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The hidden abuse by children on parents

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Published 26.02.13

The University of Brighton has won a €751,000 (£641,000) grant to study the emerging problem of violent attacks by children on their parents and carers.

Incidents involve both young teenage boys and girls who use physical or psychological abuse to gain power, usually over their mothers.

University academics will support the multi-agency research project ‘Child to Parent Violence’ which was originally initiated by the specialist domestic violence organisation RISE, and aims to find out how countries across Europe handle the problem. The aim is to provide a toolkit for practitioners and to increase awareness in the UK.

Leading the research is Dr Paula Wilcox, principal lecturer in the university’s School of Applied Social Science, who said: “This problem is rarely articulated in government policy and it remains a taboo subject that parents and carers find difficult to disclose. We know that Spain has conducted more work on this issue and as a result seen an increase in reports by parents and carers.”

Child to Parent Violence (CPV) is defined as “any act of a child that is intended to cause physical, psychological and financial damage to gain power and control over a parent and/or carer”.

Dr Wilcox said: “Existing literature identifies that it is mainly mothers who experience it and mainly adolescent boys who perpetrate it, as well as links with domestic violence, but both areas are under-researched and due to the lack of evidence-based guidance, practitioners are often unsure how to respond to this issue.

“As a result, many young people who perpetrate CPV are not identified until they come into contact with the criminal justice system, entailing severe social costs for the family and high financial costs for the government.”

Dr Wilcox said responding to CPV has been designed to address practice intervention on this emerging problem. The project will assess the effectiveness of two existing intervention models ‘Break4Change’ and ‘Non Violent Resistance’ from a gendered perspective across five European countries – Bulgaria, Ireland, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

She said Break4Change is a specialist CPV intervention programme in Brighton and Hove which has parallel groups for parents and young people. It helps children to share, to learn and investigate their reactions and responses. They learn techniques to cope better with emotions and emotional literacy. Nonviolent Resistance (NVR) is an approach for parents who are trying to respond to CPV and offers a one to one approach.

Dr Wilcox said the partnership had been selected to reflect a wide range of expertise in CPV intervention, as well as geographical and cultural diversity across Europe.

Along with the University of Brighton, the multi-agency research group includes Brighton & Hove City Council, the National University of Ireland (Galway), Instituto de Investigacion Polibienestar – Universitat de Valencia in Spain, the National Association XXI Century Rhodopa Mountain Initiative in Bulgaria and Amal Municipality in Sweden. In relation to the Non Violent Resistance programme, the National University of Ireland (Galway) will be providing training for practitioners who are trying to respond to the needs of parents living with child to parent violence.

Researchers stressed that violence inflicted by parents on children is more common and work also needs to be done with regard to parenting. Councillor Sue Shanks, chair of Brighton & Hove City Council’s Children & Young People Committee, said: “Child-to-parent violence is unacceptable and deeply worrying so it is vital that we look at all good practice to find out what we can do to help prevent it.

“As a council, we already run innovative and targeted schemes. This is a great opportunity to further develop Break4Change and expand other programmes that provide early help such as Triple P Parenting to families to prevent problems spiralling.”

Funding for the project has been provided by the European Commission under the Daphne III programme which aims to contribute to the protection of children, young people and women against all forms of violence and to attain a high level of health protection, well-being and social cohesion.

Dr Wilcox added: “We hope to build on previous learning in this area to enable a better pan-European understanding of CPV and further develop innovative change models, identifying and publicising a range of good practice actions that can be used to safeguard and improve future outcomes for children and their families who are affected by this problem.”

Case study

Mother of two, Jane (not her real name), said: “This all started when my son was 13. It manifested in lots of shouting, smashing things, taking my bag, threatening to break things, threatening behaviour, physical violence, smashing parts of the house and being very out of control.

“This just got worse and worse. All the boundaries I had been using before just were not working. There were problems at school and he wasn’t getting the support he needed there.

“He started to run away from home and I had to phone the police. This was very tiring, very stressful, very frightening and very worrying for me as a mother and, as a result, I had very low self-esteem.

“I was so worn out that I didn’t look after myself properly and it was also affecting my daughter. Other parents who haven’t experienced this don’t understand. You feel so crap at the school gates.

“Then a Young Offenders Project worker visited and talked to us about Break4Change and this has since been a major influence. He he was straight talking with both of us, and supportive.

“My son and I attended the Break4Change programme – I don’t think it would work properly if we hadn’t both gone together. He didn’t feel he was being sent to the programme as the ‘bad boy’ and it showed him that I loved him.

“Talking helped a lot, as did meeting other parents who had the same level of behaviour going on in their lives. The alienation and stigmatisation dropped because you were amongst people with similar experiences. I was not patronised or demonised as the bad parent – they were kind and accepting and made us feel we were not horrible and that there was a way forward.”

Jane said the programme encourages parents to adjust responses, to say no and sticking to it, to not being afraid to call the police, using money initiatives, and choosing the right moment to speak to your child so as to avoid arguments.

Her son still has tantrums but his behaviour and education has very much improved, along with their relationship: “We have got back to being cuddly again.”

Jane supports the research: “If this can open up discussions to look at prioritising funding to support programmes similar to the Break4Change programme, then it will absolutely be worthwhile.”

Parents and carers needing advice can contact:

Family Lives, which offers a confidential helpline service. It can be telephoned free from landlines and most mobiles. Call skype 0808 800 2222 free for information, advice, guidance and support on any aspect of parenting and family life. Opening hours are 7am – midnight. Those needing urgently to speak to someone during the night can be diverted to the Samaritans who are available to offer emotional support.

Women’s Aid National Helpline
A 24 hour national domestic violence helpline, Skype phone 0808 2000 247.

Rise, a charity which supports women, children, young people and families affected by domestic abuse in Brighton & Hove and across West Sussex. Phone skype 01273 622 822 free.


Dr Paula Wilcox

Dr Paula Wilcox