This headline and the accompanying piece in the Family section of the Guardian last Saturday could not fail to shock those who came across it: a mother describing the terrible physical abuse she experiences at the hands of her teenage son.
“Sarah” has found it almost impossible to admit that she is scared of her son, and yet when she first asked for help was told that it was unlikely she would get any – because he was loved and not in any danger. This reflects the prevailing story: that in a culture that separates children’s and adults’ needs and services, and focuses on the rescuing of children from danger, we fail to recognise the centrality of relationships in family lives, whether in their fragility of care or their strength to bring healing. Feeling undermined by professionals as much as by strangers and increasingly isolated at a time when their need for support on every level increases, the family is now offered 2 nights respite care every six weeks.
The story was picked up on social media by a range of people, including those interested in it as academics, as professionals, or as fellow travellers; with discussions about the availability of appropriate help in different countries, or the importance of schools “getting it right” in the way they respond to challenging behaviour and liaise with parents. The availability of long term care for the future is itself another story, fraught with risk and anxiety.
Following the death of an individual following intimate partner domestic violence, the police will often say that it was “an isolated incident”, a phrase that has been picked up and challenged repeatedly by campaigners in the field. Let us assert here that serious abuse from child to parent happens across the land, across the world. A diagnosis of autism is one factor that may sometimes be associated with this; and an increase in violence and abuse as a child hits adolescence or other times of transition is also a common feature. Parents frequently report that young people may just about cope with school and then explode with the effort of it all when they get back to the safety of home. This is not an isolated incident.
It can be too easy to make our own judgements from afar without understanding the different needs and circumstances of each individual family, and indeed without any specific help to offer. What parents need above all else is to be understood and to be believed, to be able to work in partnership and not in conflict with those agencies they come in contact with. To feel themselves they are held in mind and not brushed aside as we move on to the next story.