My experience of living with child-on-parent violence

An adopter explains what it's like to live through child on parent violence, and how others are currently struggling

Photo: StockPhotoPro/Fotolia (posed by model)

by Al Coates

There’s no definitive definition of Child on Parent Violence but it’s broadly seen as physical violence and verbal or non-verbal threats used to gain control over a parent or carer. Of course it’s not unique to adopters but the demographics of many children that journey to adoption tell of exposure to abuse, trauma, loss and separation.

Their violence is a response to early experiences, a strategy to make sense and gain control of their outside world while they express the fear, rage and chaos of their inside world. I’m a keen user of social media for support and sharing knowledge of caring for children who have experienced early life adversity. In the online community Child on Parent Violence (CPV) is a subject that’s returned to time and time again. The mere mention of it and Twitter feeds ignite with people offering support and comfort.

Desperate

Parents and carers are desperate, seeking strategies to cope with violence and advice about what service and how best to access them. This is my journey and that of my family when living with CPV.

I’d consider it the most challenging experience of my life, day after day the assaults continued both physical and verbal. They had always been present in our family, low level name calling and hitting when frustrated or upset but then it got worse. It spiralled downward after a trip away, with normal routines gone for a single day a new pattern of behaviour emerged.

Early the next morning it started. ‘Stupid daddy’. Then fighting, hitting and biting. Rages that would last hour after hour with me standing between her and the rest of the family. I tried to hold her to keep her safe but that would prolong the rages but if I let go she’d come back to start again. We knew all the standard techniques, time out, appropriate consequences, carrots not sticks. She was four-years-old and I’d become afraid of her, nervous of when the next assault would come, I was covered in bites, scratches and bruises. I couldn’t sleep, laying awake waiting for the inevitable screams that would start our day at 4am.

No answers

After six weeks without respite or pause from the daily onslaughts we were coming apart at the seams. I left my job, not knowing what else to do and exhausted from lack of sleep it seemed like the only way we could cope. We looked for help through the adoption team that had assessed us, they had no answers beyond suggesting we relaxed as she was probably picking up on our tension. Perhaps reward charts would help?

As a father of three older children I assured them that I knew when things were outside the realms of normal. I explained in no uncertain terms that our tension was a result of the behaviour and not the other way round. I stopped asking them for help, their answers or their lack of answers exacerbated our frustration and self doubt.

Three months then four months passed with us living with violence in our home, all the time unsure of how long we could continue with day after day of violence.

Finally, through a friend of a friend we contacted a couple who had walked this path with their adopted children, they believed us, supported us, listened to us. They helped us to find a path through, drawing our child closer, meeting missing developmental needs, keeping a constant reassuring presence. Difficult and intensive solutions but they made a family life of sorts possible. After five of the darkest months we found a route out, we weren’t violence free but we could manage. Daily assaults reduced to weekly, to monthly, and we could breathe again. That was eight-years-ago and our story has continued and developed.

Emotion and frustration

At the end of last year I felt compelled to try and draw together some of the experiences of adopters, and other parent and carers to try and understand the scale and nature of violence they live with. I put together a simple survey with a few questions asking about the impact and scale of violence as well as the effectiveness of the responses from services that families has asked for help from.

Within days, not unsurprisingly, I’d received over 250 responses predominantly from adopters, raw with emotion and frustration.

The overwhelming majority describing their experiences and the reality of living with violent children. Those responses revealed nothing that many parents don’t know and mirrored many of the findings outlined in the 2014 report Beyond the Adoption Order by Julie Selwyn. That report highlighted that one third of adoptive families were described as struggling, when asked, the vast majority described physical and verbal violence as contributing to the difficulties. Where adoptions break down Child on Parent Violence again is almost always present.

That report remains an issue, and will remain an issue for adoptive families with Julie Selwyn’s recommendations remaining largely unaddressed. The fact the recommendations are not addressed should come as little surprise to many as the same recommendations were made from as early as 1979 when CPV (Battered Parents) was first discussed.

Limited

Awareness amongst professionals remains limited with many families describing disbelief and scepticism when they seek support and advice. Behaviour is dismissed as ‘normal’ and just a phase that children are going through. Parents become isolated and the impact on them, their health, work and relationships was described as significant.

Beyond the Adoption Order recommended that more research was needed into the nature of the problem but also the intervention available specifically for adoptive families. Right now research remains limited, what is available is focused on older children and adolescents and programmes to support them but there is growing recognition around the world for CPV particularly during 2015.

The experience of those who contacted me highlighted the concerns that the seeds of Child on Parent Violence were laid much younger.

Adoptive parents highlighted the impact of sustained violence from younger children can be as debilitating and harmful to adoptive parent’s wellbeing as from older children. This is often overlooked and dismissed as tantrums or acting out but the reality it is often sustained and enduring violence that blights families.

