Duncan Elliot is a life coach working out of Basingstoke in England. He particularly works with people who feel that there must be more to life and are willing to work at it, so that they can feel happier and more in control of their life. He offers life coaching in person, on the phone or via audio or video across the Internet. Click here to contact him.

Big issues - Child to parent violence

Force Four Life Coaching

Catch the wind in your sails!

A recent study found that, in the UK, around one in three adoptions that had been finalised were either “struggling” or disrupted (the child returned to care). In many of those cases, a major issue was child to parent violence.

Early trauma has a huge impact on children. Their inadequate early parenting and the loss of caregivers as they are moved from placement to placement can leave an enormous residue of anger. Often that's directed towards the mother: they've had other mothers who have “let them down” (as they see it) and project that onto their adoptive mother. Their early parenting can again mean that their stress levels are sky high, so they are often operating out of the more primitive parts of their brain. That means that their responses are freeze, flight or fight. It can also mean that they haven't learn to regulate their emotions, so when something happens that scares or upsets the child, their reaction is much bigger and more prolonged than you'd normally expect. And they may have witnessed or suffered domestic violence. They may see that violence is a normal way to approach the world. If it was one partner that suffered the violence, they may see that sex as being weak or contemptible and think that violence is the way to control people of that sex.

Some parents take on children knowing already that they are violent, hoping that their parenting will move their child on. Others, shockingly, aren't told of their child's violence until after they have moved in. For still others, the violence develops some time after placement and wasn't foreseen.

Whilst it may be OK dealing with an angry toddler, it is a quite different matter when the child grows up and I've come across numerous parents who are frightened of their children. And that's not just when they get to be teenagers. A raging five year old can do significant damage, and I've seen reports of parents with broken bones inflicted by quite young children. Sometimes it's the potential danger: parents have reported kids assaulting them when they're driving. None of those have resulted in serious accidents, but it's possible that the next one might. Or the one after that.

Not only does child to parent violence post a physical risk but it also affects you emotionally and psychologically. Some parents develop full blown post traumatic stress disorder whilst others can suffer from the same symptoms that you would expect if it were their partner who was abusing them: lack of confidence, flashbacks, fear, panic attacks, depression, etc.

If you're in a relationship, it's not just the one who is being assaulted who suffers. Witnessing your partner being assaulted on a regular basis is incredibly difficult to handle. It can lead to a huge amount of stress, feelings of impotence and even guilt that you were complicit in bringing this child into your house with the result that your partner is being assaulted.

Where it's the wife that's suffering the violence, husbands can find this particularly difficult. Men report to me that they feel that they have to solve problems, and that they feel debilitated in this situation because they aren't able to solve it. John Gray, who wrote the “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” series of books, said that the ultimate stress for a man was an issue that they can't solve and can't forget. Domestic violence against your wife is one of those!

Deciding what to do is hugely problematic. If they wade in, they're sending the message that the wife isn't strong enough to handle the situation. Also, it's likely to be in a physical way. In the UK, the policy seems to be that the authorities won't train parents in safe restraint techniques, so there's the risk that you'll injure the child with potentially huge consequences. Doing nothing is also incredibly hard: how do you stand by and see the most important person in your life getting kicked or thumped?

Some people see the issue as very black and white. “I'd never let my child hit me!” Unfortunately I've not come across any who would tell me what they'd do if it did happen to them. And it's often not that clear cut anyway. If you have an angry and disregulated child, the first incident could be an arm thrown wildly that catches you across the nose. Calm, deliberate, premeditated attempts to injure you could be some way down the road.

Therein lies the issue for many of us. We'd probably agree that there is a line that, if crossed, would trigger significant action. The problem is that the line is much more blurry than we would suggest, and it moves. We can start off with “if my child hit me then that would be it” but when we've lived with a child for a while and we understand why they're responding with violence, it can seem like it's not quite such a clear issue.

We can also blame ourselves. We've gone on courses and read books and the experts have told us how to approach our kids. If we get it wrong and the child erupts violently, we can see it as our fault.

We also have hope. We're working with our kids, trying to help them. They may be getting therapeutic support from elsewhere. The result is that we don't do anything because we expect that the problem will decrease or disappear. And the longer we do nothing, the harder it is to detect that blurry line and take action.

The fact that we are often drowning in our stress chemicals because of the violence makes it much more difficult to come to any decisions. Living in an environment of constant threat means that our stress systems will be permanently switched on. This affects our brains so that the messages rarely get through to the higher, logical areas, and we are instead operating in the instant reaction areas that deal with threat and danger. It can then be incredibly difficult to look at the bigger picture and do anything but react to immediate events. Added to that, you may not be sleeping well so even if you do access the higher parts of their brain, they can be debilitated by your exhaustion.

Finally there's the “boiling frog” problem. Apparently – and I've never tried it – if you put a frog in water and heat it slowly, the frog won't realise that it's getting too hot and will eventually boil to death. Similarly if the level of violence increases slowly, we can find it hard to realise how bad things have become. We see it that this month was just a little bit worse than last month: we don't see that it was actually horrendous!

That is where it can be useful to talk to someone independent: who isn't involved in your situation. With us, it helped us to see how extreme our situation was, which then helped us to make decisions on where to go next. If that would help you, or if you could do with support or encouragement regarding any other issues surrounding child to parent violence, then
contact me.