What would you do if your teenage son regularly punched you? Or
your 11-year-old daughter spat in your face and called you a whore?
The term domestic violence is mainly associated with men being
violent to women, and children are generally only involved because
they are victims or witnesses. But while domestic violence between
adults has come out from behind the net curtains, it is rarely
acknowledged that children can physically or verbally abuse their
“It is one of the last remaining taboos,” says Susan Bailey, a
child and adolescent forensic psychiatrist for the Salford and the
South London and Maudsley NHS trusts. “We are ready to pick up on
violent behaviour in children and adolescents if they are
displaying it at school or on the streets, but violence behind
closed doors including by children to parents has been hidden,” she
One of the problems is that the right questions often aren’t being
asked. “Where you discover children who have assaulted other kids
or siblings or strangers, they have quite often done it to their
parents. But the question isn’t asked and it’s a difficult thing
for a parent to disclose.”
Without intervention you end up with the “tyrannical child”, she
says. Violence increases in severity and frequency. The dynamics
between the child and parent resemble those in spousal abuse with
the adult becoming submissive and the child more dominant.
According to Parentline Plus, it is becoming more common. Its
latest figures, for 2002-3, record that 40 per cent of parents
calling its helpline were concerned about their child’s behaviour.
Of these, 10 per cent had themselves experienced some kind of abuse
from their child.
There are many triggers for this behaviour – although sometimes
parents will never discover the catalyst – including:
- They may have a violent home life, or their parents may neglect
- Undiagnosed behavioural problems such as attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder, conduct disorders.
- Learning difficulties.
- Family relationships, for example divorce, new partners or
- Drug abuse.
- Early onset psychosis in a small minority.
An added complication is that, contrary to what society expects,
such behaviour occurs in families across the socio-economic
spectrum and not just in those from deprived or violent
Maureen Pearson, area manager for north east Parentline Plus, says:
“Parents feel angry, let down, embarrassed and frustrated. We run
parenting courses to help the parent look at acting and reacting,
and encourage them to listen to what the child is saying. Sometimes
a child can be frightened that they are so angry or out of control.
They want to be set limits.
“We do lose our tempers sometimes because we are not perfect.
Apologise to your child so that you show you accept responsibility
for saying something hurtful. You can tell them you love them but
you don’t love their behaviour.”
Pearson speaks from experience as a parent and a foster carer;
there were times she was frightened to be in her own house. Parents
are ashamed to seek help, she says, but also don’t know who to turn
to. “It would take a very confident parent to go to social services
and say they have a problem. They fear their child will be removed.
They might not like what their kids are doing but they love them,
and putting them in care is a last resort.”
Family support services could help, but only if they get in early
enough, says Pearson. “They often don’t get involved until crisis
point. The parent may have been calling social services and saying
they are at breaking point but nothing is done. They phone us to
say they’re about to walk out on their child because they can’t
cope and if the parent agrees we then phone social services to say
there’s a child at risk.”
Parents in the Wirral are more fortunate – the only course of its
kind working in the area is on their doorstep. The Peace (Parents
Enjoying a Changing Environment) course came about following
government pressure to prosecute parents of children who were
truanting (see panel, below). Parents were offered action plans to
address this by the local authority’s education social welfare
team, the deal being that if they didn’t comply they would be
prosecuted. What they hadn’t bargained on was coming across parents
they had thought to be ineffective or unco-operative at their wits’
end because they were being abused by their children when they
tried to get them to school.
So instead of penalising these parents, the council decided to help
and support them. Wirral education social worker Roberta Crawford
devised the 12-week course that deals with domestic abuse
perpetrated by children on their parents, encompassing physical,
emotional, psychological and financial abuse.
The course has been running for three years now, and the only
criteria is that the child’s abusive behaviour has to have an
impact on their education, be it poor attendance, behaviour
problems or truanting, for example.
Sessions include discussions on how adults can keep themselves safe
from their own children in their own home – “a traumatic” topic,
says Crawford; and putting them back in control of their own life
first so that they can go on to take control of the family. They
learn how to recognise that a situation is developing before it
becomes a crisis and how to stop it escalating, by listening to how
they are speaking to each other, keeping the sound level down,
taking time out and being non-confrontational where possible.
While parents are attending the course, their children are referred
to appropriate services including the education department’s youth
service and the health authority’s child and family service.
Peace has seen over 200 parents so far and calls also come in
nationally for information and advice. Some parents who completed
the course went on to form Tulip (Together United Living In Peace)
to offer continued help and support to parents. Now when the Peace
course finishes parents are invited to join Tulip; it is currently
supporting about 400 parents nationally.
“Over the past two years the government has been saying that
parents are responsible,” says Crawford. “But there’s a difference
between them being responsible and being made to feel they are to
– For more information contact Peace on 0151 637 6060; the Tulip
project on 0151 637 6363; and Parentline Plus on 0808 800
Giving peace a chance
Elizabeth Brown (not her real name) is a married professional with
a son and daughter. Her son abused her – but not his father or
sister – physically, verbally, emotionally and psychologically from
the age of 12 for several years. She still doesn’t know what
triggered his behaviour.
“I wasn’t the lone parent living in the inner city in deprived
circumstances. We blew away all the myths,” she says. “That’s what
was so hard, because I’m a professional and to be a professional
who has a situation at home that you can’t manage, where do you go
She and her husband went to nine different resources seeking help
so that the family could stay together, including counselling,
their GP, an educational psychologist and the health authority’s
child and family service.
It was a psychologist at the latter that referred them to Peace.
After trying so many other options, Elizabeth was cynical. “But I
started recognising that there was a lot of sense in what was being
said about changing my response to what was happening. I was being
listened to and the sessions were about my individual situation. We
weren’t judged, we weren’t called bad parents.”
After the course Elizabeth joined Tulip. Her son’s behaviour
gradually improved, he has now finished his education and is
working full-time. He no longer lives at home and has a good
relationship with his mother.
“I was in this great big black hole and somebody shoved a ladder in
there and said start climbing,” she says.