The text of this article comprises excerpts from a podcast episode by Community Care Inform about child and adolescent to parent violence and abuse (CAPA). You can listen to the full podcast using the player below. It 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.
Helen Bonnick: Social worker and practice educator who specialises in child to parent violence and abuse. Her website Holes in the Wall brings together information, research and resources about this form of abuse for parents and professionals. She is the author of Child to Parent Violence and Abuse: a practitioners guide to working with families, Pavilion Publishing, 2019.
Jane Griffiths: Parent-child therapist, providing consultancy and training. Her Facebook page CAPAUK offers a ‘first response’ service to families and professionals.
What is child or adolescent to parent abuse?
One common definition is “adolescent-to-parent abuse is any behaviour used by a young person to control, dominate or coerce parents. It is intended to threaten and intimidate, and puts the family safety at risk.” I always get a parent or a carer to consider a few questions:
- Do you tread on eggshells around your child?
- Do you change your parenting for fear of what could happen if you don’t toe the line or go along with what a young person is asking you?
- Are you in fear of your child?
Children and teenagers always push boundaries. It is a biological, innate part of growing up – to test parents, to see how far they can go. But if we start going into those realms [where parents are in fear], that’s when we start thinking about whether it’s pushing over into an abusive relationship.
It’s also about a pattern. It’s not a one-off piece of behaviour…it builds up over time and suddenly you look around and the young person is in control of what’s happening in the family.
What do we know about why it happens?
It would be easy to say, ‘It’s down to poor parenting,’ and that’s often the typical first response or assumption. But what we see is that actually often parents are trying very, very hard.
We might be looking at something that’s happened to a child early on – early trauma, or something’s happened in their development. And we see problems in regulating mood, in understanding what’s going on in their life, in responding to certain stimuli.
But we might also see a child who’s had a trauma later on or who has suffered grief and is finding difficulties in expressing what’s happening and their emotions. They might have witnessed domestic abuse or live with mental illness or substance abuse.
Often things come together. It might be one thing piled on another. And the children themselves are often very vulnerable because of the situation they’re in and what they’re expressing through their behaviour is often a communication to let us adults know that they are in distress and that they need help themselves.
A lot of families that we work with, there are potentially learning disabilities for either the parent or the child. Children referred to us often have a secondary diagnosis, for example, of autism, Asperger’s, social defiant disorder, systemic family problems. There are also cultural factors and working with those is really important. Peer group can be a factor too.
Working with families
- It’s about being really clear with parents about taking control back; understanding where that control and power is in the first place and thinking about how you take that back.
- Setting some really simple and clear boundaries. It’s not about completely overhauling the family system – we’re thinking about: what small changes can you put into place that really say to your child and young person, “I am the parent. I am going to take responsibility and I am going to take this relationship back into the place where it needs to be”?
- It’s difficult and controversial in some areas but we need to talk to parents about calling the police. It’s really important for parents and professionals to understand that the police do not want to criminalise our children. There are a lot of hurdles before that would happen. What we’re asking a parent to do in certain circumstances is actually say, ‘I am in fear of something happening and I’m going to call the police.’ But it requires a lot of conversations.