#CPV: What does it look like, part 2. Intent stuff

One of the issues that makes it difficult for us all to talk about child to parent violence and abuse is the fact that there is no one agreed definition. The one I tend to use when speaking to people is that proposed by Amanda Holt:

“A pattern of behaviour, instigated by a child or young person, which involves using verbal, financial, physical and /or emotional means to practice power and exert control over a parent”, and “the power that is practised is, to some extent, intentional, and the control that is exerted over a parent is achieved through fear, such that a parent unhealthily adapts his / her own behaviour to accommodate the child.”

For me this seems to be broad enough, while encompassing the main features of what I am thinking and talking about. It builds on and refines earlier definitions that have been proposed. But the more I speak with other people, the more I realise that everyone’s experience is different and there are many, many parents who experience something that looks and feels very similar without necessarily ticking all the boxes. I wrote about this most recently in a post at the end of March, when I started thinking about the boundaries and edges of the definition we use. This is an issue that troubles me because it seems that a lot hangs on how readily we start to bring different aspects of violent behaviour into the CPV camp. Today I want to think about intent more specifically, and I hope that you will feel free to join in the conversation in the comments section.

A couple of months ago, Al Coates posted about the definition of child to parent violence, following discussion with other members of the adoptive community, some of whom felt unsure that perhaps theirs “didn’t count”. He and Dr Wendy Thorley further grapple with the discussion in their final paper about Adoption and CPV. The question of intent can be tricky, as parents may talk about a child sometimes acting out of frustration or trauma, and at other times choosing very deliberately to hit in a controlled way.

Consider this family …


A child in crisis, or triggered by a particular situation, dysregulated, out of touch with all going on around them, may cause a great deal of harm to their surroundings, to those around them whether adults, other children or animals, and also to themselves. That is not to say that, in that moment, those around them will not experience the violence, terror even, and find themselves forced to change their own behaviour, then and in the long term. But the element of intent is surely absent.

Another child – and perhaps even that same child – may on another occasion, show remarkable discernment and control in the manner in which they choose to act. They may target precious possessions in their rages, they may choose words they know will cause the most hurt, they may kick where there are already bruises.


As we learn more about the families who are experiencing violence and abuse, we see a huge range of issues which can contribute to the abuse, often layer upon layer in one child or family. As we start to think about responses, we need to unpick these issues. Different approaches for different situations; a trauma-informed response here, a behaviour oriented response there. Elements of each in different situations? There is certainly no blanket “one size fits all” answer.

Why does a definition matter? Are we simply being pedantic by arguing about intent? In a fast developing field such as child to parent violence, where knowledge and understanding is growing all the time, is it not inevitable that definitions are refined? Well, yes! But in a fast developing field it is also important that we know what we are talking about; that people sharing knowledge are talking about the same things; that parents can feel confident about asking for help and believing they will be understood; that services designed in response are fit for purpose and meet the needs of those they seek to serve. It can be a tremendous step for a parent to finally acknowledge the violence being committed within their own family. What may seem obvious to those outside, can still be passed off as “normal” teenage behaviour, or as something that is somehow deserved, by those on the receiving end. Shame, stigma, and ignorance all contribute to parents not identifying their situation to themselves or others.

As the conversation gets louder, and more people start to identify what they experience themselves as CPV we need to be sure we have got it right for them, right from the start.




Filed under Discussion

6 responses to “#CPV: What does it look like, part 2. Intent stuff

  1. alce m

    Personally I’d be sad to see the CPV movement ( if there is such a thing!) go down this route and suspect it will have to turn back and retrace its steps if it does. The problem with ‘intent’ is that it cuts out or at least creates a ‘grey area’ around children with learning disabilities and I’d hazard a guess that many parents of learning disabled children experience physical violence from their child that is beyond what anyone would consider normal or acceptable.
    I would also say that most parents really, really want to find the reason for this behaviour to alleviate a child’s distress from whatever source or to help them cope in adulthood so they ‘walk alongside’ their child as much as they can even in the most extreme circumstances. This definition uses the phrase ‘practice power’ – this implies a level of control a child or young person may not have. It does not feel ‘child-centred’ or something a parent experiencing CPV would come up with..
    If the CPV world ( so the academics and professionals etc) are only interested in CPV ‘with intent’ – then they should say so – so say ‘we accept that children may be physically violent to parents over many years without intent but our interest is in CPV ‘with intent’ – anything else is mis-representation. As I say personally I’d be sad about this and think it is a mistake…

