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Child to Parent Abuse
Amanda Holt summarises the research findings on child to parent abuse, covering its prevalence, contexts, and impacts.

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Implications for youth justice

The latest (26 August 2022) Academic Insight from the probation inspectorate explores the issue of child to parent abuse. Authored by Dr Amanda Holt of the University of Roehampton, the report summarises the research findings on child to parent abuse, covering its prevalence, contexts, and impacts before considering the implications for youth justice practice.

Definition

Dr Holt starts by presenting a definition of child to parent abuse (reproduced below) and highlights two key points. Firstly, the importance of a pattern or behaviour, which recognises the importance of differentiating this problem from one-off incidents when teenagers “kick off”. Secondly that the term parents covers all people in that role including foster carers and other family members who may be acting as the parental figure. 

“A pattern of behaviour…which involves using verbal, financial, physical and/or emotional means to practise power and exert control over a parent…such that a parent unhealthily adapts his/her own behaviour to accommodate the child. Commonly reported abusive behaviours include name-calling, threats to harm self or others, attempts at humiliation, damage to property, theft and physical violence”

Dr Hold goes on to explain the complexity of the problem depending on the age of the child (see the graphic below) although the report focuses on children and young people.

Disclosure

Dr Holt usefully describes how child to parent abuse constitutes a ‘double stigma’ because it combines the stigma of being a victim of domestic/family violence with the stigma of being the parent of a ‘difficult’ or ‘troublesome’ child. The shaming and blaming that accompanies stigma means that parents/carers are very reluctant to disclose their experiences of child to parent abuse both to professionals and friends and family. Dr Holt also lists three additional reasons why parents/carers are reluctant to disclose:

  1. fear of retribution (whether from their child or from other family members)
  2. fear of the consequences (e.g. removal of the child (or other family members) from the family home, or criminalisation of the child)
  3. fear of not being taken seriously, or of not being believed.

Patterns

Interestingly, the research evidence shows that mothers are much more likely to be targeted than fathers. The evidence around the gender of children is less certain with both sons and daughters disclosing abuse towards parents. However, violence by sons is more likely to be reported to the police and it may be that daughters are more likely to engage in psychological and verbal, rather than violent abuse.

In terms of the age of children and young people involved, Dr Holt shares data from a study of incidents reported to the Metropolitan Police Service which found that two thirds of incidents (65%) involved those aged 19-25 years old, one third (34%) involved 15-18 year olds and just 1% related to the behaviour of 12-14 year olds.

Impact

Dr Holt sets out the findings from an increasingly robust evidence base about the impacts of child to parent abuse on families. Aside from the obvious physical injuries caused by the violence, there are wider impacts for parents/carers in terms of their psychological health (e.g. anxiety and depression), financial harms (e.g. loss of income and home, property damage), family relationships (e.g. marital conflict), and harms to social life (including social withdrawal and isolation). She notes that the abusive behaviours also often target others in the family home, including siblings and pets. Even if not directly targeted, siblings often withdraw from the family in response – for example, by spending more time outside the home or by withdrawing into their bedrooms.

Interventions

The complexity of parental abuse means that a multi-agency response is important. For this reason, some youth offending services have piloted a ‘Junior Marac’, which applies the multi-agency risk assessment conference (MARAC) model used in cases of adult domestic abuse to cases involving children under 16 years.

Youth offending services vary in their responses to child to parent abuse. Dr Holt says that while some have pioneered in-house intervention programmes, many of these have been reduced in recent years due to budget cuts; particularly because programmes are very resource-intensive and it can be difficult to engage young people. Other youth offending services have trained practitioners to run specialist interventions while still others offer more general interventions such as family mediation, functional family therapy, multi-systemic therapy, and family group conferences, usually in partnership with other agencies.

Conclusion

Dr Holt concludes by saying that child-parent abuse is almost definitely under-identified and that, where it is identified, it requires a tailored and multi-agency response which is frequently not available.

She ends with a cautionary note that there is growing recognition of the need to address the problem at all stages of the life course – from the early years, when parents/carers often request help but the problem is ignored, into adulthood, when the problem can endure and produce even greater (and sometimes fatal) harms.

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