When children turn on their parents

Domestic abuse does not only involve violence between partners or child abuse, but there are also instances where a child is abusive towards one or both parents. Sandy Calleja Portelli delves into the subject.
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Home. It should be a safe haven, the place you retire to at the end of the day, where you can comfortably be yourself secure in the knowledge that you are where you belong, ideally surrounded by the people dearest to you.

Unfortunately, for too many people this ideal home scenario is a pipe dream as they live in fear of the next attack from somebody who is supposed to love and cherish them; a partner, parent or child. And no, the last one is not a typo.

We are accustomed to reading about intimate partner violence or child abuse, but cases of domestic violence in which a child is abusive towards one or both parents are still relatively unheard of although it is neither a new phenomenon nor is it as rare as we would like to believe.

As at May 2015, almost a hundred cases had been reported to Aġenzija Appoġġ. I met up with some of the professionals within the Foundation for Social Welfare Services to delve deeper into the issue of what is termed ‘child to parent’ abuse.

“Globally, the awareness about child to parent violence is very recent and we treat it within domestic violence,” Alfred Grixti, chief executive officer of the Foundation for Social Welfare Services (FSWS) says.

“Once we established the fact that this type of violence is also happening on our shores, we set out to ensure that our staff is adequately trained to deal with this issue. We have brought foreign experts who conducted a one week intensive training session and also organised a seminar directed towards stakeholders.

“We wanted to ensure that our staff is qualified to offer the highest level of assistance to all involved and everything we do is evidence-based; we don’t just start a service without researching it thoroughly. We are very proud to say that we are on the cutting edge of research and practice within this field.”

“Parents who are experiencing this kind of abuse will be afraid and will often find that they adapt their own behaviour so as not to provoke their child”

Roberta Agius, operations manager within Aġenzija Appoġġ, explains that child to parent violence is a problem that affects families from all socio-economic and geographical backgrounds. It usually manifests itself between the ages of 10 and 17 which is a difficult period for most youngsters. Although challenging behaviour is common as adolescents try to assert their independence, abusive behaviour goes beyond what is acceptable as the child tries to control the parent, making threats and demanding money.

“Parents who are experiencing this kind of abuse will be afraid and will often find that they adapt their own behaviour so as not to provoke their child,” social worker Maria Mangion notes.

“Although we cannot generalise, we have noticed that cases of child to parent violence are often a result of previous domestic violence within the family and the majority of cases reported involve a son exhibiting violence towards his mother. We often find out about these cases through schools; usually the mother has to go to the school because of her son’s behaviour issues and it all comes pouring out,” Grixti explains.

“There are various characteristics that can lead to a child’s violence towards a parent but it is always related to some kind of past trauma which has not been adequately dealt with either because the child did not speak out or was not believed. Of course, the traumatic experience may not necessarily be only domestic violence but could include sexual abuse or bullying so it’s important to find the underlying cause of the child’s behaviour to prevent it from spilling over into other relationships,” Agius continues.

When working with families who have reported cases of child to parent violence, Aġenzija Appoġġ has a zero tolerance to violence policy and makes it clear to all concerned that violence is never acceptable. After a risk assessment is carried out by social workers, the family members attend a number of sessions where they work towards adopting a ‘no violence contract’ which covers physical, verbal and emotional violence.

“We often find that the dynamics within a family are very complicated; sometimes even the way family members communicate amongst themselves is related to issues of power and control. These children are often both perpetrators and victims themselves which is why it is crucial that we break the cycle by offering therapy rather than portioning blame,” Agius says.

“These children are often both perpetrators and victims themselves which is why it is crucial that we break the cycle”

Parents who feel they are being subjected to child to parent abuse are encouraged to seek help at the earliest opportunity. While the police should be called in cases of imminent danger, in situations where parents are concerned but not in immediate danger, they are encouraged to contact Aġenzija Appoġġ by calling on 179 or by speaking to one of the community social workers.

After carrying out a risk assessment and a social work assessment which is geared to establishing the type of help of the family needs, the family members would then be put into contact with the ‘Child to Parent Violence Services’ which is part of the ‘Managing Abusive Behaviour Service’ within Aġenzija Appoġġ’s ‘Domestic Violence Services’ where a social worker and a therapist meet with individual members of the family to make sure that each person feels safe. Once a ‘non-violence agreement’ is established within the family, long term therapy is offered to all members of the family.

