I have been putting off writing about this for about a year. But we're at the end of our tether. We have three children, all boys, aged 17, 15 and seven. We have never had any trouble with any of the boys growing up. Our children are well liked and people tell us how lucky we are. And we are – to an extent. The trouble starts once we close our front door. Our 15-year-old son has us living in fear. He rules the roost in our house. He bullies us – shouting and roaring at us. He makes constant demands for money and for lifts into town. He has to get what he wants when he wants it. He has broken doors and windows in fits of temper. He uses terrible language towards us – at home, never in public where a sharp look from him is enough for us to change the topic of conversation. He has pushed us both during rows, has threatened to hit both of us and has stood up threateningly to me. I'm not a timid man – I have been able to control myself so far but I am afraid I am reaching a breaking point and may hit out at him, something I have never done. No one else knows about this – who could we tell? What can we do? We can't go on walking on eggshells.
Answer: You are not alone. Psychotherapists, social workers and other practitioners working with children and families are working with increasing numbers of parents who are living in fear of their child and talk about walking on eggshells around them. It happens in families from all kinds of backgrounds. Many parents, like you, feel completely alone and don't know where to turn for help. Parents often feel ashamed. They feel they have failed because they have tried unsuccessfully to end this kind of intimidating behaviour. Some parents, like you, worry about reaching the limits of their endurance and retaliating against their child. Other parents feel like walking away and think about having their child taken into care.
The problems you describe are known as child-to-parent violence and abuse, where parents live in fear of a son or daughter under the age of 18. It can be difficult for parents to talk about this because no one wants to admit to this kind of problem (often because they think they are the only ones living with it and because they feel hopeless). Sometimes practitioners working with children and families are unsure about how best to advise parents because it seems to be a relatively new problem and because there is no clear pathway for help with this problem in Ireland. Sometimes other family members want to help when they hear about it but offer the kind of help parents wouldn't like and which would not be helpful, such as threatening to teach the child a lesson, as you say your older son has offered.
Conflict between parents and children is expected as part of children developing their own identities and developing conflict-resolution skills. But in some families the ways of managing parent-child conflict have led to situations where parents are living in fear of their child. This leads to constant tension and a growing distance between parents and the child using abusive or violent behaviour towards them. Often, neither a parent nor a child is happy with this situation and wish things could be different.
There is hope. The Non Violent Resistance (NVR) model of intervention was developed in Israel by psychologist Haim Omer and others. It has been adapted over the past number of years in Ireland. Clinical experience and research evidence suggests there are good reasons to use NVR to address the problems you describe. You can take a few steps from this model. You could commit to non-violence and resistance, keeping in mind that a tactical withdrawal from conflict is not a submission. The issue is more likely to be resolved later when everyone is calmer. You could also explicitly say to all family members that violence and abusive behaviour has no place in your family and you will do all they can to resist it, without using abusive or violence behaviour. You could carry out actions that demonstrate love and respect for your son and ask for specific types of support from extended family members and/or friends.
The people you ask to become part of your NVR support network also contact your son to let him know that they know about what’s happening and are united with you in wanting to end the abuse and violence. They can also offer him their support, while making clear there is never any excuse for threats or acts violence in the family.
Ending child-to-parent violence and abuse is very challenging. Things don’t change for the better overnight. It might seem that things sometimes slip back to the way they have been in the past. But NVR has helped parents and children discover better ways to resolve conflict and to develop respectful and loving relationships.
Some practitioners, such as Parentline staff (Lo-call 1890 927 277), have received training in NVR. Family support workers, social workers, or other practitioners in Tusla, in Child/Adolescent Mental Health Services or other agencies in your area may have had this training. You can find some useful free resources on the Responding to Child to Parent Violence Project website (rcpv.eu) or from two Irish based websites – cpvireland.ie and newauthorityparenting.ie
Dr Declan Coogan is a lecturer with the MA in Social Work Programme at NUI Galway and is an experienced social worker (CORU) and psychotherapist (FTAI). He adapted the Non Violent Resistance model for use with families in Ireland and developed a training programme in NVR for practitioners. His book "Child to Parent Violence and Abuse: Family Interventions with Non Violent Resistance" will be published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers later this year.