Child on parent violence: ‘The reality is that this issue remains in the shadows of work with families’

Al Coates writes about the growing learning in the area of child to parent violence

woman looking downcast
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by Al Coates

At Community Care Live in September I asked a room full of over 200 social workers if they knew of – or worked with – children who were sometimes violent to their families, carers or parents. Without pause the overwhelming majority of them raised their hands.

It was a rhetorical question with limited risk of getting a silent ‘no’ as there has been a resounding ‘yes’ from professionals that we’ve asked that question to over the last year.

I, along with colleagues, have been asking this question since the release of the reports authored by Dr Wendy Thorley of Sunderland University based on the 2016 child on parent violence survey.

From there we’ve spoken to hundreds of social workers and families to raise awareness and share what insights and knowledge we’d taken from the survey.


Beyond anecdotes, the reality is that child on parent violence is an issue that remains in the shadows of work with children and families.

The exact number of parents, carers, special guardians, kinship carers, adopters and foster carers who live with children who can be violence or aggressive remains hidden.

Estimated figures vary across demographics and circumstances ranging from a conservative 3% in the general population to as high as 27% in terms of children that have been adopted. Stark figures either way, 3% of the 11,000,0000 children in the UK gives you a third of a million children that present with violent or aggressive behaviour at some point.

Our 2016 survey raised serious issues in relation to the support and responses available for these children. They find themselves caught in a maze of limited professional awareness and understanding, finite resources, professionals unsure of appropriate responses and ineffective interventions. Parents sometimes passed between police, social care, and mental health professionals, all of whom uncertain of causes or solutions.

More to learn

Speaking to many parents and carers of all descriptions and consistency more questions became apparent. There’s more to learn in regard to the exact nature and impact of the violence and aggression.

What is an acceptable definition? What support helps and what doesn’t? What helps professionals supporting children and families?

With all this in mind we’ve developed the 2018 Child on Parent Violence and Aggression Survey in collaboration with advocates from different areas and with different expertise to make the survey more accessible to a wider range of family units.

If this applies to you please consider completing the survey, if you know someone who it may apply to please share it with them.

Al Coates is an adoptive father and social worker. He recently received an MBE for services to children. He tweets @MrAlCoates.

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9 Responses to Child on parent violence: ‘The reality is that this issue remains in the shadows of work with families’

  1. Ian January 11, 2018 at 1:15 pm #

    I find myself wondering if the research included some of the breakdown of how the families were made up.
    I recall reading about an article, where the author suggested that children brought up in fatherless households (or possibly absent father), that those children were at increased risk to being involved with the authorities. I would be keen to know if there was a correlation between absent fathers (or others) and this violence.
    I think it was the same article, which mentioned step fathers and linking these step fathers (and mothers) to the Cinderella effect. If there might be a correlation, could fragmented families be contributing more to society’s problems than is obvious.

    The other thing I found myself thinking was the promotion of not smacking. To the “anti-smacking” brigade, a smack (or hiding) amounts to violence. This group of people would suggest that if a child displayed aggression/violence to their parents, a parent giving the child a smack/hiding is meeting violence with violence. If a person steps away from the “anti smacking” perspective and calls the child’s frustration violence and the parents response discipline, would the number of child to parent violence be as high. I don’t know the answer, but I do think there are some children who could do with experiencing a hiding, so they know what the consequence could be if they do not curb their misbehaviour.

    I am not making a statement, more thinking out aloud while reading the article.

    • Dr Wendy Thorley January 11, 2018 at 6:05 pm #

      I read the fathers one it wasn’t conclusive but the majority if those who took part last year and so far 3/4 of those taking part this year are couples. So the father figure dudnt replicate. For smacking last year majority were adopters who were trauma aware so smacking is very unlikely to occur. The purpose this year is to open this up wider and further so it will be interesting to see how this compares this time

    • Lynn January 11, 2018 at 6:13 pm #

      The work of Haim Omer and Peter Jacobs is really significant on this issue. The non violent resistance programme (NVR) specifically addresses this through individual or group sessions. Highly recommemded and training for facilitators is available.

      • al January 12, 2018 at 5:32 pm #

        NVR is a fantastic resource and many families find it a very useful tool. Of course it has its limitations but certainly can provide a method of managing and heading violence off.

  2. Laura Austin January 12, 2018 at 7:40 am #

    I am not a qualified as yet only in year one, but i have worked as an intensive family support worker and have tried to support some families around violence towards peers. I wonder if it is not around an absent Father but around attachment, historically would these children grow into domestic abuse perpetrators due to.poor attachment but due to the changing of society and children being aware of their rights they exhibit these behaviours sooner. As I say please do not shoot me down it maybe my lack of knowledge that proves me wrong, but just like above was a passing thought.

