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.