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.
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.
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.
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.