Adoption remains an appropriate route to permanent families for a significant number of children. We do the adopters a disservice if we fail to prepare them for violence from their children that one in three are likely to experience.

We undermine adoptive placements if Social Workers and professionals lack knowledge and awareness of the causes and impacts of children’s violence on families and do not work collaboratively with parents. Ultimately, we fail the children if we allow the violence that overwhelms and infects them to stop us loving, caring and parenting them.

Al Coates is an adoptive parent and a social worker. He tweets @NadjaSmit.

18 Responses to My experience of living with child-on-parent violence

  1. Londonboy February 1, 2017 at 11:33 am #

    This is a very emotive subject Al that I know a bit about. It is very important for all to recognise that causes of violence vary from child to child. Many natural parents of autistic children face these issues in adolescence and this is part of the reason why they look for respite.

    I believe that there is a failure on the part of those within the Care system, to acknowledge the numbers of children within Care on the autistic spectrum. Without generalising, because each child and each child’s journey is different, it is very possible that going into Care and their experience of severance and loss within Care adds to the problems of autistic children in Care.

    These children can be very hard to support within any setting so hopefully what you do will help raise awareness.

    • Al February 1, 2017 at 1:23 pm #

      Yes, speaking to many parents and carers the underlying issues that precipitate violence vary significantly. From FASD, early trauma, loss and separation, witnessing IPV the pressing issue right now is to raise awareness to force services and authorities to provide an appropriate response.

      • Londonboy February 2, 2017 at 11:07 am #

        And to correct myself earlier….I should have said ‘children/young people with these behaviours’ rather than ‘these children’ – the behaviour is the problem not the child/young person.

        • Al February 2, 2017 at 3:55 pm #

          Fear not, I know what you mean.

  2. Sarah Smith February 1, 2017 at 12:28 pm #

    Please could you post the link for the Child on Parent Violence (CPV) Community that you speak of at the start of the article? Thanks

    • Al February 1, 2017 at 8:57 pm #

      HI, I think the text is a little misleading. There is no specific community dedicated to CPV but within the sphere of adoption and fostering on Twitter and blogging it is a subject that is often discussed. There are several places it can be accessed, primarily through twitter, if you look at my twitter Bio there’s a link to my website where there’s a list of blogs and bloggers.
      Hope that helps.

  3. Dave H. February 1, 2017 at 2:44 pm #

    I’m guessing that this would be the same Al Coates who, whilst speaking to the Open Nest Conference in York, to a large audience of Adopters, Psychologists, SW academics Social workers and Social work students in 2013, suggested that the delegates should spend their lunch break scouring the streets looking for social workers to hang from lamp posts.
    Notwithstanding the fact that he is a practitioner… perhaps not the smartest choice for a correspondent on issues related to violence

  4. Liz Eastmam February 1, 2017 at 3:35 pm #

    So very true We have just sat through another meeting where the professionals don’t seem to understand that our 17 year old is only willing to live in the world he wants he’s not ready for the world nor does the world seem ready to understand him. So as he approaches 18 we see no way forward hes not going to conform he hasn’t been able too for the last 6 years no school very little engagement with any workers but no one able to give us a way forward other than he moves into his own accommodation just wants to smoke weed and be left alone other than when he wants and then with an instant solution his need has to be met or we are to be flooded with verbal abuse and violence.

    • Al February 1, 2017 at 10:26 pm #

      The transition from childhood to adult hood is so challenging for many. Sounds like you’re having a rough time of it compounded by difficulties at school and with professionals. Hope as he moves into adulthood things ease.

  5. Blair February 1, 2017 at 6:50 pm #

    Al thank you for sharing a little of your story and alot of yourself through this article. Indeed a far too little talked about subject and I am so glad Sarah above reached out to ask for the link to the CPV community, connecting with others who live this experience is the start of a restorative journey….perhaps too optimistic in such early stages but perhaps the start to a connection with others that brings some realisation that they do not struggle alone to love with fear. It saddens me greatly as a fostering social worker to hear of the lack of knowledge and support available from social workers but I guess experience is learnt through experiencing which is why communities sharing is so vital. Still…..to social workers who are charged with the responsibility to support, we would do well to engage as learners in CPV communities and work cooperatively across local authorities to seek strategies and link people to help and respite supports. I have recently been looking at the Mockingbird fostering model which bases it’s ethos on support first. Respite are sleep overs with others who build supportive relationships with you ……..I can not help but consider that support is best found between those who know the feelings and effects and more resources would be better spent establishing and enabling local and semi-local support networks. Social workers can learn to link and share strategies and be friends to the family…..that’s good old fashioned social work. Anyway……got carried away and will probably read this back to myself and wonder what I’m on about but bottom line….thanks Al for the article and the discussions that will follow.

