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What Happens When a Child Abuses a Parent

Identifying and responding to child-to-parent violence.

Key points

  • Child-to-parent violence is a subset of family violence that is often ignored or misidentified.
  • This behaviour includes aggression, violence, or coercion perpetrated by an adolescent or adult child toward parents.
  • Risk factors for child-to-parent violence include substance use, a history of experiencing parental violence, and social maladjustment.
Dejan Dundjerski/Shutterstock
Source: Dejan Dundjerski/Shutterstock

When we think about family violence or domestic violence (the terms are often used interchangeably), we are usually referring to intimate partner violence, i.e., violence (including physical, emotional or sexual violence) perpetrated by people within the realms of intimate relationships. However, family violence encompasses any abuse that occurs within the bounds of family structures.

One key type of abuse we often neglect to address involves child-to-parent violence. This involves violence or abuse perpetrated by adolescents and adult children against their parents. There is stigma and shame around the concept that a child might choose to hurt a parent, and parents often attempt to ignore, placate, or surrender to these behaviours, instead of seeking support. Child-to-parent violence can take a range of forms. It may include verbal abuse and name-calling, property damage (such as punching holes in the wall), financial abuse (such as extortion of money to support substance use) and physical violence, including threatened or actual violence. Occasionally, it may involve sexual violence.

Child-to-parent violence has been found to occur more commonly when the offending child has experienced violence perpetrated by a parent. While the mechanisms of this relationship are unclear, it is likely that children who have been abused directly or have witnessed family violence have internalised templates around the use of violence and control as a means of managing difficulties. Research has shown that children will often engage in violence against opposite-sex parents, especially if that parent was victimised by the same-sex parent (i.e., boys are more likely to become aggressive toward their mothers, if their mother was victimised by their father). This effect is stronger in males than females.

Children who grow up within families characterised by violence often struggle to attach to caregivers and do not develop initial self-soothing and emotional regulatory capacities, rendering it more likely that they will struggle to manage difficult emotions adaptively and may react expressively with anger. Other risk factors for engaging in this form of abuse include drug use and social maladjustment, including difficulties at school and with peer groups. Parenting styles, such as overly authoritarian and rigid parenting (“You must do as I say”), or, conversely, overly permissive parenting (“You can do whatever you want”) may contribute to abuse by children. Overly authoritarian parenting may model the use of harsh discipline and violence, as well as engender humiliation and anger in children. Conversely, overly permissive parenting may mean that delinquent behaviours are not identified or addressed appropriately, allowing these behaviours to cascade.

The difficulties involved in child-to-parent violence include a recognition of the behaviours as abusive, and delineating them from the general emotional and behavioural disturbances that adolescents might demonstrate. Parents often feel torn about reporting and addressing these behaviours, as they attempt to balance maintaining the relationship and supporting their child with ensuring their own safety. Service systems are often set up to focus on managing intimate partner violence, leaving parents confused about where to seek support.

When identifying and addressing child-to-parent violence, similar principles apply as with managing other difficult behaviours. While some disrespectful behaviour may be normative as children progress into adolescence (such as slammed doors or yelling), if this behaviour is repeated frequently, escalates in frequency or nature, involves physical harm, or causes you fear, it needs to be addressed.

Based on the nature and extent of the behaviours (e.g., interventions for name-calling are likely to be less intensive than interventions for physical violence) and the age of the child, it is important to seek adequate supports. These supports may involve schools, family therapists, individual therapists for both the child and parent, family violence support organisations, or the police and judicial system. While it may be difficult for parents to acknowledge that they are facing abusive behaviours from a child, it is important to identify and address these behaviours early, to avoid escalation and to support a younger person with addressing problematic behaviours and relational patterns.

Facebook image: Dejan Dundjerski/Shutterstock

References

Ibabe, I., Jaureguizar, J., & Bentler, P. M. (2013). Risk factors for child-to-parent violence. Journal of family violence, 28(5), 523-534.

Gallego, R., Novo, M., Fariña, F., & Arce, R. (2019). Child-to-parent violence and parent-to-child violence: A meta-analytic review. European Journal of Psychology Applied to Legal Context, 11(2), 51-59.

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