Once upon a time, when I didn’t know so much about “parent abuse” it seemed a little exciting to be at the forefront of a new phenomenon. It felt important to speak clearly and categorically, for clarity, and the avoidance of misunderstanding – which was commonplace. “Parent abuse? You mean abuse BY parents? No? You must mean older people then?” Now it seems that the more I learn, the less certain I am about anything – other than the fact that many, many more parents than we would like to think about are struggling daily with much, much more than anyone should ever have to face within their family.
What we call this has been a constant running theme throughout the last 11 years that I’ve been involved. I quickly ditched “parent abuse” for the reasons above, though some still favour it as describing a subset of family / domestic abuse. I do still refer to it on my website home page (documenting parent abuse), but generally these days I have been using “child to parent violence”. Right from the start I was aware of questions around whether the term “abuse” was more appropriate than “violence”. It seemed important to me to capture the very active sense of terror that parents experienced; and I went with the whole phrase because it included relationship, direction and action. It’s probably worth saying at this point that I have counted over the years more than 30 different phrases in use, either in the literature or by practitioners.
Last week I barged into another conversation on twitter. People were talking about how they found the phrase “child to parent violence” unhelpful. Tell me, what was I supposed to do!
First of all, why does all this matter?
It would be really helpful if we could come up with a phrase that worked for everyone. It would potentially make it easier for parents to identify their experience and ask for help, for practitioners to understand what parents were saying, avoid confusion among policy makers, enable more realistic counting, and help us all to be sure we were talking about the same thing. At the moment the media seem to be au fait with “child to parent violence” so should we bite the bullet and stay with that?
Does it matter who chooses the name?
Hmmm. Well I would like to think we let ‘someone’ other than the media define what we’re talking about! In the beginning it was mostly academics talking, and each person adopted the phraseology that most suited what they were addressing in their paper. Many articles, dissertations etc begin with an explanation of the choice of name, quite apart from a definition. The few practitioners who were also writing similarly used terms which captured the issues they saw, and the family configurations they worked with, while continuing to wrestle with the abuse / violence question. (Hence “adolescent violence and abuse”) But are we comfortable, in the 21st century, with professionals naming a situation experienced by others, and imposing that name, if the individuals concerned would prefer something else?
Some snippets from the conversation …
My personal feeling is that children aren’t ‘abusing’ parents.
I am reluctant to give people terms which make them think badly of my child.
I wouldn’t class my child’s behaviour as violent – but other people would.
Some people, who lived through the seventies and eighties, would call this “false consciousness”, but that’s probably not terribly helpful. More useful is to think about the shame that stops families coming forward for help, the love that keeps them going day after day after day, and the loadedness of some terminology in the way it is used in different contexts. Saying that child to parent abuse can sometimes feel like intimate partner violence is one thing. Acknowledging what that means in terms of how you understand your child is quite another.
Hiding inside this conversation is, of course, the definition debate. Does intent matter? Is this one thing or many?
Do we need different names for different situations?
To some extent, we have already started down this road. Yvonne Newbold has blogged and spoken about preferring the term Violent Challenging Behaviour (VCB) for children with severe learning difficulties and mental disabilities. (But there are some who dislike the use of the word “challenging”, finding it a simplistic generalisation which excuses our own lack of understanding or curiosity as to the reason for the behaviour.)
I find this to be an unanswerable conundrum. Clearly there is a huge gulf between children and young people with severe disabilities who lash out, and those who deliberately and provocatively inflict harm to people and property. But there are so many young people in between, so many different scenarios, and overlaps of diagnoses.
If anyone would like to enter this debate they are more than welcome! If you can come up with a better turn of phrase then please let us know. In the meantime, I will leave you with some thoughts from ‘Mumdrah’ from the other evening:
For now ‘violence’ is all we have; we need better words for sure.
Whatever the label, this stuff is beyond hard to understand.
Update, August 8th 2017
As usual, the comments and replies came via twitter ….. The consensus seems to be to use the phrase “child to parent violence and abuse” as more accurately reflecting the lived experiences of families. I can’t argue with that!