By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine
Beaten and abused, but what if the bully is your own child? Many parents are living in fear of their children, but are too ashamed to ask for help, says a leading British charity. Why?
Threatened with a knife by a 14-year-old girl - it could be a disturbing headline from any national newspaper. But what if it happened in your own home and the teenager wielding the weapon was your own daughter?
Parents are regularly being threatened, abused, even beaten up by their own children, says a UK parental guidance charity. Many have reached the point where they are afraid to be left alone in the house with them.
New figures from Parentline Plus reveal its helpline received three calls a day on average last year from parents suffering verbal or physical abuse. For some it has been going on for years. (See box, right, for the story of one threatened mother.)
It says such aggression is more common than people think, but many parents don't ask for help because they feel ashamed.
The range of abuse includes hitting, punching, shoving, punching holes in the wall and spitting, as well as having homes and possessions destroyed during rows.
"It's shocking how many parents are frightened of their children, but there's a lot of shame surrounding the issue and they don't speak out," says Valerie Outram, of Parentline Plus.
"It's like domestic violence was 20 or 30 years ago. It's hushed up, brushed under the carpet and no one talks about it."
Children aged 13 to 15 are the most complained about age range, according to the organisation. But some parents call up about children as young as three, or grown-up offspring in their late 20s.
Mothers are the main target, making up 91% of callers. They are women of all ages and from all sections of society. But perhaps the most shocking finding is that daughters are more likely to be abusers than sons.
Tracy, who does not want to use her real name, had a knife pulled on her at home by her 14-year-old daughter.
"She started getting aggressive when she was around 11 or 12 and things just escalated," she says. "She switches in seconds from being fine to screaming and shouting. Her eight-year-old brother started doing the same. There are times when I have just been in meltdown, with no idea what to do."
It is difficult to know the true extent of parental abuse, as much of it goes unreported and is not spoken about, according to Professor Kevin Browne from Birmingham University, who has researched the issue.
AGE OF CHILDREN PROMPTING CALLS FROM ABUSED PARENTS
0-3 years 2% of calls
4-6 years 4%
7-9 years 5%
10-12 years 15%
13-15 years 35%
16-18 years 26%
19-21 years 7%
22-25 years 4%
26 and over 3%
Source: Parentline Plus
Embarrassment contributes to this silence says Suzie Hayman, a Relate-trained counsellor and author of Teach Yourself Parenting: Your Teenager.
"It's shame that [explains why] the situation is so out of control and sometimes shame about the reasons why," she says. "It stops people telling their wider family and talking to anyone."
It is also a "neglected" and "under-researched" topic academically, according to Mr Browne. But what research has been done suggests it is relatively widespread and "is a problem too large to ignore". Studies also back up much of the helpline's experience.
Society finds it hard to accept such abuse exists, says Mr Browne. He says some psychologists suggest this is because "the less powerful are taking on the role of the more powerful". Often family believe the parent must have "deserved it" in some way, he adds.
But others argue that having problems coping with your child isn't a taboo any more. There is more discussion of such behaviour and more help than ever before.
"I would question the suggestion that it is taboo," says consultant clinical psychologist Elie Godsi, author of Violence and Society: Making Sense of Madness and Badness.
"These days it's easy to label a child as having a problem if they don't do what they're told. Help is out there and parents come forward. The real issue here is being able to talk about the way people aren't coping without blaming anyone, but still holding them responsible.
"Behaviour in children is learned from the adults around them, copied and reinforced by parents who cannot cope. They give their children rubbish boundaries."
But Mr Godsi acknowledges that what isn't really talked about is the extent of aggression that is perpetrated by girls.
"Having an aggressive daughter is still a taboo," he says. "It still carries a stigma."
That girls are more likely to behave this way is not a surprise to some. Not because they are getting more violent, but because of the way they deal with issues.
"Boys and girls feel the same but have different ways of acting out when they are distressed and upset," says Ms Hayman. "Boys self-destruct outside the home by doing things like drinking or joy-riding. Girls do it in more intimate ways like arguments with parents."
In a lot of cases the reason for such aggression is obvious. The parent might have been abusive to the child in the past or the youngster may have witnessed violence in the home. Age is also an issue, with the teen years often creating a lot of issues.
But Parentline Plus is keen to counter generalisations. Mr Browne agrees that, while there is evidence that children who are aggressive to their parents have often been victims of abuse themselves, not every case is so easily explained.
One of his studies found just over half of the youngsters who said they had been violent towards their parents had not been on the receiving end of such aggression from them.
But there is always a reason, however hard it is to identify, say childcare experts. And, whatever it is, parents always feel judgement will fall on them which is why they will ring an anonymous helpline but not ask family for help, says Parentline Plus.
"People feel conflicted. They think they are supposed to love their children unconditionally," says Ms Outram. "They think they don't matter and only the child does, but they do matter. Getting them to realise that is the point at which you start tackling this problem."
Below is a selection of your comments.
