Child to Parent Violence: The Adoption Issue

A couple of years ago I was asked to write something about child to parent violence with reference to adoptive families. For a variety of reasons I wrote something with an entirely different focus, and in retrospect I’m glad I did. I had met and interviewed an adoptive mother as part of my Masters research but, while acknowledging that an adopted child might bring issues from their early life to a new family, I had no real understanding at that time of early trauma and its effect on attachment and behaviour.

Since then I have started to explore this area further, after a particular twitter exchange about whether or not you should call the police if your child became violent or aggressive to you, and then reading some blogs from the adoption community. Already a contentious area for so many reasons: the criminalising of children, potentially making the problem worse depending on the police response, ineffective as a deterrent, but perhaps necessary if there is real risk to life; I was gently reminded that children who have experienced extreme early neglect or abuse may need a different response altogether.

Last week, the Department for Education published an important research paper, Beyond the Adoption Order: challenges, intervention, disruption. This is the first national study of adoption disruption in England and seeks to quantify disruption rates and to identify factors associated with disruption. Families, young people and social workers were interviewed and the report ends with a series of recommendations. Families were divided for the study into three groups, those where the adoption was going relatively well, those where there were challenges but the child remained at home, and those where the child had left prematurely.

The proportion of adoptions that disrupt post order was estimated to fall between 2% and 9%. Age at entry to care and at adoptive placement, and the number of moves prior to this, were found to be significant indicators of disruption, as was entry to care for reasons of abuse or neglect.  The majority of disruptions occurred when children were teenagers (61% between 11 and 16 years old). Violence to parents and siblings was the main reason for children leaving home prematurely (80%); and lack of strong positive support and feeling blamed for the difficulties were particularly prominent in this group.

The report contains graphic accounts of the levels of violence and abuse experienced by families, and, sadly, the same shame, blame, and lack of appropriate response that has been reported generally in parent abuse. While this group of families might be expected to need additional support for their children to deal with early experiences, parents reported that they were unable to access help because of the severity of the need, lack of specialist skills, and ignorance of theory and understanding. Indeed they often reported finding themselves subject to safeguarding investigations, as the division between children and families teams and fostering and adoption teams highlighted a different focus for attention and made a joined up response difficult. This is an important area of research and information that has been missing up to now in the field of child to parent violence. The report gives strong recommendations for improvements to the system, designed to bring in expert support earlier on and to improve training for professionals as well as adoptive families. Mention is made in particular of Break4Change and NVR, as well as other therapeutic techniques found to be helpful.

For additional “colour” I cannot recommend enough Sally Donovan’s book, No Matter What, which gives a heart-wrenching account of the adoption process and a family’s journey together towards “hope, love and healing”. It is an excellent place to start in developing an understanding of the damage done to some children prior to adoption, the impact this has on new family relationships, and the need to adapt and rethink standard responses to behavioural issues.

Julie Selwyn discusses her work towards producing the report here.



Filed under publications, Research

2 responses to “Child to Parent Violence: The Adoption Issue

  1. The report on adoption breakdown is very interesting and useful. I went straight to the part about violence to parents and was shocked at how much violence there appeared to be towards adoptive parents. In my sample of over 400 there are only 2 or 3 adoptive families and I was wondering if I had to dramatically change my views about how big a risk factor this is. But when I read earlier in the report I was greatly reassured at the very low % of breakdowns (as Helen mentions). I find this amazing as many adoptions in the UK are of children who have already had a few years of abuse or neglect and who remember their natural family (this is far less common in Australia). Although some children never feel they belong and may feel terrible loyalty conflicts (and these are the ones therapists meet) most adopted children do well:
    “The adequate, and in some areas, superior mental health adaptation among the large majority of adoptees (Haugard 1998; Sharma et al 1998) contradicts the expectation, based on stigmatization, of adoptee emotional disturbance and dysfunctional adoptive family functioning.” (Leon, I. G. 2002 Adoption Losses, Child Dev 73.)
    I would expect some violence to parents among adopted children because their parents are often indulgent and a few are overly child-focussed, but this is pure speculation.
    We should beware when dealing with any non-standard family form of assuming that problems must be the result of this factor. I’ve had two carer families recently complain about professionals automatically assuming a child’s problems must be attachment issues.

    • Thanks Eddie for your comment. It is indeed important to remember that there are many and varied reasons why children exhibit violence within families and we should be wary of jumping to apparently obvious conclusions. With some very early onset, some much later, and some links to other diagnoses, the research group themselves questioned the attribution of all the violence to attachment / trauma issues (private correspondence). It is worth pointing out however, that the behaviour documented in the report represents only a small sample of the horrific stories told by adoptive parents; and that though the overall breakdown figure appears small, there were many families teetering on the edge of breakdown, rescued only by expert and timely support. There is some interesting comment on the research from Sally Donovan, Adoptive parent and award winning Community Care columnist at

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