Pandemic parenting: Lockdown’s pressure-cooker effect on Irish families

Demand has been soaring for help to cope with child-to-parent violence

Another factor that contributes to the escalation of conflict is where a parent adopts a strategy of intimidation, coercive or controlling behaviour. Photograph: iStock

Another factor that contributes to the escalation of conflict is where a parent adopts a strategy of intimidation, coercive or controlling behaviour. Photograph: iStock

 

The pressure-cooker effect of lockdowns on families behind closed doors is reflected in a doubling of calls to the confidential helpline Parentline about problems with children’s anger and aggression.

More than 25 per cent of all calls now come from parents struggling with, and often fearful of, abusive and violent behaviour directed at them by their offspring. Overall, contacts with the listening service rose from 2,960 calls in 2019 to 4,144 calls last year, indicating the challenging nature of pandemic parenting.

In tandem with this trend, demand has soared for an eight-week programme in Non-Violent Resistance (NVR) that Parentline offers free to help parents caught up in serious conflict with their children. It conducted 500 per cent more NVR programmes in 2020 than it did the previous year.

Conflict between parents and children is normal, but for some families it ends up becoming abusive and that is where something such as NVR is needed, says Dr Declan Coogan of the Unesco child and family research centre at NUI Galway. A family has reached that point, he explains, when a parent feels they cannot act as the kind of parent they want to be, out of fear of what their child will do in response.

It may involve a child with emotional behavioural difficulties, or one who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or, in some cases is self-harming, says Coogan, who has led the way in rolling-out the use of NVR in Ireland.

He discovered the method when working as a social worker and family therapist with the Mater Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services in Dublin in 2007. Then, he and his colleagues were just starting to hear about parents afraid of their children and, in looking for ways to help them, came across NVR, which had been developed by Israeli psychologist Haim Omer.

Another factor that contributes to the escalation of conflict is where a parent adopts a strategy of intimidation, coercive or controlling behaviour. Photograph: iStock
One factor that contributes to the escalation of conflict is where a parent adopts a strategy of intimidation, coercive or controlling behaviour. Photograph: iStock

Widespread

Coogan contacted Omer to ask for permission to devise a programme based on his work for use in their service, never envisaging the issue would emerge as being so widespread, both nationally and internationally. “It has become very clear that these kinds of problems that need NVR are occurring right across the world, in every society and in every type of family.”

It’s a very non-judgmental parenting programme, focusing on how the interaction between the parent and child needs to be changed. “Because the parent is the adult, they’re in a better position to change the interaction.”

By the end of last year, Parentline had run, or was in the process of delivering, 221 NVR programmes, compared with 39 in 2019

Coogan outlines NVR’s fundamental elements, some of which would feature in other parenting programmes:

1) Self-care and self-calming: where a parent refrains from responding in the heat of the moment.

2) Change in habits: learning new patterns of response to a child.

3) Finding somebody to give emotional and practical support: it could be another family member, neighbour, or friend, who will be there for you as you try to change the family dynamics.

4) Making clear abusive behaviour will not be tolerated: this is very hard to say and nobody, suggests Coogan, can stay firm on this without the right support behind them.

5) Reconciliation acts: where parents do kind things for their son or daughter without requiring the child to be “good” first, in other words they are not rewards.

6) Avoid any abusive behaviour through language: while we all understand that we cannot physically abuse children, he says, parents have to promise in NVR not to use abusive words, which includes cutting comments, as well as shouting and swearing.

By the end of last year, Parentline had run, or was in the process of delivering, 221 NVR programmes, compared with 39 in 2019. Chief executive Aileen Hickie attributes this upsurge both to the challenges of 2020 and growing awareness of non-violent resistance.

Some 60 per cent of the NVR requests relate to boys. While most requests come from parents with children aged between 12 years and 17 years, about one in 10 involves adult children.

Trained volunteers

Mary Keating was one of the first Parentline volunteers to be trained in the method by Coogan and his NUI Galway colleague Eileen Lauster in 2014. There are now 17 NVR-trained volunteers at Parentline who, since the start of the pandemic, deliver all programmes over the phone. Before that, parents had the option of attending face-to-face sessions with the volunteers in Carmichael House on Dublin’s North Brunswick Street.

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“The majority of families are experiencing difficulties with teens, but I have facilitated the programme with parents of children as young as seven,” says Keating.

Typical scenarios involve a child being persistently physically or verbally violent, towards parents or siblings. The child may also be damaging the family home, the garden, or things belonging to parents and/or siblings.

The aim is to influence, rather than control, the child, who should be involved in trying to find a solution to the cyclical conflict

This behaviour is associated with factors such as chronic disrespect and disregard for family rules and authority, abuse of drugs, divorce/separation, step-parents and school refusal. Sometimes there are mental health issues such as ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder but research on this programme, she says, has shown that with the right support, all children should be able to self-regulate.

