Parent Abuse: Gender issues in group work

Not a very snappy headline I’ll grant you but the alternative was too cheesey – “Keeping gender on the agenda”. Yeah, I know…..

While there are a small number of studies that have found little difference between the violence and abuse from young women and young men towards their parents, the general accumulation of research seems to point otherwise, and it is likely that this discrepancy can be accounted for by the type of survey, the type of data examined, the particular expression of violence or abuse, or the ages of the young people involved. Eddie Gallagher has a chapter on gender in his commentary on the literature regarding child to parent violence, and he confirms the experience of those involved in clinical practice or the legal world, as well as recent research in Oxford and Brighton, that boys are three or four more times as likely to be involved in CPV than are girls. This difference is most markedly shown as the age increases, and the level of violence worsens. This is not to deny that many girls and young women are extremely violent and abusive towards their parents; and Gallagher also suggests that their levels of violence may be increasing.

Similarly it is important to acknowledge that the victims of violence are overwhelmingly mothers. Some of this can be accounted for by their more frequent position as parent in single parent households, but it is also suggested that societal attitudes towards women have influenced the aggressive behaviour of children within the home. Women are still often more present in the home in two parent families, and generally physically weaker than men, and so perhaps perceived as less likely to fight back; but the elements of control involved in child to parent abuse also mean that when fathers are targeted they may experience similar levels of fear, intimidation or aggression.

This gendered aspect of the abuse continues into service provision, whereby professionals may place higher expectations on mothers than fathers in terms of knowledge, awareness and control and, ultimately, responsibility for the abuse itself. The term “mother blaming” fits this scenario perfectly and characterises much of the past legal response to young people coming before the courts for violent offences within the home. (see Holt)

Gender was one of the “work streams” which featured in the Daphne RCPV Responding to child to parent violence research study, looking at areas for further attention. In the report conclusions, Paula Wilcox and Michelle Pooley state:

(G)ender is an important sensitising concept not only because CPV is a hidden form of violence against women because it is suffered disproportionately by women, but also because of the impact of gendered thinking and expectations on practitioners’ responses to the disclosure of CPV. Gendered norms impact on at least four areas of CPV: firstly, economic and social inequalities between women and men; secondly, differing social expectations of girls, boys, women and men; thirdly gendered power dynamics in the family and fourthly the ways in which the instigation and experience of violence and abuse are gendered. All of these aspects of gender in relation to CPV have not previously been studied and can impact on individuals’ and organisations’ responses to the disclosure of CPV.

They point to an absence of research in this area, though there is a nod to gender in much of the literature.

While we focus on the issue of the abuse itself, it is equally important to acknowledge the impact of gender within the support system. This relates to the group make up, the practitioner facilitators, the ethos of the group, and indeed the curriculum developed and presented. Within the professional sphere, where programmes are delivered via group work, there is frequent discussion around the make up of the group, with – it has to be said – strong vocal support on both sides of the argument for single, or mixed gender groups. Within the recent Mapping exercise, the majority of group work was found to be carried out in mixed groups (n = 13). Only 3 services had single gender groups (all male participants, with mixed professionals). There was an expressed intention to broaden the work to the offer of group work to young women also, but still within separate groups.

The reasons for separate groups may be pragmatic: With the expression of child to parent violence skewed, and therefore the client group similarly unrepresentative of the general population, it might be considered unhelpful to have only one young woman in large group of young men. But, on the other side of the argument, if referrals are low, it may be important to operate with whichever young people are presented in order to avoid unnecessary delay in providing support. From a more philosophical point of view, it could be important to avoid the play out of gendered attitudes and behaviour within the group – or it may provide the ideal place to challenge these and suggest alternative ways forward.

Chris Bolas, Youth Offending Service Manager within Leicestershire County Council, has been involved in setting up and running groups within the county to address child to parent violence and abuse, based on the PACT model, since 2014. He offered to make some comments on his experience, for wider learning and discussion.

Do you run single gender or mixed groups?

