Is the current definition of child on parent violence appropriate?

Findings from a recent survey suggest the 17-year-old commonly-used definition of child on parent violence isn't robust enough

Photo: Jenny Sturm/Fotolia

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.

Al Coates is an adopter and social worker who co-authored ‘Let’s talk about child to parent violence and aggression’. The full research is available on Amazon, while a free summary is available here

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2 Responses to Is the current definition of child on parent violence appropriate?

  1. Planet Autism August 24, 2018 at 8:18 pm #

    Parent abuse is rife in the autism community with many parents in fear of seeking professional help and support due to the parent-blame culture that exists among so many professionals, most notably social services. Someone once told me, I don’t know if it’s true, that there is no coding in social services for parent abuse, only child abuse types. That says it all. Many autism parents suffer violence from their autistic children and live like someone in an abusive and controlling relationship, hiding it from everyone. Yvonne Newbold produces videos on this subject and offers workshops etc. She herself is parent to a young man with LD. The tragedy is that families cannot ask for help. With the amount of false accusations going on against autism parents, they learn not to trust social services and considering children are removed from parents for being “out of parental control” they may also fear this being the result. The way social services operates in the UK (in fact in the Western world) is so damaging and harmful to families. There are many autistic children taken into care who never should have been and their lives are destroyed as a result. There is no autism training by staff tasked with their care usually and older autistic children are vulnerable to mate crime and usually not at a developmental stage equal to their chronological age, yet they are set loose as other teenagers are when they shouldn’t be.

    “Are Thousands of Children with Autism in Care for Erroneous Reasons? Quite Probably…

    There is widespread ignorance of the fact that symptoms of attachment disorders and autism (ASD) are frequently indistinguishable. Even more problematic, the very symptoms of autism that differentiate it from attachment disorders have come to be interpreted as indicators of serious deprivation or neglect – when in fact they should be taken to mean quite possibly the opposite.”

  2. Planet Autism August 24, 2018 at 8:24 pm #

    It’s not conduct disorder however, it doesn’t warrant yet another diagnosis. If they are autistic it’s behaviour arising from that condition.

    It’s a real shame that this survey wasn’t widely publicised in the autism and special needs communities as you could have had thousands of responses.

    Following on from my previous comment, logically it would be apparent that many of the children being with foster and adoptive parents would be those who should never have been taken from their parents. Misdiagnosis of autism as attachment disorder is rife.