The last taboo

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More support – and understanding – is needed for victims of violence and abuse perpetrated by their children, says Oliver Standing.

In the last quarter of 2011 I travelled around England with the director of domestic violence agency AVA, Davina James-Hanman, meeting parents whose children had drug and alcohol problems. This in itself was not unusual – many of Adfam’s projects are based on focus groups and consulting families affected by substance use. What made this project different, however, was that these parents were victims of domestic abuse perpetrated by their children.

‘I’ve had knives at my throat off him,’ one mother told us. ‘He said to me, “you better move now ’cos I’ll use it”, so I said, “do me a favour and do it because I can’t take it anymore, you’re destroying me”.’ Like victims of intimate partner violence (IPV), though, victims of child-parent violence (CPV) suffer more than acts of physical violence – domestic violence is usually manifest as a process of coercive control where the perpetrator uses emotional, psychological and sometimes physical abuse to exert power and control over a victim.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the experiences of victims of CPV mirrors those of IPV in their breadth. ‘My experience is… to do with mental harm,’ another parent told us. ‘He has just damaged me so much, I am so tired that I wonder sometimes how I can keep going.’ Many parents reported a common theme of being worn down by their children, bullied, deliberately targeted when at their weakest and financially exploited. ‘I’ve had text messages saying he’ll have his legs broken if we don’t pay £500 by this Friday, and we’ve got ourselves into serious debt,’ one parent told us.

For anyone to deal with this is, of course, immensely hard, but consider the two extra factors at work here. Firstly, the perpetrator of the abuse is the child of the victim. This reversal of the normal power relationship touches on a major taboo in most societies, which generally assume that the parent has control over the actions of the child and that any behavioural issues are the result of lax or inefficient parenting.

Even if a parental victim reaches a point where he or she attempts to sever ties with the perpetrator, they are still a parent responsible for their child in the eyes of society, the law and, often, themselves. One mother we spoke to regretted the firm stance she’d taken – ‘I wish I hadn’t thrown my son out… that goes against the grain… a mother to chuck her son out’.

Secondly, drugs and alcohol complicate the picture even more. The relationship between substances and domestic violence can be very complicated, reflected in the variety of stories shared with us. Some parents had themselves turned to alcohol for comfort, while others couldn’t stand the sight of it. Some perpetrators seemed to enter rages fuelled by drugs or alcohol, while one or two were described as even worse when sober. ‘You mention the word monster… that’s what I call my son – the monster,’ a mother said.

All these factors contributed towards a profound shame felt by many parents who did not feel comfortable sharing their experiences with professionals, and sometimes even friends and family. ‘You can’t talk to your own family – I get too upset. My twin sister doesn’t know my son is a drug addict – he’s been an addict for 20 years and she doesn’t know. I want to tell her but I don’t, I feel ashamed.’ This sense of shame and stigma was also reinforced by some of the reactions parents got from people who should have been potential sources of support, with one mother being told ‘it’s because you’re a one-parent family’ by one of her friends.

With all this stigma to face, it’s unsurprising that many parents didn’t immediately ask for help, but instead did their best to deal with the situation themselves. Even when help was available they were often not aware of the network of excellent family support groups that exist around England for families affected by drugs and alcohol. ‘I didn’t know there was support for us… I was talking to a friend and the friend told me that there was support out there for me, which I knew nothing about,’ a parent reported.

Unfortunately, when parents did make that step and ask for help, many of the responses they received were not satisfactory. A mother told us that there ‘seemed to be a problem with social services when it’s the parent or family requiring help, rather than the child. There seems to be some sort of mental block where they can’t understand, or don’t want to understand, that possibly the family are not able to deal with the child.’

We summarised everything parents told us in the report Between a rock and a hard place and made a series of recommendations for policy makers which we believe can improve recognition of CPV and, crucially, the support available for parents. You can read more of the moving, but often inspiring, stories the parents shared at www.adfam.org.uk/news/265 and if you’d like to know more about the project email me at o.standing@adfam.org.uk or call 020 7553 7656.

Oliver Standing is policy and projects coordinator at Adfam
Adfam and DDN are holding a ‘Families First’ conference for family members and professionals on 15 November in Birmingham. Details at www.drinkanddrugsnews.com