“I locked my abuser in with me every night.”
These are the chilling words of Sarah who, for a decade, suffered emotional, verbal, psychological and physical abuse.
“There wasn’t a TV remote or cordless phone that didn’t have tape on the back because it had been thrown and exploded so many times,” she remembers.
This abuse wasn’t just suffered by Sarah, but also by her daughter.
“The worst thing he did was chase her up the stairs with a carving knife and [when] she got into her bedroom he stabbed and slashed the back of the door as she was leaning against it.”
As traumatic and terrifying as some of these experiences Sarah was unable to escape because the abuser was her son.
Child to parent abuse, more commonly known as parent abuse, is not as widely known as partner on partner domestic abuse, or child abuse, but that doesn’t mean it’s an uncommon occurrence.
Research from the University of Brighton, puts potential prevalence at 1 in every 10 families experiencing some form of parent abuse. Helen Bonnick, a social worker and expert on parent abuse, says people working in the area are more comfortable with a figure of 3% of all families with teenagers “experiencing severe abuse on an ongoing basis”.
A small freedom of information request published by The Sun in August found more than 60 children had been taken into local authority care in 16 local authorities as result of abusing their parents.
Partner to partner abuse
Bonnick says the nature of the abuse is something that looks and feels very similar to intimate partner violence.
“Maybe at the beginning it is just seen as children being a bit out of hand, a bit naughty, or is diagnosed as ADHD or oppositional defiance. Then it gradually gets worse until parents realise they have a serious problem.”
At the extreme end, parents are having to barricade themselves in their rooms and there are family breakdowns. Children will go live with grandparents, aunts and uncles, or are sometimes placed in the care system.
In Sarah’s situation, she begged the local authority on numerous occasions to take her son into care, but it didn’t happen.
“The main person that professionals were concerned about was my son, and it made myself and my daughter feel as if we didn’t matter and he could do anything and that was fine. I begged them to take him away and I was told he is not at risk. ‘We’re not going to take him because he’s not at risk’.
“It just made me feel so unimportant and worthless.”
Origins for the abuse
There are various reasons why parent abuse might begin. In Sarah’s case, both her children had Aspergers, and her son’s violence was a response to his crippling anxiety about going into school.
“So every morning when I was trying to get him up to go to school he was kicking and punching me, because he couldn’t cope.”
She was later told by experts that he should never have been in mainstream education.
Bonnick says there appears to be two points in time where violence may “emerge”.
“For children who have experienced trauma it may start to show very early on. Children as young as five have been reported to be exhibiting extremely challenging and aggressive behaviour towards those caring for them,” she explains.
“Then for a significant group of young people, the violence and abuse can start to show itself at puberty/adolescence, when there are already significant changes, transitions and stress points in an individual’s life, which can exacerbate other relationship issues which a family is going through.
“The peak age, from the data that is available, seems to be around 13-15.”
In addition, it has been known among children dealing with mental health issues, autism spectrum disorders, ADHD and foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.
Joanna Buckard, a social work trainer and FASD expert, says children with this condition have “meltdowns” and can lash out as a result.
“Services don’t understand it, social services for the most part are often not giving enough support. Some of the families have been pushed into taking guardianship,” Buckard explains.
“When people with FASD go into meltdown, what you often get is a torrent of verbal or physical abuse. With it being brain based these kind of behaviours – the lashing out – starts really young.
“As they get bigger it becomes more of a problem because of their size.”
The Parent Abuse and Reconciliation Service (PAARS), based in Enfield, has seen a correlation with child exposure to domestic violence in about 75% of cases they see.
“It’s not just families on estates with little money. We’ve had professionals referred, head teachers – it’s across the board,” Joseph Lettieri, a founder of the group explains.
Parenting can play a part, Lettieri says.
“Sometimes children can feel unloved or not cared for, or a parent can be too strict, or the parent is so relaxed anything goes.”
