenue, they report being told to improve their own parenting, or risk having other children removed from the family for failing to protect them . It is important to acknowledge that attitudes are changing. Nevertheless, unless a clear model of service, which recognises the vulnerability and needs of the young person themselves can be applied, we are no further forward. Attitude change without resources is not a useful solution.

Do we need one understanding and one model of work? One of the exciting things about involvement in the field at the moment is the way in which so many projects are springing up all over the place, within the fields of domestic violence, youth offending, substance use, parenting support and education. There remain different philosophical and political explanations of the roots of parent abuse and each of these will emphasise different aspects of response. To be contraversial, are we looking at a problem that is so ubiquitous that there is no one answer and all responses are welcome? Or should we be moving towards a distinctive model of work across disciplines, working together to develop a service that addresses needs in the round?

So, that’s gone well over the time and I haven’t started on the Q and A or the feedback yet! I’d be very interested to hear what other people identify as the key issues at this time. All contributions will be acknowledged!


Filed under Discussion

2 responses to “Understanding Parent Abuse in under 90 minutes?

  1. I am an independent domestic violence advisor and have supported many mothers who have been abused by their son’s, young and old. There seems to be a recurring theme; child has witnessed domestic abuse from father to mother; mother has ‘compensated’ child to alleviate their misplaced sense of guilt, knowing that the child has witnessed partner abuse. Father has eventually left family home, leaving mother to raise child on her own. Mother does not seem willing to put firm boundaries in place, nor deliver consequences for their increasingly maladjusted behaviour, which then escalates into abusive behaviour. Then seeking help, mother is unable or unwilling to support any action via the criminal justice system nor the civil courts. Ten years in the IDVA role, none of the mother’s have taken decisive action to protect themselves. They carry on being victimised. Very distressing to see. I would welcome any guidance and best practice on supporting this growing number of victims, as I really don’t know how to help them to get a satisfactory resolution to their situation.

    Regards, Diane Brown

  2. Thanks Diane for your comments.
    Past witnessing of domestic violence does seem to be a strong theme in families now experiencing child to parent violence and abuse, but it is by no means the only link and of course many young people do not grow up to be abusive themselves. The link itself is also complex and will vary from family to family. In some cases it will be modeling of behaviour, or there may still be ongoing manipulation and control from an absent parent. There may be frustration from a child for a parent’s apparent failure to prevent the earlier abuse, or towards a mother who is now presenting with depression and struggling to engage with their child’s needs.

    Many parents do indeed find it difficult to involve the criminal justice system in an attempt at resolution, and see this as absolutely the last resort. Criminalising your own child is just one step too far for many parents. Barbara Cottrell, writing in 2004, also reminds us of the importance of recognising the impact of such abuse on parents and carers. It may not be so much that young people are pushing the boundaries because their parents are too weak to enforce them, but that parents are exhausted and worn down precisely because of their child’s refusal to comply with reasonable and regularly enforced requirements.

    In terms of support for families, there is thankfully at last a growing body of work in this field. Much of this takes a trauma-informed approach, sometimes within individual counseling, and sometimes within a group programme. There are a number of books now available outlining different approaches (try Amanda Holt’s Working with Adolescent Violence and Abuse Towards Parents, published in 2015; or Adolescent Violence in the Home, Restorative approaches to building healthy, respectful family relationships from Routt and Anderson, 2014.) There are also a number of agencies offering training. I try to keep up with these on the website, but will obviously miss some that I don’t know about.

    I hope that some of this will have been helpful, and answered some of your questions. As you indicate that this is a frequent issue in the work you are engaged in, perhaps you can persuade your agency to organise some training for the whole team?

    With best wishes,

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