A consideration of violence

I’d like to start the new year off with a hope that we will see a continuing growth in understanding around child to parent violence and abuse – at all stages of life – and that that understanding will be matched by resourcing and provision. I wish all of you reading this good health in 2022, a kinder year hopefully for all!

In the meantime I have a guest blog from Jason Mitchell of Semblance Theatre, considering our understanding of violence and the meaning we make of it. I came across the work of Semblance Theatre through a Google alert. Jason is the Developmental Lead for Semblance, an organisation that combines extensive experience in the field of childhood trauma, particularly around adoption, with therapeutic approaches and performance arts. Over to you Jason ….

Most of our work involves a violence of one kind or another. For the families that we support and work with, their own experiences can be wildly differing in terms of the behaviours they may encounter or the context within which their own particular experiences of violence may manifest.  The physical acts themselves can be incredibly wide ranging and we can often be working with attempting to form an understanding of what can feel like patterns of behavior which are very specific to the relationship and which may seem to share little or no common ground with the experiences of others. 

An element of this is true, certainly in terms of how these behaviours can manifest. However, there is also, more often than not, something underlying. A deeply buried theme which although remaining specific to the relationship, can be thought about in less specific terms. 

When considering violence from children to their parents or carers we consider two main points from which we attempt to approach understanding:

  1. Violence is always defence.
  2. Violence is what is left when all other forms of communication breakdown.

In terms of the first of these two points, it can often be incredibly difficult to form any kind of cognisant  mental image of what this statement means. If we think about violence, we will nearly always form in our minds the image of a perpetrator and a victim. Someone is giving and someone is receiving. Pain, hatred and attempted destruction are being passed from one to the other.  Such is the power of our instinct in the face of such calamity that the concept of that violence as an act of defence is much more difficult to grasp. It is incredibly difficult for us to look beyond pain. In his famous work On Narcissism, Sigmund Freud describes how a man with toothache cannot be considered able to think; pointing out that every aspect of the sufferer’s being becomes concentrated on the pain.  Pain transcends everything. 

However, if we think about the natural world, of which we as humans are still a part, no matter how unwittingly. If we consider the violence of an animal hunting another, this is a defence against hunger. If we consider the violence that occurs through territorial disputes, this too is a defence, perhaps against the loss of adequate food and shelter. If we were then to extend this kind of thinking to our own experiences of violence and attempt to think, perhaps retrospectively, around what these experiences could be attempting to defend against. There, maybe we might find some interesting and fertile ground for consideration. 

Most, but not all of the violence that we work with is in defence against annihilation. The total destruction of self or the acquiescence to a relationship which has moved from a position of hope, into a position of desperate attempts at coercion and compliance, as an act of survival. This position is often the culmination of a long and drawn out period of relational deficit, which has evolved from missed ‘bids’ at real contact which are so very easily confused with other things when delivered from a position of childhood trauma.  ‘Bids’ which if left unmet or unrecognized can lead to all kinds of relational difficulties for both parent and child. It is when these attempts at disturbed communication finally fail, either in actuality or in the imagined life of the child, that violence and the physical expression of pain remain the only viable option. 

But this is not the whole story. 

On the surface, or even at what would seem to be a reasonable depth, we can see violence, pain and hatred.  We see a relationship that trades in coercion, compliance, desperation and sadism. 

But the relationship trades nonetheless. Something exists, a goodness which is shrouded and difficult to see, but it is there. 

There is love, there is concern for the other and there is need. It is buried in desperate exchanges and it is confused and full of hurt, but it is there. 

From our position of pain, we cannot think. We have no room to consider or to explore. Our own defence is mobilized and we move from a position where we are capable of curiosity into a position where we ourselves are under threat and so, have to respond accordingly. 

 Our work and our unique approach gives us the opportunity to witness the dynamics of these incredibly complex situations from a position just removed enough to allow us to experience the pain, but not be debilitated by it. To stay with that pain and explore its depths and the subtlety of the dynamics which so often remain shrouded to us. To strip away behaviours and ask why these behaviours have become necessary; why there is no place left to go. 

