Parent Abuse: the victim / perpetrator problem

When I speak with people about children’s violence to parents, the question of terminology regularly raises its head: How helpful is it to talk about ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’ in cases of parent abuse? So this post has been in the making for some time, but was finally brought into being after I was sent a link to a piece in the Sheffield Star last week. It may be lacking a few references so please feel free to comment on this with links to relevant articles.

The news piece itself is very clear in identifying the 20 year old man as the perpetrator of violence, and the mother as the victim. We may agree or not that the judge overstepped the mark in his summing up; but read through to the comments stream and a dissenting voice emerges – as well as a reminder not to jump to conclusions without knowing all the circumstances.

I would like to address a number of ideas that emerge in this discussion in turn.

If children have had bad experiences themselves, how much are they to blame for their violent behaviour? Are they not also sometimes victims themselves?

The news piece suggested divorced parents, alcoholism, or PTSD as possible features in this young man’s life. Indeed separation following domestic violence has been found to be one of the most common correlates in families experiencing child to parent violence (CPV) (Gallagher, Condry and Miles). Children may be manipulated to continue the violence, or may have learned the behaviour, or may, in response to any number of situations, react out of frustration that a parent has failed to provide for or protect them. Young children in this position may even be identified as ‘children in need’, warranting support from social care services. Do we feel differently about a 7 year old and a 20 year old in this situation? At what age do we expect young people to take responsibility for their own decisions? In terms of restorative work it is essential that individuals acknowledge their own behaviour, and accept personal responsibility for actions.

The connection is sometimes made between earlier experience of child abuse and later violence to parents as the ‘missing link’ in family violence.

This was one of the explanations originally posited for parent abuse, but is not a straightforward issue, since the abused parent is likely not the original offender. There has been shown to be a link with child abuse for children who go on to kill their parents (Heide) but this is a slightly different situation. The recent Boys to Men research project in Manchester has reinforced that progression from one to the other is not inevitable.

If not child abuse, surely parents must have done something to trigger it?

This response has its roots in the difficulty in accepting such an inversion of power, overturning our expectations of normal family life. Clearly there are families where very dysfunctional patterns of behaviour have developed. This does not though explain every instance of violence to parents, which may also be linked with diagnosis of ADHD, with learning difficulties, with substance use or mental health difficulties. The sense that parents are in charge and can be held responsibility for their children’s actions though does contribute to the difficulties many face in coming forward and in being believed when they ask for help. (I wrote about this in an earlier post) For intimate partner violence, we have generally moved on from an assumption that “it takes two to tango”. There are important differences between intimate partner violence (IPV) and CPV, but this shouldn’t necessarily be one of them. Notwithstanding these comments, programmes now being developed for work with families experiencing CPV emphasise the development of positive communication between parties as a requisite for repairing relationships and building a different future.

Labeling is not helpful.

We may prefer to use the term ‘survivor’; and we may prefer to avoid the term perpetrator or abuser as their use can contribute to a sense of identity that is more difficult to move on from.

The extreme polarisation of the terms is not helpful.

One of the important differences between IPV and CPV is in relation to the envisaged future. Parents and young people often both speak of their desire to repair the situation and restore positive family relationships. Where few other options in terms of accommodation actually exist this may be a necessity as well as an aspiration. From a purely pragmatic position then, the way we think and talk about a situation can be powerful in the way we behave.

So, what terminology should we use: victim, survivor, abuser, child, parent? Do we need to move away from straightforward descriptive terms, think about their impact or the underlying message and come up with completely new words? In an environment where it has been demonstrated that change is possible, I would suggest that anything that keeps that hope alive is OK with me.


Filed under Discussion, news reports

4 responses to “Parent Abuse: the victim / perpetrator problem

  1. This is an important issue to which I too am trying to find answers, for an academic study I am undertaking; the research does appear to be equivocal. Please do let me know if any definitive studies come to your attention. We do need to ascertain whether the ‘cycle of abuse’ is a reality, if we are serious about stopping harm to children in the future.
    Best wishes, and thank you

    • Thanks Hilary for your interest and comment. I wonder if you have had a chance to read Eddie Gallagher’s Masters thesis which is available on his website. “Child to Parent Violence: a critical literature review” dates from 2008 but is very comprehensive in its examination of theory and data. Best wishes with your study. Perhaps you would like to share some of your findings with us eventually.

  2. Female aged 14

    I have previously been labelled a victim, a perpetrator and a witness of the kind of abuse mentioned prior and, to this day, if someone called me a perpetrator I would straight away use manipulative and behavioural strategies to deal with that professional by using some of the characters that I play in everyday life and use manipulative techniques to give them the opinion of me that I think will get me out of that situation the quickest, whether this be sweet and innocent or sociopathic. this is because I would feel like I was being judged and being judged plays on my insecurities and would therefor lower my opinion of that professional and the service in which they work for.
    for me to trust a professional and want to use their service I would have to feel that instead of seeing me as a perp, they would see me as a young person that show challenging behaviours that can be resolved if professionals believe that these behaviour can change.
    I can not think of an alternative name but definitely not perpetrator

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