    • al January 12, 2018 at 5:35 pm #

      I’d say that the causes are often complex and influenced by a range of factors, early trauma, attachment, FASD, ADHD, Autism etc can be in the mix. We’re certainly not keen to ‘shoot anyone down’ so fear not. One of our primary aims is to create an environment where we can talk and look for ways of helping children and those that care for them.

  3. londonboy January 12, 2018 at 9:35 am #

    There are a number of strands to this issue I think that can can be summed up as :-
    Example around what is normal and/or if a child has a cognitive/emotional problem or indeed all these difficulties. (so nature and nurture issues)

    Some of the worst violence and the least talked about is where children have cognitive disabilities or are autistic but very bright ( so no diagnosis and no help around anxiety). Read anything from Yvonne Newbold to understand some of this – the really sad thing is that many children need to enter Care in adolescence because of lack of suitable awareness, s17 help and emotional support for families. It dos’ent even save money even though lack of money is usually cited as the problem.

    • Ange January 15, 2018 at 12:37 pm #

      This is a really interesting thread. I would like to add from the perspective of a mum who’s nine-year-old child is violent and aggressive. She has a undiagnosed cognitive disability, which presents similar to ASD, and she is very bright. I am a single parent but I wouldn’t say this is the cause, I would say that this is the result of the pressure brought on by the behaviours presented and also with Dad’s own difficulty processing emotions. I’ve gone through the whole medical model looking for a ‘cure’ without any success. I decided to adopt a more holistic approach and enrolled her in mindfulness lessons to help her manage her anxiety and we have got a family dog. Both have had an extremely positive impact. The dog barks as a signal when her anxiety is building and we then implement the mindfulness strategies to help her calm down. I’m also helping her with strategies for planning ahead so she is prepared for any changes and this reduces anxiety. I’d like to stress that children’s behaviour is not always a direct result of bad parenting. I love my daughter in the same way that I love my other three children. Compassion from professionals and unpicking every individual case is what’s needed. Challenging behaviour is very hard work and often 24/7. It is support we need as families not judgement.

  4. Planet Autism January 18, 2018 at 5:49 pm #

    It’s bad enough for parents to deal with child to parent abuse, but what makes this so much worse is the parent-blame attitude. Many, many parents suffering VCB from their autistic children are too scared to seek help because of the attitudes that exist. Can you imagine, having to suffer the trauma of violence from your large child and then be blamed for it as well? Why is there no code for child to parent abuse within social services? It’s ridiculous that there is not. For social workers to parent-blame by either looking for non existent child abuse as a trigger for the child’s behaviour towards their parent, or to blame parenting is simply unacceptable.

    In this Community Care article: look at this comment:

    “Slk October 22, 2016 at 11:21 am #
    Reading this felt like it had been written about my life with my son. I felt the pain, the disappointment,love and frustration that it all brings.
    Children’s services simply do not help in those situations. In my case my son reported being hurt by his step dad (past reports have been about me doing it too) only his story did not make sense, it placed him in three places at the same time and told of how he ended up under a sofa when it would have been impossible as it’s only two inches off the floor! My son has ASD, ADHD, anxiety disorder and potentially demand avoidance. I will openly say he does tell tales but not because he lies deliberately but because of how he processes information. Events over weeks can become one episode with the people present not necessarily having been there in any of the situations. But, like social services told me, children with ASD don’t lie or make things up, they don’t have an imagination….I beg to differ.
    My son regularly attacks me, has had a knife to me, beat me with a cane from the garden pot plants, pulled my hair out kicked me in the stomach when I was 20 weeks pregnant, the list goes on.
    So what support did I get…? We got put on child protection, was told my profession meant that I have more knowledge on how to hide abuse, was accused of having domestic violence in my relationship because we had an argument. I was made to feel worthless, a lier, judged and guilty of somehow causing my son to have autism.
    Where has this left us…? No better off that’s where, we still have no support, my son is still violent. My career is scarred having been suspended and investigated and I’m now on final warning having had a clean bill of work for 14 years of being there. I constantly fear them getting involved again as it means I’ll have no job, lose my home and have to go through that awful process of telling get them till I’m blue in the face they are wrong only to hear their assumptions and have lies written about me.
    My stomach churns when I hear him escalate, mornings, bedtimes and event make me want to run and hide. I’m exhausted and I feel a failure that I can’t help you son to regulate. I fear for his future as well as our own.”

    Sadly this is very common.