We can explore the evolution of the relationship, witness how attempts at communication have been unmet or have been confused. We can witness how the repetition of these patterns over time have degraded the ability of all within the relationship to make real contact with eachother. We can begin to understand how, these patterns of missed communication and unfulfilled needs can lead to the relational currency devolving into something much more desperate. 

But most importantly, we can begin to understand the possibility of there being some needs beyond the violence that can still be met. The underlying and driving forces of the relationship, however confused, however disturbed and twisted they may have become, do still exist. They are present and can be not only recognized, but named and felt. 

This is the ultimate focus of our work and is where its effectiveness lies. 

A consideration of violence may seem a strange choice to welcome in a new year of hope, but there is much hope in understanding where the act of violence comes from, and in bringing a different perspective to our responses. Semblance Theatre offer a number of courses and programmes for both families and professionals. You can find out more about the work they do from their website.

I always welcome contributions from organisations about particular work and approaches they have developed. Please do contact me if you would like to write something for the blog.


Filed under Discussion, projects

8 responses to “A consideration of violence

  1. Eddie Gallagher

    “Violence is always defence” seems like a very good recepe for victim/parent blaming. It certainly doesn’t fit with my experience of working with over 500 children who were violent to parents and about 1000 men who were violent to their wives.

  2. I agree with Eddie Gallagher’s comment. The idea that ‘violence is always defence’ paints with a very broad brush. ‘Defence’ usually refers to a response to feeling threatened in some way. Does ‘defense’ here mean any kind of discomfort or frustration which precedes a violent act? E.g., the frustration of a teenager who attacks his mother because she has baked pizza for him but he wanted a takeaway…? Is this considered to be indicative of an underlying feeling of being threatened in a way which has not yet been articulated? Such a generalization obscures the issues at hand and leaves us looking at violence in an undifferentiated way. The risk of parent blaming is inherent in painting with a broad brush.

  3. A really interesting and thought provoking piece. When I consider the families I have supported over the years, although violence is part of this there is also the non violent but equally abusive behaviors. I certainly see the pain in the breakdown of the relationship as well as the prevalence of missed communication and unfulfilled needs, the article speaks about.

    Children I have worked with have spoken about the hurt, not being listened too, not having a voice and feeling ‘out of control’ for some the physical violence has stemmed from frustration, learnt behavior and ‘an explosion of feelings’.

    As we know this behaviour is complex and every family has its own story to tell. Its good to hear about the different approaches organizations take and how they offer support to families.

  4. My parent-blaming sensor usually has quite a hair trigger. It didn’t seem to go off on reading this.
    I think I read “violence is always a defence” as ‘violence is always a defensive response to a (mis)perceived threat’ (as a neuroscientist might describe a post-traumatic response – a hyper-vigilant sympathetic nervous system etc), rather than ‘violence is always a defence response to what somebody else did (and should not have) or didn’t do (and ought to have)’. I can see how, as it stands, the phrase could be interpreted either way.

  5. Jason Mitchell

    Thank you all for your comments on this. I really
    do appreciate hearing others views, and particular thanks to Penny for sharing the image of the sculpture, which I felt really does capture a great deal of the heart of what we hope to achieve with this work.

    I think that the concept of violence as defence is perhaps the most challenging concept that we try to work with and I always find it difficult to outline our thinking around this succinctly!

    Perhaps another way to describe it would be to suggest that we start from a position of considering the ‘threat’ which needed to be defended against. It is a position from which we can begin to consider why the violence became necessary. This is not to suggest that the threat is real, or that it is even something which could be ordinarily thought of in these terms. Certainly, with children that have experienced trauma, some of these threats which must be defended against can seem very alien to our thinking.

    There is no suggestion here that blame should be apportioned to any party within these relationships. The core aim of thinking in these terms is to allow us the potential to explore what could be very deeply buried, confused and desperate attempts at communication from a position where we can consider the motivations for actions.

    Perhaps from this position we might be able to identify not only the ‘threat’ that needed to be defended against, but also why it exists and how we can work towards mitigating it.

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