Child to parent abuse: ‘I begged them to take him away’

Research suggests 1 in 10 families could experience parent abuse, so what do social workers need to know about it?

Photo: StockPhotoPro/Fotolia (posed by model)

Community Care Inform provides social work practice and legal information and learning tools in an accessible format. This podcast from Community Care Inform on child and adolescent to parent violence and abuse (CAPA) discusses:

  • what CAPA is;
  • how to identify whether a family is experiencing normal behaviour concerns and boundary pushing, or abuse;
  • what research says about when and why this form of abuse occurs;
  • how social workers should respond to CAPA;
  • how the response should differ from responding to domestic abuse by an intimate partner and vary depending on the child’s age.

The Learn on the go podcast is free to access on iTunes and other podcast apps. Community Care Inform subscribers can access supporting resources including a full written transcript and key points from the episode on Inform Children.

“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.

Parent abuse

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.”

Neurological causes

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.”

Domestic abuse

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.


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8 Responses to Child to parent abuse: ‘I begged them to take him away’

  1. Tom J October 20, 2016 at 12:27 pm #

    A top tip I would have would be the technique recommended by child psychologist Oliver James; ‘Love Bombing’. He gives a full guide in the book of the same name as well as in his new book ‘Not in Your Genes’.

    This advocates avoiding a sticking plaster; naughty step or sticker chart or just finding the ‘right’ dosage of Ritalin, and instead offers a technique which works if the parent is serious about wanting things to change.

    Both books are available on Amazon (and other good book sellers im sure 🙂 )

  2. Jenny S October 20, 2016 at 2:03 pm #

    If you can afford to do it, both financially and time wise, then Non-Violent Resistance is a useful tool for use with families experiencing this behaviour, we have used it with some excellent outcomes. It isn’t the right tool for all families but you will find that the NVR way of working & thinking provides a helpful perspective on many situations.

  3. Jackie J October 20, 2016 at 9:09 pm #

    I also strongly recommend the NVR (non violent resistance training for parents / carers etc) Both realistic and effective strategies for changes the way parents manage this type of violence aggression from their children. (Also for Adopted children and SGO’s the local authourity can apply to the ASF for funding to provide this training!!

  4. H - anonymous please October 21, 2016 at 1:28 pm #

    I am an adoptive parent and sustained years of violence and abuse from my children.

    I was blamed, judged and put on several overly generic parenting courses.

    As a Social Worker myself the disbelief of my accounts hurt the most. The child protection system is designed to keep children safe. But it seemed that myself and my partner ccould be abused/have allegations made toward us with no one making the children accountable for their actions.

    We were also told by duty services that we don’t help/accommodate children who just have behavioural problems. Needless to say that we had to request they were accommodated for there safety and ours.

    It was a hard decision to make and left our family broken hearted. Now our children are adults, but we have always remained in their lives – it’s not perfect but we are all safer for that decision.

  5. 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.

    • Sarah October 26, 2016 at 11:56 pm #

      Just wanted to say your story really touched me. I’m so sorry you have been treated like this by the professionals. It must seem almost worse than the abuse you endure.
      We have a 12 year old son being assessed for the 2nd time for asd. He generally breaks things and is very destructive but when it gets to the state where we have to restrain him to protect him and our possessions that’s when it gets really violent. And he’s getting bigger and stronger. I fear for the future and your story gives me a feeling of dread. More than once I’ve considered should I call the gp to get him sectioned or the police because he’s getting too strong for even two of us.
      I hope you find the support you need. All the best xx

  6. Ellie October 26, 2016 at 4:17 pm #

    I think it’s good that Community Care produces articles focussing upon such “challenging” topics as this. Sadly, there are many things in life that some people would rather see become “taboo” subjects that we do not talk about – many forms of abuse and bullying fit into such a category. Alas, it is neither prudent, nor rational, to ignore what goes on behind closed doors, or turn a blind eye to abuse of any kind.

    I cannot help but think that abuse, when occurring within a family, is symptomatic of wider familial dysfunction. It is interesting, therefore, to see that child on parent abuse can be the result of things like witnessing domestic violence, or else neurological or behavioural problems (e.g. Aspergers, ADD). Whilst no form of abuse may be condoned, it must be appreciated that for some children, aggressive behaviour or lashing out in an abusive way is little more than something learned from witnessing similar family interactions. We ought not to underestimate the danger to children even of witnessing domestic violence. Other children with problems like Autism, Aspergers, ADD, head injuries… may find it difficult communicating their needs or emotions to adults and others around them. This could be a source of intense frustration that leads the child to “act out”.

    Personally, I cannot help but feel that abuse in a family – any type of abuse – is perhaps only the “tip of an iceberg” that really needs to be uncovered. Abuse does have causes and these require investigation, as it may be that the nature of the cause is what dictates the nature of the remedy. This is perhaps especially important in child on parent abuse, because the abusive behaviour may represent a child’s only attempt to communicate.

  7. jean walker October 27, 2016 at 9:56 pm #

    It broke my heart to see my grand son abuse my daughter and grand daughter. Often doing them physical harm. Social services would have taken any other child abused in this way into care, but because it was her brother, this abuse did not count, and because he was not being abused he could not be taken into care. This is not unique. As a member of a parent to parent support group, I hear the same story over and over and over again. Until it is recognised and Social workers trained to take it just as seriously as any other child abuse, I can see no improvement in the lives of all members of these families. I pray this article, mainly written by a mother with the courage to speak out, will go a little way to bringing the problem to the attention of authorities who can do something about it.