  6. DPC February 1, 2017 at 9:20 pm #

    Thank you for raising this subject. There is so much to be done. As you say, many of us believe that the right early intervention could make a huge difference. But we are put off seeking help by the common experience of social workers not working with us as parents. My own family has experienced social workers (always plural when you have a long-term issue) minimizing the effects and risks of CPV, blaming poor parenting (my wife and I have done probably all the courses now), or worst of all, making matters much worse by demonstrating their lack of trust in you as a parent to your child, undermining the family unit when it is at its most fragile. The last thing a family with a controlling and violent child needs is for the safety of parental authority to be questioned and damaged. And, for good measure, social workers will note all this misunderstanding down for future reference. Most of our vulnerable children go on to have their own children, and parents are often called upon to support the next generation too. At the moment we have our grandson, aged 6, living with us, who punches and kicks us daily. Will we be seeking social work support as we did for our adopted daughter? Absolutely not. We know that our local authority can offer us nothing but hassle. We are implementing all the strategies we have learned through experience and reading, and we will do our best for our wonderful grandson with the support of close family and friends. Al – Keep up the pressure for this huge issue to be recognised and for parents – adoptive, kinship, foster – caring for our most damaged children to be properly recognised and supported.

    • Al February 2, 2017 at 7:51 pm #

      I wish your story was unique but having spoken to many families I fear it’s a well worn path. It’s a very difficult experience that can be exacerbated by professionals lack of understanding. On the other side I do know families that have found friendly professionals and this has certainly made all the difference.
      We all keep pushing.

    • Katia February 13, 2017 at 11:47 pm #

      DPC, you view on this is so, so real to me.

  7. Planet Autism February 1, 2017 at 9:37 pm #

    Such behaviour by a child is not necessarily a reaction to trauma or abuse. This is frequent behaviour for autistic children and there are many undiagnosed autistic children wrongly taken into care or adopted out, with the new parents being told their behaviour is attachment disorder and reaction to abuse. It’s a shocking failure by the state, to have either failed to support the birth family to keep their children or to have falsely accused the birth family of abuse when it is an undiagnosed autistic disorder. This is why there are adoptive parents seeking out CAMHS for children without finding help, (documented in the 2014 Parliamentary CAMHS Inquiry report) because their adopted child has been misdiagnosed and is in fact autistic or ADHD.

    • Anisa de Jong February 2, 2017 at 10:15 am #

      Often for adopted children it’s both: ASD (or ADHD etc) as well as trauma/attachment, one does not exclude the other. For parents the violence is equally hard to cope with. Question is whether there is a difference in the treatment, therapy or parenting approach? Among adopted children ASD is ten times more prevalent than in the general population, but talk of environmental factors contributing to ASD is taboo. It seems unlikely this huge difference is simply caused by a disproportionate number of ASD kids being taken into care on false accusations of abuse, although no doubt it may be a factor. More research is needed, so far the only thing we have the Coventry Grid.

      • Al February 2, 2017 at 7:54 pm #

        I agree, and wholeheartedly believe that we need to look closer to develop our knowledge and understanding so we can lose blanket terms and sweeping generalisations.

  8. Londonboy February 2, 2017 at 11:47 am #

    ‘Often for adopted children it’s both: ASD (or ADHD etc) as well as trauma/attachment, one does not exclude the other. For parents the violence is equally hard to cope with. Question is whether there is a difference in the treatment, therapy or parenting approach’

    This I think hits the nail on the head.

    Lumping together children with Attachment disorders, FASD and ASD and saying that children with very challenging behaviours respond well to the ‘a consistent parenting approach’ or whatever (response – non specialist parenting classes) and we don’t need to unpick causes at all, just results in parents dis-engaging at best and sometimes can result in fracturing of the fragile support networks these children really need and the state has to step in with very expensive support.

    Violence as a result of anger is different to violence as a result of anxiety is different to violence as a learnt behaviour. A young person with ASD may have unmet needs – eg sleep disorders, sensory issues, teeth pain ( and chances of engaging with a dentist are low, unless dentists are prepared to really engage with the needs of autistic patients) that may result in very challenging behaviour for example.

    Some children in/from Care will have challenging behaviour as a result of anger, anxiety and poor role modelling. If the child is on the autistic spectrum he/she will not be helped if therapists, parents, social workers do not understand how they interact with the world and adapt practice accordingly – no amount of expensive therapy can compensate for this.

  9. londonboy February 4, 2017 at 1:28 pm #

    I believe this is one of the areas where the ‘Nature vs nurture debate’ is writ large.

    These are OUR children and we care passionately about them and their wellbeing. Surely that is the best place to start to build a picture of how to support children and families experiencing child on parent violence? Contested narratives of rescue and blame are not particularly helpful in this context.

    On the subject of children with learning disabilities with very challenging behaviour within Care see
    https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/lenehan-review-into-care-of-children-with-learning-disabilities

    On the subject of autistic (many of whom ‘mask’ in school) children with very high anxiety levels see http://www.pdasociety.org.uk/
    The society promotes good strategies to support children that release violence at home.