Unless this is tackled, the abuse can manifest itself later on. “It’s not fashionable to say there’s an inter-generational cycle of abuse but we see it, you can’t deny its happening.
“If you can hit your mum then you can hit your partner,” he says.
‘They don’t know what to do’
Sarah was never told that other parents had had similar experiences and consequently she says she felt like the worst mum in the world. It was only when she read an article about it after years of abuse that she realised it was more widespread.
Sarah says she has since been told that often such cases aren’t reported or recorded by professionals.
“Because they don’t know what to do about it they don’t write it down. I thought about how much I had spoken about it to professionals. I’d never hidden anything. For someone to say it’s not written down because they don’t know what to do about it was frightening.”
‘A parenting problem’
Lettieri’s experience was similar. PAARS was established by himself and two former school teachers who had contacted children’s services about a bruised mother but had gotten nowhere.
“It was basically bounced back as a parenting problem. [It was] not really something that they would get involved with unless the child was being abused,” Lettieri says.
Bonnick, says there’s no training about the issue on a lot of social work courses.
“There’s little enough on domestic violence generally and this is an element of family violence, but it’s not being very widely addressed at all. But she points out that the current system also struggles with such cases.
“We’ve got a welfare system focused on the child being vulnerable, but doesn’t respond to their vulnerability if they are being violent themselves to the parent. So they are looking to protect them from parents, rather than the other way around,” Bonnick says.
This is despite, in Bonnick’s opinion, the children carrying out the abuse being very vulnerable. “It’s a way of them expressing their needs and their distress.”
Services that don’t lay the blame on the parents
Support services for such cases are also thin on the ground. When PAARS first launched it was one of three services nationally. Bonnick has mapped just 40 services working across the country.
Top tips for dealing with parent abuse cases
1. Take a strengths-based approach
Lettieri says professionals working on such cases should firstly not assume it is simply a parenting fault and should also take it seriously because some of these young people may well go on to become abusers in the future.
A strengths based approach is also vital.
“Parents need a service that won’t lay the blame at their feet straight away. You can’t leave your child, it’s not like adult to adult abuse where, although it’s very difficult, there are options, what parents feel is there is no option.”
2. Keep a stable environment
For Buckard, a stable environment is key to helping the child.
“Children don’t often cope well with being moved,” she explains. “For children with neurodevelopmental disorders then a change in placement is often incredibly difficult to manage and you’re likely to see an increase in behaviours.”
Preventing this can be done in a number of ways, this can be through providing respite, help children “access society” if they are short of friends.
“These young people and families would really benefit from that. What we don’t do enough of with young people with different neurodevelopment disorders is the use of role play and social stories as a way of trying to understand a situation,” Buckard says.
3. Provide better parent information and courses
Sarah says what would have helped her most is simply the comfort of being told she wasn’t the only one. “I just thought this was life, this was how it was, as I say I thought I must deserve and it was all my fault.”
Multisystemic therapy also helped her stop and think before she reacted to a situation”. She was asked to do things like begin a conversation with her son, something she hadn’t done in months.
But she warns many parenting courses are too generic for the problem. One told her to spend half an hour each evening with each child alone, “but my son couldn’t stand the sight of me for years, so telling me to spend half an hour a day with him was absolute hell for both of us”.
Sarah now leads ‘Everybody Hurts’, a peer-to-peer support group for other parents who have suffered this abuse. She says they get a call from a new person each week interested in attending.
Through work and understanding the cause of her son’s anxieties and acting out, Sarah says her home situation has now completely changed.
Sarah’s breakthrough moment came earlier this year.
“My son got into the car as he’d been out with some friends. He said ‘I’ve got something to tell you’. [That’s] a thing that a child says and your heart just drops [thinking] ‘oh my god what now’.
“He said: ‘Mum, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking these last few days, and I need to tell you that I love you.’”
It was a watershed moment for Sarah and her son, but it’s a reality many parents and their children are still far away from.