|Why has this form of abuse been ignored?
How common is this form of abuse?
Different types of violence towards parents?
Steps to regaining control?
Violence to parents (from children and young people)
The issue of children's violence and abuse of parents is not one that attracts much publicity or research. Of the tens of thousands of articles written on family violence over the past 20 years only a few dozen are on children's violence to parents. Books and articles on children's behaviour problems, on delinquency, on parenting, general books on family violence, and even books on the effects of exposure to adult violence on children almost never mention this topic. There is very little on the web (see links bottom right). If you want academic articles see the link to "Bibliography" above and if you are a parent you may want to check out "Books for Parents" above. Tell me if you find useful ones.
There are some reasonable reasons why this form of family violence has been largely ignored or downplayed:
Some not-so-good reasons why the topic has been largely neglected are:
I don't believe we can answer that question with anything other than a wild guess. If you read some of the articles written on the subject you'll repeatedly come across the "fact" that about 10% of adolescents are violent towards parents. I don't believe that this is at all a meaningful statistic because the surveys ask about people hitting each other. People in families hit each other quite a lot but most of this is not abusive. Someone lashing out in an atypical rage can be upsetting and the action itself may be said to be abusive but this does not in itself make an abusive relationship. People also hit each other in fun, in self defence and about 2 or 3% of adolescents will give "cool" or amusing answers to researchers - who amazingly often believe what teenagers say about thier own violence!
This form of family violence is common enough to be a serious problem, but I don't believe it is as common as abuse of wives by their husbands or of abuse of children by parents (though it is catching up). My guestimate from the existing research is that 2 to 4% of families with adolescents have a real problem with abuse of parents. This is still an awful lot of families and an awful lot of misery! I have no doubt that violence to parents is far more common than it was in the past and I have heard many many professionals say they are seeing more of it than 10 or 20 years ago. . I won't say it's an "epidemic" though. We are already having an epidemic of epidemics!
I think there are 3 reasons why it is increasing:
1) more women are leaving abusive husbands (this is certainly a GOOD THING overall but leaves them vulnerable to kids mimicing their fathers. I believe we have made some progress in societal attitudes to DV (though still a long way to go!).
2) parents are more indulgent, permissive and democratic - most of the time this is a GOOD THING but for some children it becomes a serious problem. It is possible to be too child focussed and the idea that the more attention, praise and love a child gets the better they will be is naive. You can have too much of a good thing! This has been called "Intensive Parenting".
3) There have been societal changes that affect almost all children, but exaggerated in some families and for some individual children, and these act along with the other factors. As a society we do not respect age in the way that almost all past societies (and non-Western societies today) do. We are less in awe of authority, a trend which has been developing all last century but sped up in the sixties. We emphasise individualism more than any other society. Our children are exposed to an immersive brainwashing aimed at making them avid consumers. Gadgets and possessions are integral to thier lives in a dramatically new way. These factors lead to children with high feelings of entitlement. The changes in parenting add fuel to this fire. Media culture (playing an incresingly large role in children's lives) encourages kids to be demanding, over-entitled, bratty consumers with little respect for age or authority and a general air of nihilistic negativity. We let marketers spend billions creating demand in our kids so we shouldn't be at all surprised that some become far more demanding! As a society we have handed a large part of our children's socialisation over to people who just want to exploit them for profit! (For more on societal changes see the hand-out "Children & our Toxic Culture" in the Resources section to the right)
One of the confusing things about this subject is that children may hit parents in quite a few different situations:
Looking at this list it should be obvious that there can be no one explanation for every situation where children are violent towards parents. Nor does the above cover every possible situation.I'm most interested in the last 2 categories. These are the ones I've mostly dealt with in my counselling practice and met in groups for parents that I've run (I've now dealt with over 360 families over the past 20 years).
What are the causes of children's violence to parents?
