CPV, who needs a definition?

For as long as I have been working and thinking in this field, people have been talking about the problem that there is no official, agreed definition of child to parent violence (or whatever we are going to call it.) There are many and varied reasons why people have thought that having a definition might be quite a good idea. Essentially these are to do with naming it as ‘a thing’, with parents recognising what they experience as abusive, with services being better able to respond, with the possibility of counting something if we name and define it, with the hope of developing policy and practice responses at strategic level.

There were some raised eyebrows then at the recent N8PRP conference on Improving Policing Research and Practice on Child to Parent Violence and Abuse, when it was suggested not once, but twice, that a definition might be more trouble than it was worth and we could do without one altogether! Stick with me, and you can then decide for yourself whether the arguments made sense.

First of all, why do we want a definition? I refer you to my earlier paragraph here, but also there was a lot of discussion on the day about the way that different services conceptualise CPV, which then goes on to drive the particular response of that agency. If, or as, different agencies have different mandates and policy frameworks, this can help explain why it can sometimes be difficult to have conversations across services. Similarly, when people are doing research into the issue, they either start by choosing a definition, or even writing their own, to reflect what they want to study. Would an official definition help with this, or would people still remain within their own conceptualisation and paradigm?

If I haven’t lost you yet, it gets a bit more straightforward soon!

I have been working in this area for a relatively short time – since 2005, and yet the knowledge and understanding has grown – and changed – significantly in that time. One of the problems of a fast moving world, it was argued, is that the definitions we have been using have been continually updated as new insights are learned. So, definitions of child to parent violence have expanded and evolved over time to include fathers as well as mothers, younger ages of children, different types of abuse, and more comprehensive impacts on the family. One obvious example is that the Home Office guidance document, published in 2015, refers to Adolescent to Parent Violence and Abuse, rather than also including younger ages. If we fix on a definition now, we may well be rewriting it in a year’s time as new information comes to light. This is, of course, not the only area of work to which this argument could apply.

Secondly, and following on, it was argued that by using a particular definition we risk closing off the response to some groups. So, for instance, if we adopt a particular age limit in a definition it might make it difficult for parents of younger children to access help early on. (Arguably this issue of closing off help to particular groups happens at the moment any way because of where help is sometimes sited. Back to the conceptualisation argument here?)

Rather than adopting a limiting definition, it was suggested that we should look at risk and harm, and work in response to those. (If it feels abusive to someone, then it is, perhaps.)

Hannah Bows, who has done some impressive research into the abuse of older people, both within  and without the family, proposed that it would make more sense to understand the issue within a life course narrative. This is not actually a new problem she argues, but the extension of an existing problem, and it makes more sense then to share understanding across the field, as we see how abuse of parents from younger children can extend into adulthood, and then on to old age. She argues that it is not age that is the defining factor in distinguishing aspects of domestic abuse, but other variables that need to be considered. Following this argument, we would adopt one single definition for abuse within the family right across the life-course. Child to parent violence would then be a ‘subset’ of this. (This is something I would like to return to at another time. Or if anyone else would like to write something they would be very welcome!)

Plenty to think about there then – so, pick your jaws up off the floor, unscramble your brains, and let me know what you think!

3 Comments

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3 responses to “CPV, who needs a definition?

  1. Yes, we need definitions. We need them for research and for statistics. But we don’t need ONE definition.
    In health and welfare we are constantly dealing with fuzzy concepts. Failure to see that these concepts are inherently fuzzy can be problematic, for example in the reification of diagnostic labels. I would argue that an ability to deal with shades of grey and be reasonably comfortable with fuzziness is a skill needed by therapists. “Abuse” is a particularly fuzzy concept. Gelles and Straus argued that “There will never be an accepted or acceptable definition of abuse, because abuse is not a scientific or clinical term. Rather, it is a political concept.” (1988) I agree with this quote, but it is ironic that I am quoting them as I believe that Straus and colleagues have done a lot of harm in family violence research by relying on questionnaires that effectively redefine abuse in a far wider way than most of us would find helpful. This gives high rates of abuse but makes gender all but disappear. It also makes most abuse appear to be mutual. Since we have not come close to widely acceptable definitions of intimate partner violence or child abuse despite many decades and thousands of studies I feel it would be highly premature to fix an ‘official’ definition onto the little understood field of violence to parents. We have not reached any kind of consensus on even basic facts about violence towards parents (such as gender differences).
    I have worked with a great many adult male perpetrators of family violence. Increasingly over the years they use wide definitions of abuse to portray themselves as victims. If everything can be ‘abuse’ then anyone can be a victim. This is a serious problem with the idea that abuse is whatever the ‘victim’ sees as abusive. Prideful and over-entitled individuals (adult or children) frequently feel that they are being disrespected or abused.
    Even terminology remains problematic in violence to parents. For example, here in Australia the term “Adolescent Violence in the Home” has become popular. I have worked with literally hundreds of families where abuse of parents started pre-teens. Catching these families pre-adolescence can often be very efficient. In addition, the most common type of adolescent or child violence within the home is sibling violence, not violence towards parents.

  2. Pingback: Improving Policing Research and Practice on Child to Parent Domestic Violence and Abuse - N8 Policing Research Partnership

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