My son, previously gentle and kind, started to show signs of aggression toward me around the age of 17. I have no doubt it was related to his use of cannabis and possibly other substances. Initially it was just shouting and banging around the house but the minute he started to get physical by holding my wrists and pushing me into a chair, I knew I had to act quickly - as much for his sake as mine. I called the police and they were wonderful, supporting me and being appropriately firm with my son, taking him to the station and making clear this behaviour was not acceptable. I didn't know at the time of involving the police what the outcome would be and it was not an easy decision but I knew I could not be a useful and supportive parent if I was scared of my own son. I'm glad I trusted my instincts. It took a few weeks for him to forgive me but he was never physically aggressive toward me again. It demonstrated to him that whilst I was now much smaller than him, I was still the parent. Two years later the drug phase has passed and we have a good relationship again. I would advise any parent being abused by their child, get help. keeping it secret will not help you or your child.
I am 14 and yes girls may kick off and at the end of the day the children under 12 kick off because they are spoilt 9 times out of 10 and then teenagers aged 13-16 are kicking off because of hormones, I kick off and my mum knows how to deal with it, parents need to know how to deal with moods and that does not mean by giving in. When your in college years which are 16-21 ish you go out and get drunk most of the time because that is your free time and then you obviously kick off under the influence of alchohol! So I guess that everyone who is always saying to their children "why are you being like this" and if your thinking 'my child is the worse child ever' just think it could be partly your fault by spoiling them and think as well 'well my child is in teenage years and that must mean hormones' all you parents have been that age once don't forget and please don't go on about respect because respect works both ways. As I said before I am a 14 year girl who kicks off but believe me we all do feel bad for what we do but we cannot help it! Parents you all need to think how we are feeling! You call us all selfish but isn't that being selfish by thinking about yourselves and not what we feel.
As an ex-teacher with 3 children I believe there has to be someone in the family with authority and if the parent does not seem to be strong the child will take on the role of the strong one - and this abuse is a child's way of showing their authority and strength.
Oh please! Stop reinforcing the picture of the helpless adult world faced with suddenly riotous children. It isn't that hard to deal with an "out-of-control" child, firm but fair, clear and concise. But if you don't have yourself under control and cannot vocalize your demands properly you wont get anywhere. It's not rocket science.
My son has taken on the role of 'man of the house' since I divorced four years ago. He started smoking weed 18 months ago when he changed his friends and became very violent after smoking it. He has punched a door through in the house every time there has been an argument when I have tried to discipline him. He has never hit me but has hit family members. I encouraged him to attend College and he started a Public Services course. He found new friends but had got so far behind with the written work that he was asked to leave only a few weeks before the course finished... I can only think this was to keep the College's high success rate up!! I feared the worst thinking he would get involved with hisold friends so I encouraged him to join the Army. He enrolled on a 12 week Army course and is hoping to make the next selection date. He is off the drugs and booze and I now have my son back. He realises that he would benefit from an anger management course and still feels that he can discipline his little brother but I think that small steps are getting us further along the road. I really thought my son would end up on hard drugs but I eventually got through to him that I will always love him but I didn't like him sometimes. I really feel for anyone with children who bully parents and have shed many a tear wondering how I would get through another daywith my son but he was also crying out for help and didn't know how to ask for it. I'm glad I came through the other side with him and would conclude by saying.... be patient, calm, caring, understanding and loving - the last thing a child needs is to be pushed further away.
I see some terribly unsympathetic replies regarding the parents role in bringing abuse on themselves in previous posts. If kids are on the autistic spectrum - and it's becoming increasingly apparent that many are, though to varying degrees - then often their frustrations lead to violent outbursts. While there are all sorts of strategies that help cope with this, more or less well, sometimes the best parents simply can't cope. Sometimes people who are well trained, in well run establishments, who deal with institutionalised people on the autistic spectrum can't cope either. I'm one of them, and one of the people I worked closely with was sent elsewhere because too many staff ended up in casualty. Of course some parents are bad parents, and their kids turn out badly. But many good parents are faced with kids who whether as a result of the ill luck of too many unfavourable genes happening to combine, lack of oxygen in the womb or during the birth process, childhood meningitis...find themselves faced with children who just cannot be coped with. A blanket condemnation of parents who find themselves with kids who are violent is both wrong, ill informed and - there is no beating about the bush here - really, really stupid.
David B, Tenby, Wales
Kids rule. We are not allowed to tell them off, let alone smack them. The laws will never stop people abusing kids. Many of them are drug addicts or drunks who just don't care and just want the benefits, so now us normal people have no control. Mums just don't know what to do.