I now have a sample of nearly 500 young people who have been abusive to parents. I've also had feedback from over 1,000 professionals who have attended my workshops and have studied the research (see my Master's thesis). However, the research is full of contradictions and "experts" disagree strongly on even the most basic facts about violence to parents. Although my sample is one of the largest of its kind in the world it is based on families who have asked for help or attended a group so it is quite likely that there are selection biases. The Step-up program in Seattle, USA, have released comparable stats after 10 years of working with several hundered young people who are violent in the home (on Bibliography see Routt & Anderson 2011). Their stats are surprisingly similar to mine about a number of issues (such as gender and past DV). Studies in Spain also find roughly the same ratios of boys and girls, of sole parent families and of past DV. I've spoken to many workers and researchers in England and the pattern there is very similar too. It appears to be a common problem throughout the Western World but is still widely ignored. Almost everyone agrees that it has increased greatly in the past few decades.
There is NEVER just one cause for any complex behaviour and "explanations" of someone's behaviour may be in terms of the individual (both genetic/biological and past experience), the family, and the wider society. All of these play a part. Having a condition such as ADHD or a disability is never an explanation on its own - these just alter the probabiliites (as does being a boy rather than a girl).
Gender: Being male is the biggest single influence on abuse of parents. In my sample 70% of the children violent to parents are boys. The number of girls is creeping up but the idea that boys and girls are equal in violence to parents seems ludicrous to me. However, there are some people who believe that boys and girls, and men and women, are equally violent within the home! This is based on sociological surveys which ask about acts of violence taken out of context and include a lot of trivial, playful and defensive violence. A number of studies similarly find that about a third of the children violent to parents are girls, remarkably consistent in different countries and different decades. This is quite similar to the gender ratio for bullying and for behaviour problems generally (see my Master's thesis). On the other hand there are some people who are dismissive of girls violence suggesting that most violence is boys towards mothers. This certainly is the most common pattern but almost half of all cases of violence to parents involve either a girl as perpetrator or a fathers as victim (though usually the mother is also a target).
Mothers are undoubtedly the most common victims by quite a long way. However, in two parent families half of all the fathers are also victims and sole fathers seem to be almost as likely to be victimised as are sole mothers (taking into account that there are far more sole mothers and they are far more likely to have been victims of family violence than are sole fathers). Some people are surpised that so many fathers are victims (or they choose to ignore them for ideological reasons) while others believe that fathers are just as often victims. The sociological surveys I mentioned (usually using something called the Conflict Tactics Scale) sometimes find that young people claim to hit fathers MORE than mothers. The reason for this is quite simple: it is embarassing to be violent to a mother but boys, and some girls, boast about violence to fathers and step-fathers. Basically anything anyone says about their own violence should be taken with more than a pinch of salt. Sadly many surveys of youth seem to assume that they will give honest answers about things like violence, drink and drugs and sex. They don't, even in anonymous surveys.
Sole mothers are only slightly more likely to be abused than are women in relationships if there has not been past domestic violence. After being male, having been exposed to domestic violence is the biggest single influence on children's violence to parents. Almost half of the 480 families I have records on have past domestic violence. The typical scenario is a sole mother (or mother plus step-father) where her ex has physically abused her. One child (occasionally two) later copy the father's behaviour and are violent to their mother (rarely to the step-father). These children are almost never violent to their abusive father even if they go live with him. This does not merely affect boys but in my sample the girls are just as likely to have been exposed to domestic violence as are the boys. Thus it is not as simple as boys copying fathers and girls copying mothers. And "copying" is not just having seen the actual behaviour. Quite a few of these children never directly witnessed the violence (some parents separated when the child was young or in the womb) but were exposed to their fathers attitudes and, often, to him denegrating their mother and verbally abusing her. Sadly, people lose respects for victims and even knowing that their mother has been a victim seems to make some children lose respect for her. If they have seen Mum abused by more than one person (including older brothers and sisters) the effect is compounded and when they start abusing her themselves they lose respect even quicker.
The most common pattern is a boy abusing a sole mother post domestic-violence. However, only 25% of the families in my sample fit this pattern, so we shouldn't ignore girls-as-perpetrators or father's-as-victims - both are common (50% of my sample have one or the other). Sexism and chauvinism do play a part in this behaviour in many cases, but they are not big factors in this form of violence (unlike adult domestic violence).