  2. I received the following comments from a parent of a child with FASD and she has asked me to include them here.

    “Child on parent violence is probably the most difficult thing I have ever dealt with. I am currently dealing with violent outbursts from my adopted four year old son. His violent behaviour, that includes screaming, verbal threats, hitting, kicking, throwing and breaking things etc is due to FASD – foetal alcohol spectrum disorders, a brain injury caused by birth mum drinking alcohol during pregnancy. Although it is grim to acknowledge, this is thought to affect 75% of adopted kids – being a spectrum, this is to a greater or lesser degree – but violent, aggressive, impulsive behaviour is often present. I want to raise awareness of the fact that FASD and potentially the effect of other substances in utero is likely to be the cause of child to parent violence in a lot of cases of adopted children.

    This also raises the question around intention in the definition of child on parent violence. We know that a lot of our son’s violence comes from feeling out of control and wanting to be in control. This being out of control and not understanding the world comes from the damage to his brain – particularly executive functioning. This also means that impulsivity is a huge problem. I believe his behaviour couldn’t really be classed as intentional – indeed a lot of the time it is an automatic response that I don’t think he can control or understand – plus he can’t learn well from consequence.

    However, we experience this as violence against us as parents – this is what it is – despite it not being intentional.”

    I will leave the comments with you to mull over. It is a complex issue. Please do continue to contribute to the discussion!

    • alce m

      ”We know that a lot of our son’s violence comes from feeling out of control and wanting to be in control. This being out of control and not understanding the world comes from the damage to his brain – particularly executive functioning. This also means that impulsivity is a huge problem”

      This is a description of a lifelong disability I recognise as the parent of a child with autism and without an intellectual disability. I find it shocking that so few adoptive parents I’ve met have even heard of difficulties with ‘Theory of Mind’ although you may be able to correct me here Helen if your experience is different.

      I believe that many adoptive parents would be in a much better position to help their children if they ‘plugged into’ the SEN-D world and were aware of help from organisations such as the CDC and Cerebra.( eg their Problem Solving Toolkit ) I have little doubt that adopted children have attachment difficulties and issues of trust (how could thy not with their history?) but disability is likely to be at the root of really extreme violent behaviours. Children cannot help this vulnerability – it feels very unfair to just look at dreadful behaviours and call them ‘intentional’

      • Thank you as always for your comment. You are very faithful in reading and offering your wisdom!
        I do think though here that we must be careful about presenting views with too great a certainty. There is still much that we are learning each day and we also remember that each family situation is unique and often complex. Many families with adopted children are very much aware of the disabilities their children experience and demonstrate each day. But some also attest that disability does not offer a full explanation, and recognise that at times their child’s behaviour is very much driven by an intention to harm and control.
        We are all on a journey and I hope we can support one another in that rather than causing further confusion and distress.

  3. I know this post is over a year old, but it really resonated with me. During my work with families experiencing A/CPV, I met many families with very similar experiences. I met parents who were at their wits end, experiencing shame, disbelief, were afraid to talk about what was happening in the home. I met many young people, all individual, most of whom were also ashamed, embarrassed and wanting to make changes. While I am not a psychologist, I have worked with family violence and domestic violence for many years. I could recognise these two families as case studies in this article. I have met young people who are so torn between fitting in and home life. I have met families where the behaviour is to punish a parent for perceived wrong doing. I have also met families where there is on going domestic violence, so many different scenarios. We are still learning, families & individuals are so multi faceted that I feel there are no certainties, there is A/CPV and in my experience there are a multitude of underlying reasons, all need to be recognised. It is lovely to return to the debate and continue my learning too.

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