by Al Coates
Earlier this year Dr Wendy Thorley and I asked parents and carers who were experiencing challenging, violent and aggressive behaviour from their children to complete the 2018 Child on Parent Violence and Aggression Survey.
As per our 2016 survey we were overwhelmed with the responses, however where our 2016 survey drew responses predominantly from the adoption, fostering and special guardianship community we sought to cast our net wider and gather responses from birth families as well.
Eventually we received 538 responses with 47% being birth parents and the remaining being predominantly adoptive parents then kinship carers, special guardians and foster carers.
Among the key messages that are drawn from the responses the understanding of the underlying causes was one of the main areas for learning. Much of literature and guidance that currently exists relies on a definition of Child on Parent Violence that was penned in 2001 by Cottrell and is specific to the abuse of parents by adolescents.
‘Any harmful act by a child, whether physical, psychological or financial, which is intended to gain power and control over a parent or carer.’
This definition has been much discussed with many parents and carers feeling that it was not representative of the behaviour that they saw in the children that they cared for. Yes, there was extremes of behaviour, violence, aggression, threats and intimidation. However, the issue of intent was a stumbling block for many respondents with two thirds feeling that this did not reflect the cause of behaviour that they experienced.
When we asked them what they thought was the cause, clear themes emerged. Many felt that the child was unable to control their responses and it was dysregulation or a reaction to sensory issues, being overwhelmed, anxiety, or a strategy to keep themselves safe.
They described that their children were as much victims of the behaviour as the adults and other children that were often hurt or threatened. The respondents were asked to note any underlying conditions that may be present in the children. Many of the children were diagnosed with neuro psychological/neuro developmental conditions. 30% had a diagnosed attachment disorder; 57% had mental health indicators, 30% trauma, 50% autism spectrum disorder and 86% learning difficulties.
The summary considers if the children’s behaviour would be better described as a conduct disorder within the context of the family, or Intermittent Explosive Disorder, as identified in the World Health Organisation IDC 11 and DSM 5, respectively. For these children the widely accepted definition of child on parent violence is clearly not appropriate.
To this end we recommend that two distinct strands, child on parent violence and Conduct Disorder within the context of the family/Intermittent Explosive Disorder are accepted and responded to individually under the overall banner of Childhood Challenging Violent and Aggressive Behaviour.
There’s much more to the report but this issue of definition and cause is pivotal to developing effective responses across all statutory services.
Childhood Challenging Violent and Aggressive Behaviour remains a taboo with uncertain and inconsistent responses from services, however as our understanding develops the hope that we can support children and families effectively and non-judgementally grows.