Sandra Paice, Cromer, Norfolk
Whilst my own experiences of this issue are not as extreme as some of the cases mentioned, I can definitely relate to the problem. I am now 35 and regularly had to watch as my older brother would verbally and physically abuse both myself and my Mother when we were growing up in the mid 1980s. My father died when I was a year old, which left my Mother to bring up me and my older brother who was 5 at the time of my father's death. Despite having very little money, my Mother always made sure that neither of us went without, and as far as I am concerned she did an exceptional job in what were very difficult circumstances. However, this kindness didn't stop my brother from turning into a very nasty and abusive person from the age of around 12 or 13 onwards (a trait he has continued even now that he is approaching 40) when he began to get very aggressive and start punching and abusing both me and my Mother. It would usually start when he couldn't get what he wanted, and he would start screaming at my Mother and would literally grab her, bend her over and hit her several times as hard as he could on the back. My own childhood was littered with these incidents - as well as incidents when he would turn his anger on me and do the same type of thing, which eventually escalated into times when he would pin me down and spit in my face, as well as one particular time when he stabbed me in the shoulder with a metal nail file (something which I kept from my mother and only admitted to her around a year ago - a revelation she found devastating as she felt it was her fault for not being a better mother). Many is the time when my brother would go on one of his screaming tirades and my mother would just grab me and we would flee the house for 10 or 15 minutes until he calmed down. I remember after one incident when my mother had just completely had enough, and not knowing what to do ended up phoning both the Samaritans as well a nearby orphanage. My brother overheard who she was phoning and apologised, but it wouldn't be long before the abuse started up again. Mercifully, as he grew older the physical abuse against my mother lessened, and whilst the verbal abuse continued, he would take his anger out on items around the house and would punch holes in walls, kick through some of the interior doors and just generally destroy anything he could lay his hands on. In our case, his abuse towards us was not as a result of being abused himself, and I have the upmost sympathy for the parent who was threatened with a knife by her own daughter. I thank God that, excluding the incident with the nail file, the abuse that my mother and I suffered never reached such a frightening and dangerous level.
Scott, Glasgow, Scotland
My daughter is 5 and from a very early age, I could see a vast difference in her temperament compared to her older brother. She is a loving sweet child but the slightest thing can have her screaming, punching, kicking, biting and trashing her room and there have been times I have just sat on the stairs and sobbed and my son has sat and hugged me. I spoke to the GP and I talked to school and all were very helpful and kind. She is much, much better than she was but still sometimes goes into a rage, it always ends with her in floods of tears and most of the time, she can't remember the horrible things she has said to me - that she hates me, wishes I was dead, that she had a different mummy - it breaks my heart. She has sobbed in my arms and said she doesn't know why she gets so angry and that she can't help it. I am dreading her reaching her teens. I didn't know an organisation like this existed and will definitely give them a go.
Our daughter who was abusive and violent is one of five- the others were never violent or aggressive towards me. Our difficult daughter was treated the same as the others. Her behaviour was largely caused by large mounts of weed. We managed to hang on to her and now she is a wonderful daughter again. We went through 8 years of hell starting when she was about 13. I know I didn't always cope with it and must have contributed to the problem but I really resent the idea that these situations are always caused by bad parenting.
We as a family have been suffering from this for the last 5 years. We often feel like we don't matter, and the case is even with Social Services. Once they got involved, it really didn't make a difference, as they are only for the child, and not the parents. We feel outcast and often we don't discuss it. Life has been very hard on us for the last couple of years, and it has even started to affect our other children!
The article omits the prime culprit in this pandemic: the Social Services. Children know full well that if parents try to discipline them, they only have to report it to the Social Services and the whole family will disintegrate. The only solution is putting the offending child into care and obtaining a restraining order against the child from coming anywhere near the parental home.
Is this right that 2% of calls from abused parents were being abused by a 0-3 year old. Sorry but they need to get a grip, These are called tantrums...... This is not parental abuse and no survey should make out it is, Modern parents need to realise life is not a Janet and John Book and sometimes life is hard and children lash out.
My mum is in a similar situation. My younger sister is very depressed and socially anxious, and as a result relies on my mum heavily from an emotional point of view. She's threatened suicide on several occasions and doesn't have any friends or social life. This also means that my mum bears the brunt of her outbursts, and whilst it's usually verbal/emotional I have also seen scratches on her etc. It's a very painful and difficult situation and trying to handle it requires a very fine balance between protecting mum without tipping my sister over the edge or making her feel worse than she already does. This article was helpful as I wasn't aware how widespread this was, or of the existence of Parentline Plus. Thanks.
Now that parents are no longer allowed to smack their children it is no wonder they are turning more feral. My cousin pulled a knife on his father, thankfully his brothers stopped him. This attitude has only come from his mother spoiling him rotten and not teaching him any boundaries. Unfortunately this will cause him to have little success in life and probably end up with him in prison.
I disagree that it is mainly children who have witnessed abuse. As a teacher I have seen Parent abuse on many occasions. It has, in my experience, ALWAYS been because the mother is a single parent, quite a weak character, with no back-up. Each of the children in question would never have dared behave with me as they did their mothers because they knew that under no circumstances would I tolerate it. They respected me but not their parents.
The lack of strength of character of the parent would seem to be one of the main causes of the abuse.
I used to beat up my dad when I was 17. I'm really ashamed of it now, and we barely speak to each others. Whenever he would say no to something, e.g. when I asked for the permission to drink milk, beer, or simply to go to the movies, I would get in such a rage I couldn't quite control my actions. I feel terrible for all the things that happened back then, and I think that restricting my own son's access to violent movies and video games will make him a better person. Perhaps restoring corporal punishment in schools would also give the kids a sense of respect for their elders.
Legrand, Paris, France