Living in fear of your child
When teenage strops turn into violence, it’s time to look for help
If you feel threatened by your teen's aggression, it's time to do something about it. Photograph: Getty Images
It’s domestic violence but you won’t find it recorded in Ireland, nor mentioned in legislation. Yet professionals working with families report that child-to-parent violence is a growing problem.
We’re not talking about normal teenage tantrums – the slamming of doors, outbursts about how you are ruining their lives, rants about curfews. Most families live through that; the behaviour may be annoying but it is to be expected of teenagers testing the boundaries.
However, in extreme cases, “Parents are living in fear or terror and are either experiencing physical harm to themselves, or having property damaged, or the child is using threats of self-harm – and that is increasing,” says Declan Coogan, a lecturer in social work at NUI Galway.
Some youngsters resort to self-harm because they are finding life tough and have no other way to cope, but he is hearing of more cases where the threat of self-harm is used, “not because they are distressed but as a way of saying give me this, or let me do that, or else . . .”
Coogan, a family therapist, first encountered child-to-parent violence as a social worker with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in Dublin.
“Parents were coming to us with referrals from GPs to investigate ‘possible attention deficit hyperactivity disorder’ or ‘depression problems in the child’,” he says. “Sometimes those parents would talk about how terrified they were of the child.”
We have a broad policy on domestic violence in this country, covering various types of relationships, “but it doesn’t talk anywhere about children using violence at home. That gives a false impression that it doesn’t exist.”
Coogan is now the leader in Ireland for an EU-funded project, Responding to Child-to-Parent Violence, which is being conducted here and in the UK, Sweden, Spain and Bulgaria. It started last February and has two aspects – research and intervention.
There are no figures yet for this type of violence in Ireland. “I think the most useful thing any service could do is find a way of recording this as a referral issue,” he says.
Research in the US found that 18 per cent of two-parent families and 29 per cent of one-parent families experience assault by their children. Coogan also quotes the findings of a Canadian longitudinal study of children, which took almost 800 adolescents aged 15-16 and asked them had they been physically aggressive towards their fathers in the previous six months. Some 12.3 per cent of the boys and 9.5 per cent of the girls said they had.
“You can imagine how much higher that would have been if they had asked about mothers,” he remarks.
Coogan has developed the Non Violent Resistance Programme (NVRP), based on the work of psychologist Haim Omer in Israel, which is one of two initiatives being rolled out in pilot schemes across the five countries involved in the EU project. The other programme is Break4Change, which was developed in Brighton.
The two-year project aims to evaluate these interventions, as well as try to determine the extent of child-to-parent violence.
Coogan will be talking about how the NVRP (see panel) empowers parents at a conference on dealing with adolescent anger and aggression, to be held by Parentline in Dublin this Friday.
Teenage issues are the most common reason people ring Parentline, with anger/aggression coming close behind, says its manager, Rita O’Reilly. “And we would also feel a lot of those teenage issues are anger and aggression.”
The problems callers talk about having with their teenager, “range from banging the door, not wanting to get up for school, wearing the wrong clothes, wanting to go to a disco – right up to experimenting with drugs, with alcohol and with sex”, she says.
A lot of it is “stroppy” teenagers, “facing up to the parents; shouting and being quite demanding; responding to parental control with anger and aggression”.
The definition of aggression varies from family to family – some families roar and shout regularly, she points out, whereas in a quiet family, shouting is going to mean much more. But, generally, when do you need to start worrying?