We have run a mixed gender group, where there were equal number of referrals for boys and girls.

How did you make this decision?

On this occasion in part it was due to not having sufficient referrals to make a single gender group viable and with limited experience of this type of work we gave it a go, being mindful to monitor how the boys interacted with the girls.

What do you think are the key issues for consideration?

Due to limited experience and aware that some issues might arise, we theorised that there were potential issues for the boys who may seek to dominate the girls, and that the girls may be less likely to contribute to the group in which boys participated. Additionally, we sought to monitor if there were issues via social media and warned parents who were involved in a separate group run for them, that this might be a possibility – and we kept an eye open for relationships being formed in the group, because we were concerned about how the relationship might be played out, given the reasons they were attending the group.

We experienced none of these issues as far as we could see in any major way. Both genders seem to respond slightly differently to different aspects of the programme. However at the end the young people’s outcomes were equally positive and none of the parents raised concerns or reported gender-related issues during the group. All participants made it to the end of the programme, 12 weeks in all.

How do you address issues of gender in the group work?

We removed the gender references in the material and neutralised them. In the young people’s group we sought where ever possible to have male and female workers running the group.

Role plays need to have different genders as the “perpetrators”, as all members of the group needed to see themselves in the role. We did not mix this up very well on the group due to some staff issues, but I think it would be important do better next time.

I think that it is important for young people to see good working relationships between genders, as many who attend that group may not have witnessed this very much previously. Also they may not have witnessed women being able to be leaders or sharing power. Mixed gender group workers provide their own gender perspective on the group’s behavior, essential if you are exploring issues of risk of harm being caused to others in this type of group. As an aside, I think it is just as important for the Parents’ group as the Young Peoples group.

We believe a good debrief session is essential for any group of this kind.

Do you think there has been an added benefit to the group through this choice?

Both groups seemed to benefit from the programme. Their responses to the material were different. We saw the girls react very strongly in a challenging way to a male “perpetrator”, which seemed to have a profound effect on the young males in the group. The girls were less vocal to begin with, but became more so as the session went on, and it appeared that the boys became quieter and let the girls do the “work”.

The Parent’s Group leaders indicated that the girls’ relationships with mothers were often close but also angry and aggressive. They seem to find it hard to cope with the difficult emotions generated by historic domestic violence. There was some non face-to-face contact with fathers for one of the girls. The boys did not “do” intimacy with their mothers, did not share their feelings, and were more moody, as well as angry and aggressive.

Do you plan to continue with this arrangement with future work?

I would do it again, but only where there are equal numbers of males to females, or enough girls for them to be a significant proportion of the group. It is also necessary to think about what happens if young women drop out of the group – how you intend to manage this issue from the outset, so that everyone including the young women in the group are aware and can be part of the decision making if it occurs. They can be much less concerned than we are at times, but that may be just the young women we have been involved with. We still need to think things through even if they are happy, as they may not be best placed to make the final decision.

Would anything make you change your mind?

Things not going well in a future mixed group we run. I remain very cautious about doing it, and it is not a preferred way of working. This is largely because child on parent violence has a lot to do with misusing power.

There are risks in my mind that abusive relationships could be formed and we would have been responsible for exposing the young people to that risk.

Just because it worked once does not mean that it will work again; it could have been luck!

On the other hand, both genders are behaving in similar ways with their parents. It could be argued that young people who attend the groups need to be aware that both genders behave in this way towards their parent/s and may be less concerned than us about gender issues

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I remain ambivalent about this issue and move my position regularly. There is much to be learnt and am very interested in other workers’ rationales for the way they work. I would be interested if anyone has asked young people what they think. In my very limited experience of asking they seem less concerned than I am. I’d also like to hear more from others who have run mixed groups, and what they found.

Please do contribute to the discussion with your own experiences. Have you run groups for young people? Mixed or single gender? What influenced your choice? What seems to work best in your experience?

And are there issues we haven’t yet thought about? Join the discussion!




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