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

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.”

False impression
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.

Pilot schemes
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?

“If you feel threatened,” she replies.

Coogan says that what helps parents and professionals draw a line between what might be challenging but not unusual teenage behaviour and what is unacceptable is “when the child tries to control, coerce or intimidate parents – that is when you go into the territory of child-to-parent violence. When the parent or carer feels afraid – feels their child has power over them.”

Although he is convinced, from what he hears from professionals working on the ground, that child-to-parent violence is on the increase, Coogan declines to speculate on the reasons until he has researched it more thoroughly.

Instead he refers to the work of Eddie Gallagher in Australia, who has more than 30 years’ experience in this field and will be addressing an international conference on the topic to be held in Galway, on June 12th-13th next year.

Family types
Gallagher, a social worker, family therapist and creator of the Who’s in Charge? programme in Melbourne, has identified three types of families in which child-to-parent violence is more likely to occur:
Families who have built up a habit of interaction that is aggressive – “for some that is not a problem, they just argue a lot”, says Coogan. “But as the child gets taller and stronger, that can move into physical aggression.”

Two-parent families, middle income or higher with, what Gallagher terms as, “over-entitled” children, who have grown up accustomed to getting everything they want.

But when they start to insist on staying out all night, or using drink and drugs, the parents draw the line and these children can’t deal with being told no.

Where a mother has left a domestic violence situation and starts a new life but her child then turns on her.

Parents who have become victims at the hands of their own children usually feel ashamed and guilty but Coogan stresses that it is not their fault and they should look for help.

“I would like parents to know it is okay to talk about it – they will not be blamed; people will listen to them. Also, importantly, that there are ways of dealing with this problem effectively.”

The Non Violence Resistance Programme (see panel) is not the only one, but it is the one Coogan will be focusing on at the conference. Over the coming months he will also be teaching it to Parentline facilitators, who will then run support groups and training for parents – in groups or individually – on an ongoing basis.

Sense of competence

“The strongest thing about the NVRP is that it restores parents’ sense of competence and confidence in their ability to parent,” he says. When they come in on day one, they usually feel tearful, fearful and despondent.

“After they come through the programme, they say they still have fights at home – they don’t have a perfect child – but they can manage it and they are no longer afraid. That is wonderful to see.”

The Parentline conference on Dealing with Adolescent Anger and Aggression is on this Friday, December 6th, in Wynn’s Hotel, Abbey Street, Dublin 1, 10am-1pm. Cost €30. See or tel 01 878 7230. For more information about the EU project, see

The golden rule of respect

Parents need to be able to enforce the “golden rule of respect” with teenagers, without becoming angry themselves, says John Sharry, who will also be speaking at the Parentline conference this Friday.

“They often initially put up with the abuse and then eventually give as good as they get. They need to break that cycle and find a calmer, more effective way of dealing with things.”

Acknowledging that aggression and disrespect is one of the most common and challenging issues parents face, he will be looking at “positive discipline” for teenagers.

It’s a judgment call within each family about where banter and grumpiness stop and disrespect begins. But Sharry, founding director of the Parents Plus charity and Irish Times columnist, advises: “If you feel quite deeply you are disrespected, you have a problem.”

Every parent of a teenager is going to face challenging behaviour, he says, and everybody needs support – be it talking it over with their partner, another family member or friend, or through contacting Parentline or seeing a professional.

“You can’t parent in a vacuum. If it’s not working for you and you are stressed out about it , get more support,” says Sharry, author of Parenting Teenagers: A Guide to Solving Problems, Building Relationships and Creating Harmony in the Family, an updated version of which has been published by Veritas.

It is also important to nip things in the bud. “If behaviour problems get into a pattern of coercing and disrespecting, they can do long-term damage because they can really erode the relationship of parent and child.”

Parents of teenagers who have shown signs of self-harming worry that confrontation will exacerbate this problem.

While an angry, critical exchange could be higher risk for such a teenager, it is not a reason to give up rules, he stresses. “You need to be warm and connected and be firm about rules in a respectful way: ‘you can’t talk to me like that . . .’; ‘we need to talk about this in a more polite way . . ’; ‘let’s take a break here . . .’ – that sort of approach.”

In fact, teenagers feel more secure when parents maintain such boundaries, as long as it is done, he adds, with compassion and warmth.

The Non Violent Resistance Programme: Key points

Declan Coogan of NUI Galway has developed the training programme for use in Ireland, based on the work of psychologist Haim Omer in Israel. It is a short-term intervention, backed up by research, that:

Is designed to enable parents to respond effectively to violent behaviour; the programme requires them to commit to attending 10 sessions.

Asks parents to agree to be non-violent themselves, no matter what the provocation, both in action and how they communicate with their child.

Teaches “non-escalation” skills, to avoid adding fuel to the fire in a row with the child.

Externalises the problem of violence: they look at what violence does in the family, rather than what Mary or Tom does in the family.

Directs parents to ask key individuals outside the immediate family to become part of their support network; this may involve being there to listen or telling the son or daughter that they know about the violence and want to support the family in stopping it.

Prepares parents for making the “announcement” to their children that they are no longer tolerating violence in the home – specifying the particular behaviours that are going on such as kicking, punching or shouting.

They will also explain that they have told A, B and C about it, who will be there to help stop the violence.

Supports parents, from this stage on, to tackle the child’s troubling behaviours, one by one.

This programme is not intended for the most severe cases of child-to-parent violence, says Coogan, but rather where violence is “worrying”.

And it is not necessary to pin down all the reasons for the behaviour.

“This is what is attractive about this approach. The whole idea is you don’t necessarily need to know everything about the cause of a problem in order to help stop it,” he explains.

Parents are told, at the outset, that if the problem is resolved after 10 weeks as expected, they will help them look back at the reasons it arose if they want.

“The amazing thing,” adds Coogan, “is no parent has ever said to me ‘Okay, now we have done that – why was he doing it?’ because they are happy the problem has gone.”

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