Most forms of family violence are found throughout society but all others are more common among people who are less educated and who live in poverty. Violence to parents is generally not found to be related to social class or parents education. However, research findings are confused and often contradictory. There is some evidence that violence to parents is actually higher among families with better off and better educated parents. However, as domestic violence is associated with poverty and lower education this tends to hide the social class effects if there are a lot of sole parents in the sample. Yes, it is confusing! What I've found consistently is that there are slighlty more middle class and educated parents being abused by their children than might be expected by chance. Even more noticable is that I've seen a disproportionate number of parents who are in the helping professions: teachers, nurses and welfare workers. In all 20% of all the parents I've seen are currently working in the helping professionals! This may be a biased sample (they are better at finding resources but are more embarassed to admit such problems) but it still disproves the common idea that these parents are authoritarian, stupid or even abusive. Nothing could be further from the truth!
I’ve had people reject my conclusions on the basis that I work in private practice so am seeing a nicer class of parents. Some professionals are keen to blame parents and are strongly motivated to discredit some of my conclusions. I’ve been working in private practice for 5 years and before that worked in not-for-profit organisations. The majority of the 460 young people in my sample had families who were dealing with these not-for-profit organisations. What’s more, although I work for myself most of my clients are funded by Medicare and either pay nothing or a $15 gap. I am based in one of the poorer parts of Melbourne and most of my referrals come from charitable or government agencies. There is thus
no obvious difference between the families I dealt with before and after going into private practice.
1. Examine your attitudes: What are you feeling guilty about? Is this helpful? What is really your responsibility? What are your rights as a person and as a parent?
2. Look at the young person’s behaviour: what is normal, what is acceptable, what is dangerous, what is abusive?
3. Think about why they behave as they do and throw out the unhelpful myths. Labels such as ADHD, “conduct disorder”, “depression”, “learning difficulties” etc are not excuses for bad behavior. If they have a real condition (and you can’t assume they have just because of their awful behaviour), is it so severe that they are actually out of touch with reality? If not then you should still demand acceptable behaviour. Even young people with schizophrenia need boundaries and control.
4. Prioritise: What behaviours do you need to reduce or eliminate (especially abusive or self-destructive behaviour)? What behaviour do you merely wish to discourage (such as annoying habits)? What behaviour can you ignore for now? What behaviour do you want to encourage? Be clear about your priorities. Whether or not a teenager does their homework is not currently very important if they are also abusing you and drugs. Choose your battles carefully.
5. Clearly define the behaviour in your child you need to change: what is acceptable and unacceptable to you (and your partner).
6. Look at how you are currently reacting and try to stop unhelpful patterns, such as physical punishment, escalating power struggles, your own temper tantrums, lectures, unrealistically high standards or expectations, battles with your partner, etc.
7. Look at all the things you do for your child. Consider which could be used as consequences. Eliminate those you feel too guilty about not doing (or that you don’t have your partner’s support for not doing).
8. Look for any other privileges that you can control and use as consequences (phones, transport, internet, favorite foods, etc). Unless your child cares (at least a little) about them they are of no use as consequences. However, if behaviour is really unacceptable it is often better to have any consequence rather than none.
9. Make a detailed plan for how you are going to encourage your child to behave in a civilized manner. Work out how your child will try to sabotage or wriggle out of it, and make contingency plans. Don’t rely on their cooperation or good will.
10. Announce or present the plan to your child (preferably in writing). You can discuss it and perhaps negotiate about small details but don’t make any changes on the spur of the moment and don’t let them take control.
11. Get support from other people for the changes you intend making. This may include family, teachers, parents of your child’s friends and even your child’s friends themselves. Your ex may be a potential ally if you can set aside personal differences. If your child is potentially dangerous you may want to alert the local police or child protection agency.
12. Consider the fall-back options if your child continues to refuse to cooperate. If you are attempting to use consequences that require any cooperation from the child you need to consider what you can use as a fall-back if you don’t get this cooperation, and make this alternative clear to the child.
13. Be prepared for a backlash if you are suddenly trying to be firm. Many children will test your resolve and a few may even become more violent.
