Brighton researchers look into children who abuse their mothers

Posted On 05 Mar 2013 at 9:15 am

A mother of two from Brighton and Hove has spoken about her despair as her 13-year-old son turned violent.

Jane (not her real name) said that her son shouted at her, threatened her, stole from her and became physically violent.

She described feeling scared and helpless – and worried about the effect that it was having on her daughter.

Jane also praised a project being run in Brighton called Break4Change.

It aims to help children who are violent and abusive towards their parents and carers. At the same time the project supports those parents and carers too.

Jane 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.

Paula Wilcox

“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 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 among 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 that the Break4Change programme encouraged parents to adjust their responses, to say no and stick to it and to not be afraid to call the police.

“It looked at how to choose the right moment to speak to a child to avoid arguments.”

She said that her son still had tantrums but added that his behaviour and education was much improved along with their relationship. She said: “We have got back to being cuddly again.”

Perhaps not surprisingly Jane supports the research being led by Brighton University into children who are violent towards their parents and how best to handle it.

She said: “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.”

Councillor Sue Shanks

The university has won a €751,000 (£641,000) grant to study what academics have descried as the emerging problem of violent attacks by children on their parents and carers.

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

University academics will support the research project on child to parent violence which was originally initiated by the specialist Brighton-based domestic violence organisation Rise.

The research will look at how countries across Europe handle the problem of child to parent violence.

The aim is to provide a toolkit for experts and to increase awareness in the wider community in Britain.

The research is being led by Paula Wilcox, principal lecturer in the university’s School of Applied Social Science.

She 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 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 (child to parent violence) 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 that the project would assess the effectiveness of two existing models of intervention.

One is Break4Change in Brighton and Hove and the other is known as non-violent resistance. The use of non-violent resistance in five European countries – Britain, Ireland, Spain, Sweden and Bulgaria – will be studied.

She said that Break4Change was a specialist intervention programme in Brighton and Hove with 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.

Non-violent resistance is an approach for parents who are trying to respond to violent or abusive children and one to one.

Dr Wilcox said that the research partnership had been selected to reflect a wide range of expertise in dealing with child to parent violence. It also reflected the geographical and cultural diversity across Europe.

The university’s research partners include Brighton and Hove City Council, the National University of Ireland Galway, the Instituto de Investigacion Polibienestar at the Universitat de Valencia in Spain, the National Association XXI Century Rhodopa Mountain Initiative in Bulgaria and Amal Municipality in Sweden.

The National University of Ireland is to provide training in the non-violent resistance programme targeting experts who are trying to help 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, who chairs Brighton and Hove City Council’s Children and 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.

The programme is intended to help protect children, young people and women against all forms of violence and to encourage better 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 (child to parent violence) 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.”

Find help

Parents and carers needing advice can contact a number of organisations. They include

Family Lives – a confidential helpline service open form 7am to midnight. Calls are free from landlines and most mobiles. Call or Skype 0808 800 2222 free for information, advice, guidance and support on any aspect of parenting and family life. 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. Call or Skype 0808 2000 247.

Rise – a charity supporting women, children, young people and families affected by domestic abuse in Brighton and Hove and across West Sussex. Call or Skype 01273 622822 free.


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