Childhood aggression: ‘We began to hear parents saying they were afraid of their children’
Once unheard of, parents are increasingly reporting violent attacks on them by their children, an urgent issue, say child experts
Child aggression directed at parents came first in a study carried out by Parentline into the top 10 reasons for calls to its helpline. Photograph: iStock
Six years ago, this problem wasn’t even on its radar – but last year research by the parent support group Parentline found aggression in children to be the single biggest reason parents were seeking help from the national support organisation.
It was about 2012 that Parentline began to first “see and record an increase in the level of anger and aggression from children towards parents”, according to its chief executive Rita O’Reilly, who recalls that, up to that point, the issue had not noticeably registered with the organisation. Parentline routinely records about 35 different reasons for calls from parents.
Last year, however, O’Reilly reports, child aggression directed at parents came first in a study carried out by Parentline into the top 10 reasons for calls to its helpline. “This was anger and aggression in children, generally from about 11 and 12 years of age and upwards to adult children in their early 20s, but most typically from children in their mid-teens.These are shocking figures. Parents are saying ‘my child is shouting at me’, and ‘my child will not go to school unless I give him or her money’.
“Children are demanding, shouting terrible things, name-calling and not behaving as part of the family,” she reported, adding that the organisation has had reports about this type of abuse from parents “across the social spectrum”.
While Parentline’s research did not identify the reasons for children’s aggressive behaviour, O’Reilly believes it may be linked to modern sedentary, ‘entitled’ childhoods. “My instinct is that many children now are not taking the same amount of physical exercise as they used to take, and that over-exposure to tech, being solitary with tech, not getting fresh air and not eating with family may be connected. There is also an element of helicopter parenting, as parents expect, and are expected to, do everything for their kids.”
In response to what it identified as a worrying trend, the organisation trained a number of facilitators in Non Violent Resistance (NVR), a series of techniques developed by a team of researchers in a university in Israel, which helps parents deal with a child’s aggression. “Our trained facilitators now deliver this programme over the phone to parents free of charge over a period of about six to eight weeks.
‘Feedback is excellent’
“The feedback is excellent,” O’Reilly says, adding that within two weeks many parents reported they found it difficult to believe the difference it made. “One of the things about this programme is that it supports the parent. It puts parents in a much better position in terms of coping with aggression from children.”
Aggression exhibited by children in families that otherwise appear to be well-functioning appears to be a growing problem, believes Dr Declan Coogan, who introduced the NVR programme to Ireland in 2007. Coogan believes childhood aggression is now so widespread that a State-run awareness campaign is needed for parents to counteract the silence and social stigma surrounding the issue. Access to NVR programmes should also be rolled out countrywide, he says. And, to enable research to be carried out into the phenomenon, childhood aggression should be recognised as a distinct category, he believes.
A lecturer in social work at the school of political science and sociology at NUI Galway, and Research Fellow at the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway, Coogan, whose background is in social work and psychotherapy – he is a trained psychotherapist – first encountered the problem more than a decade ago. At the time, he was working as part of a multi-disciplinary team in a community-based service in Dublin.
We began to see situations where some children were calling their parents’ names, threatening to harm parents, damaging property in the home or refusing to go to school
“We began to hear parents saying they were afraid of their children,” he recalls, adding that the children involved were generally aged 12 and upwards, although research has highlighted cases of parents being afraid of children as young as eight. “We hadn’t come across this before. We began to see situations where some children were calling their parents’ names, threatening to harm parents, damaging property in the home or refusing to go to school. Parents were at their wits’ end. Usually, we’d look at things like addiction, depression or historic issues, but this is not the case in many of these families.”
The perceived shame and stigma around the problem often meant parents were reluctant to speak out about it, says Coogan, who last year published a book about the issue, Child to Parent Violence and Abuse – Family Intervention with Non Violent Resistance.
Outwardly, he recalls, many families appeared well-functioning. “In some cases, for example, the schools had no idea t the child was presenting challenges in the home.”
Non Violent Resistance
Around this time Coogan came across reports of a family intervention model being used in Israel. Non Violent Resistance (NVR) had been developed by psychologist Haim Omer and a team of colleagues at the University of Tel Aviv to support parents or carers in developing effective resistance against aggression and violence in children.
After he and his team members assessed the model and concluded that it might work here, Coogan contacted Haim Omer in Israel to ask if he and his team could use NVR in Ireland. “Gradually, and with the support of parents, we introduced it to the Irish situation. We don’t judge parents. We let them know that it’s happening in other families – because parents are convinced that ‘it’s only me’!