14. Make a safety plan in case the worst happens. Who ya gonna call? (There is no such thing as Brat-Busters).
15. Institute your plan of action (remaining positive and confident and prepared for abject failure at the same time).
16. Revise as necessary. They are your rules for your home, so don’t feel that you can’t change them. Don’t let your child play barrack-room lawyer and attempt to wriggle through loop-holes. Be firm but fair!
17. Very important: Give positive feedback, affection, encouragement and occasional rewards or celebrations if your child is improving even if you think it is an act and won’t last. Don’t wait till they are perfect before acknowledging improvement.
18. Expect relapses and new crisis. Don’t get disheartened by these.
19. Get on with your own life regardless of what your child decides to do. Don’t let your happiness depend totally on any one person.
20. There is no number twenty. It just sounded better than 19, so make up your own number 20. You’re in charge!
Some e-mails from parents:
Send me your story - it can be of great help to others, who often feel terribly alone with these problems.
So far I'm managing to reply to almost all e-mails. I can't promise but I'll try.
Workshops & training
I'm leaving Australia June 2019.
FOR TRAINING IN THE UK:
There is a DVD of this seminar available (free) from QCDFVR.
Short video on the Who's in Charge? group:
Melbourne groups for Parents
Who's in Charge? groups in Victoria
I'm no longer keeping this up to date.
Connections have taken over WIC? groups in Casey/Cardinia/Dandenong area: WIC_Flyer May 2015
Monash Youth Services Who's in Charge? group, Clayton Phone: 9518 3900
Who's in Charge? group in Camberwell, Feb 2014 contact: Zoe at Camcare 9882 2216
Family Life in Sandringham
Family Life WIC? July 2013 (Chelsea)
New WiC? group in Knox
Geelong: "Parent Power" group is similar to WIC? Chris Storm @ Bethany: 5245 2835.
Who's the Boss? group Who's the Boss? Feb 28th 2012 Inner South Community Health run regular groups in Prahran or South Melbourne.
Other groups in Melbourne:
"Breaking the Cycle" Anglicare, Box Hill: 9896 6322
"Tara Group" Berry Street, Heidelberg: 9450 4700 Tara group flier
Keeping Families Safe
Tough Love groups meet at Wantirna on Wed nights and Morrabin on Tues: 03 9513 7222, email: email@example.com
South Australia: Who's in Charge? groups in Adelaide:. Woodville
Queensland: Who's in Charge? group in Mackay.
Tough Love group in Brisbane.
VIC: 13 22 89
13 20 55
Please let me know of specific services in other Australian states as I get contacted by some very desparate and isolated parents seeking help with violent children.
I'm not aware of ANY services specific to parents with abusive children in NSW, WA, NT or Tasmania.
The following two (complementary) articles on violence to parents are aimed at professionals but many parents have found them useful (I'm working on more parent-friendly material - watch this space). They were published in 2004 in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Family Therapy
Article 1: "Parents Victimised by their Children" 2004 (303 kb)Article 2:"Youth who Victimise Parents" 2004 (307 kb)
My Master's Thesis
When Teens Abuse Their Parents by Barbara Cottrell, Fernwood Publishing (Nova Scotia) 2005
The following are just a few of the handouts I've produced for use with groups or in counselling. They may be used by individuals or non-profit organisations. Feedback appreciated.
Consequences (64 kb)
Myths of Anger (54 kb)
Entitlement vs. Responsibility (58 kb)
Mental Ammunition against Anger (153 kb) (kid version)
Anti-abuse affirmations (153 kb)
Link to Bibliography on bar at top of this page. Please send additional references when you notice omissions.
Web-links to others articles:
Current State of Knowledge on Child-To-Mother Violence: A Literature Review from "Contemporary Nurse"
LinksIt's quite incredible how little there is in the WWW on this topic! If you find anything useful please send me the link.
Blog of English social worker about violence to parents:
Who's in Charge? groups and facilitato training in the UK:
One of the first sites to discuss this topic:
If you don't have a Reader for Adobe PDF files click below:
I'm always happy to hear from anyone researcing this topic and have a list of researchers in various countries that I'm happy to share.
Copyright 2009 Eddie Gallagher All Rights Reserved.