[International] Child to Parent Violence and Abuse

02 Dec 2019

The article below was written by Helen Bonnick, a social worker and 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.

The most useful definition we have for child to parent violence and abuse (CPVA) is that used by Amanda Holt:

A pattern of behaviour, instigated by a child or young person, which involves using verbal, financial, physical and /or emotional means to practice power and exert control over a parent....The power that is practised is, to some extent, intentional, and the control that is exerted over a parent is achieved through fear, such that a parent unhealthily adapts his / her own behaviour to accommodate the child. 

We see that it can appear to be very similar to intimate partner abuse, in the types of abuse used, the way that parents experience it and the language they use to describe it. Particularly important to note are that we usually see “a pattern” of behaviour rather than an isolated incident; that the behaviour has the effect of “controlling” the parent; that the parent is fearful; and that the parent may change their own behaviour as a result. It is more than teenagers being awkward and rebellious!

This is not a new issue, but it is one that has been “hidden” in the past. We used different ways of thinking about it as our understanding of child development, of brain functioning and of family systems evolved, for instance labelling children as bad and simply in need of punishment, or in need of medical treatment, or that this was the fault of poor parenting. In the past, there was also an emphasis on privacy concerning family dysfunction, which has made it less likely to attract attention. Researchers in America started to investigate this as early as the 1980s, but most of the work we have dates from 2009. Researchers looking at other issues started to find parents also reported that their children were abusive towards them and that they could not access help. In recent years there has been significant interest all around the world, but especially in Australia, UK and Spain. Research has often focused on links with other issues, trying to find a reason for this behaviour. At the same time, different agencies have developed responses as parents have approached them for help, recognising that this was an issue affecting many families.

We cannot say exactly how many families are affected, but the figure of 10% has been suggested. Reading the research, and listening to clinicians, we have drawn the following conclusions:

  • In about half of families experiencing CPVA, the children will have previously witnessed domestic abuse between the adults.
  • Around 40% of children have some sort of diagnosis, often ASD, ADHD, FASD.
  • As many as 30% of adoptive families report abuse and violence from their adopted children on a regular basis.
  • CPVA is often a feature of families where young people are using drugs or alcohol.
  • About 75% of harm is caused by boys and young men, and about 75% of harmful behaviour is towards mothers.
  • This can affect families of every race, culture and social group. 

If we understand that “Behaviour is Communication” we see that often children are responding to an experience of trauma, problems within the family, difficulty in communicating, or in regulating their emotions, or in response to anxiety and fear about their own or other’s actions and threats.

Just as practitioners are only now learning about CPVA, parents often do not have the words to describe what is happening, they may feel very ashamed, or they may just feel this is normal. Families seeking help may talk about not being able to get a child to school, about feeling depressed or exhausted by their home situation, about their child being out of control. They may have bruising or other injuries. Schools may identify children with behaviour issues. The police may be concerned about young people being vulnerable to exploitation or involved in anti-social behaviour. In all of these situations, there may also be violence and abuse from a child to their parent, but we may not know about it. 

Parents have said that the most important thing for them is that when they ask for help someone listens to them and takes them seriously. Wherever the help comes from, there are several common features:

  • Naming the abuse
  • Working towards the child taking responsibility for their actions
  • Building a supportive network for the parents
  • Prioritising things to change
  • Learning ways to de-escalate confrontations in the home
  • Understanding the other issues involved and providing support for these as well.

The aim of the support is to restore positive and healthy family relationships and to keep everyone safe. Families generally want to stay together. Help early on can stop things getting worse, but there may be some situations where children’s needs are very complex, or the relationship has broken down so badly that separation is needed for the health and safety of all. Many programmes of help now have evidence to show they are effective. They are being used within youth justice, within children’s social care services, mental health services, domestic abuse agencies, education, and sometimes agencies which just work with CPVA; but of real importance is that agencies also work together to understand the whole situation and to address all the needs the family has.

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