“We share with them what we know from the research – that this is happening around the world, that it’s both boys and girls who are targeting mothers, fathers, grandparents, foster parents, adoptive parents,” he says. He adds that studies show it is primarily women who are targeted, because it is mothers who engage in much of the parenting contact in families.
“Physical or emotional abuse is involved, or threats of physical abuse,” explains Coogan, who adds that in some cases children used threats of self-harm as a way of manipulating parents, although they had no intention of self-harming. “It seems to be common. Parents feel alone and without support. They live in fear of the child, with cycles of escalation during conflict which can end up with abuse or intimidation.”
NVR helps parents learn new skills to defuse conflict situations, he says. It also enables them develop a support network and increase their presence in their child’s life in a supportive and positive way. “It reconciles parent and child, and helps parents get a sense of their own parental authority when a child disrespects them,” he says.“We can hardly keep up with requests from around the country for training in the NVR model. There’s more and more demand for it.”
The problem is in every community, believes Kirstie Smith, a senior child and family support network coordinator with Tusla. “The youngest child I’ve come across has been a five-year-old who was being physically aggressive with parents and they didn’t know what to do with it.
Generally, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious contributing factor – these would be quite normal households, with no obvious social problems
“Generally, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious contributing factor – these would be quite normal households, with no obvious social problems,” says Smith, who is based in west Cork.
“The impact it has on parents can be significant,” she observes, adding that “parents can be limited in where they can go in their own home, for example the bedroom, the bathroom or the kitchen. Parents don’t want to talk about it; they’re embarrassed. They feel they’ll be blamed if they speak out. Nobody wants to admit to this.
‘Get the support’
“My key message to parents in this situation is to reach out and get the support, because there is support available through the Family Resource Centres, Parentline and the Tusla parenting website, Parenting 24/7,” advises Smith, who runs the west Cork branch of the Meitheal programme, which offers support to parents.
While a lack of research into the issue has meant the cause has not been identified, says Coogan, this is not only an Irish or western European problem. Research shows that it is happening “all over the world from Taiwan to South Korea, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Columbia”, he says.
A study into parents’ experience of NVR will be carried out later this year at NUI Galway, he adds. “As a society, the problem needs to be recorded as a distinct category, so that we can graph the trend. If it’s recorded as a specific increasing problem, something will then have to be done in terms of services being put in place.
“The State needs to recognise this as an issue, run an awareness campaign to tell parents it’s happening, and provide training for practitioners so they can offer this intervention to parents. Currently, a number of practitioners have trained in this but there’s no nationwide training programme for practitioners even though we know this is an issue coming up all over the country.”
Five NVR tips for parents on responding to challenging behaviour : Dr Declan Coogan
1. Remember you are not alone: this is taking place in many more families than it seems. Parents tend not to talk about it because they fear they will be blamed for the problems, feel ashamed or are afraid of what might happen if they do talk about it.
2. Commit to using non-violent and resistant strategies. Parents using Non Violent Resistance often talk about the switch from trying to control their child to controlling their own behaviour towards their child. Avoid shouting and name-calling during heated arguments, even when provoked. Take the first steps in repairing the relationship with your child by taking reconciliation steps, such as sending your daughter/son a positive text message, or suggesting a shared activity they think the child will enjoy or arranging a favourite food treat, even if you expect he/she will reject such positive actions.
3. Do more of what works: think about the last time you managed to resolve conflict with your child. When was the last time you expected an aggressive outburst over an issue but that outburst didn’t happen, even though you raised the issue? What did you do that made this likely? Do more of that.
4. Do something different. For example, rather than attempting to have a calm discussion with a child who has broken curfew and arrived home late, say that you’re glad he/she is home safe and sound and talk about this another time. Do or say something unexpected and loving for your child.
5. Tell others about your difficulties. Ask for the practical help you think might be useful. You could be pleasantly surprised by positive responses to requests to provide concrete help. For example, when you and your child need a break from each other, is there an aunt/ uncle/ grandparent who can take them in and who will not try to undermine you? Is there someone who you can contact for support, as a listening ear, even if that someone lives miles away or in another country?
You could also find support from child and family practitioners in services such as family support services, social work, psychotherapy or counselling services or parent groups or forums. Further information about NVR or support is available at cpvireland.ie, newauthorityparenting.ie, parentline.ie or parentsplus.ie.