Different scenarios

The following stories are made up from a number of cases referred to the Managing Abusive Behaviour Service within Aġenzija Appoġġ. All names, family details and specific incidents are fictitious.

Case 1

Seven years ago, Anna had to leave home with her three children, Alan, Alex, and Angela (now aged 19, 16 and 11 respectively) because of her husband’s escalating abusive behaviour. Although life was hard for the family as Anna struggled to juggle work with childcare whilst trying to regain her physical and emotional strength, they appeared to be coping well. Although Anna’s schedule meant that the family’s days were not very structured, the children were doing well in school and maintained a relationship with their father.

In the summer of 2015, Anthony took the three children out for the day and unexpectedly announced that he would not be seeing them again until they were older. The estrangement from his father hit Alex particularly hard; he lost all interest in school, started truanting and went from achieving excellent grades to failing in most subjects.

At home, he turned his anger towards his mother blaming her for making him lose his father.

“Alex was 13 at the time and already going through that rebellious teenage stage but when his dad stopped visiting he started calling me vicious names, saying he wished I were dead and that he would love nothing better than to attend my funeral. It was like being with my husband all over again,” Anna recalls.

Hoping this was just a phase that would pass, Anna tried to pacify her son but rather than calm down, his anger seemed to increase until after one particular argument he grabbed a knife and chased his mother through their flat until she locked herself in the bathroom. From that day, Alex would often physically lash out at his mother.

“What could I do? We all tried to keep him happy and calm but I never knew what would set him off. I didn’t want to report him to the police; he’s my son and I love him but at the same time, I have to protect Alan and Angela. I worry he will hit Angela or that Alan will one day lose his temper and retaliate – then what would happen? Last summer Alex went on a rampage, he started throwing stuff at me because he didn’t like what I was cooking for dinner. He kicked a hole in my bedroom door, yelled how he wished he was dead and stormed out of the flat. As soon as he left I called Appoġġ; they had helped me when I left Anthony and I didn’t know where else to turn,” Anna says.

A social worker met with Anna to assess the situation and a care team which included a psychiatrist, psychologist and social workers has since been working with the family both individually and as a group to help them work towards achieving healthier relationships. The family signed up to a non-violence agreement and are currently working through their issues.

Case 2

Joseph had a very difficult childhood; he was constantly criticised and denigrated by his domineering father and vowed he would never do the same to his own daughters; Jacqueline is 13 and Julia is 10. Although Joseph’s wife Jane also works full time and the family have a good income, Joseph regularly works later than strictly necessary which has caused a strain between the couple.

Jacqueline, who used to be something of a ‘daddy’s girl’ when she was younger picked up on the marital discord and has taken to insulting Joseph at every opportunity. “It started just after her 10th birthday. She wanted to go out to the cinema with friends but without an adult. Jane and I had a row about whether she should be allowed to go or not and in the end, we said she could only go if Jane or I went too. Even though I thought we should have let her go, Jacqueline called me ‘a useless idiot’”, Joseph remembers.

From then on, Jacqueline’s insults have escalated, she has started drinking and experimenting with recreational drugs and regularly demands extra money from her father whom she insults and mocks at every turn. “Jane never corrects her about this behaviour and seems to think the child is right and that it’s my fault. I thought that opposing Jacqueline would just make drugs and alcohol more attractive to her. I really thought she would grow out of it if I didn’t fuel the fire but things have gone too far now. She is using drugs more regularly and her behaviour has escalated to the point that I just can’t bear it.”

After Joseph contacted Aġenzija Appoġġ, the family has been assigned a social worker and psychologist. Joseph and Jane are seeking help with their marital difficulties whilst Jacqueline has also been offered services to help her break her drug habit. Although the situation within the family is still fraught with difficulties, they have established emotional boundaries and agreed to adopt a non-violent contract.

Parenting tips

▪ Establish age-appropriate boundaries at a very early age; violence is never acceptable.

▪ Teach children how to express their emotions in an acceptable manner and model this behaviour yourself.

▪ Maintain appropriate discipline – establish and enforce rules.

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