Intimidation

Another factor that contributes to the escalation of conflict is where a parent adopts a strategy of intimidation, coercive or controlling behaviour.

Parents doing the NVR programme agree to set aside approximately one uninterrupted hour for a phone call once a week for eight weeks. Each session covers a new approach or skill, which is practised over the coming week and builds on previous weeks’ learning. It’s essential that the parent models the desired behaviour.

Key strategy

“How a parent responds can escalate or help de-escalate an episode of violent behaviour and eventually help to transform the parent-child relationship and behaviour over time,” Keating says. “A key strategy in de-escalation is helping the parent externalise the problem, which means recognising that the behaviour is the problem, not the child.”

The aim is to influence, rather than control, the child, who should be involved in trying to find a solution to the cyclical conflict.

Most of the NVR programmes Keating has done were with the mother but in some cases both parents were involved and for a few she has worked with the father only. In her experience, the chances of a successful outcome are boosted by: both parents doing the course and working together; the parent or parents being committed to the course, taking notes and putting it into practice; openness of parents to change their own attitudes and behaviour and parents who are consistent and follow through.

Factors which work against success, she suggests, are parents who believe that “it’s not me that needs to change it’s my child”, who fail to build a support network and where a parent is trying to use the programme but the spouse/partner is not in agreement and is working against them.

To parents who may still feel ashamed to admit that they are in fear of their children, Coogan stresses that it “isn’t your fault”. There is no national picture of how prevalent child to parent violence is and he would like to see services start recording referrals for this issue. What he does know, he says, is that there are practitioners all over Ireland wanting to use NVR in their work.

He would also like to see universal availability of NVR and other types of help for parents in such situations as currently, if they do seek assistance, he adds, “it’s the luck of the draw” if they will find effective support.

A PARENT’S STORY: ‘THE REWARDS ARE AWESOME’

The last time Lore and her now 15-year-old son had a proper fight was in October 2018 “and I started it”, she admits.

“He didn’t want to fight – he was done fighting.”

For years before that, there could be multiple fights a day as she tried to parent a child who appeared incredibly cute and polite in public, but whose violent behaviour was spiralling out of control at home. She sees now how he struggled to be a socially acceptable version of himself in public, so that by the time he got home he had no energy left to contain his behaviour.

Lore says she probably needed to be very clear of what she expected of him in the home and to have provided a structure there that he wasn’t able to provide for himself. “But I wasn’t able to do that for him because I didn’t know I needed to.”

Escalation

Instead, the verbal and physical violence and property damage escalated. Yet, what she was reporting as a lone parent wasn’t being seen, initially anyway, by others. “I had this child who was frustrating me incredibly and at the time I was also incredibly frustratable. I absolutely own my part in what ended up being the problem, which was our relationship.

“It wasn’t that he was the problem or that I was the problem but the two of us as we came together – the space that we shared.”

Desperate to try to improve the situation, she read books and sought advice online but “none of it worked, in part because I didn’t really know what I was trying to resolve. I was looking at symptoms and trying to resolve them and not even seeing what the underlying condition was.

“I was doing a lot of screaming and he was doing a lot of resisting.” She also knew her younger son “got the short end of the stick” because she was pouring so much energy into his older brother, who was nine years old when she first sought formal help.

Initially, his behaviour was attributed to the breakup of her relationship with his other parent, then on the possibility of some underlying neurodivergent diagnosis. “It was blamed on an awful lot of things that were then ruled out as being the cause.”

The turning point came when the non-violent resistance (NVR) programme was suggested to her, even though she misunderstood it initially as being a way to safely restrain her son. When she read the book by its originator, Haim Omer, she still wasn’t impressed. “For a long time, I was going to do the programme only to prove that it was never going to work.”

She started it at the Springboard Family Support Project in Loughlinstown, Co Dublin, at the beginning of December 2016, attending for weekly, in person, one-to-one sessions. “If we were two adults, nobody would sit the victim down and say this is the way you are going to change your behaviour, so that your aggressor is no longer going to be aggressive. Unfortunately, and it’s a hard pill to swallow, this is what the programme is. I am responsible for the solution because I am the adult in the room.”

She sums up the essence of NVR as “finding a way to work as a team where everyone knows that one person is ultimately in charge but not the ruler of everything.

“I say ‘yes’ to most things, but they don’t ask me things now that they know the answer will be ‘no’ to. Because I am consistent, they can apply logic. They are no longer in the position that if they ask, and ask and ask and ask . . . I will eventually say ‘yes’.”

Presevere

What made her persevere with NVR if she didn’t believe in it? “I have a very strong sense of responsibility to my children – I very definitely chose to make them,” she explains and she felt obliged to give them the best opportunity to emerge into adulthood. She also thinks about the person that her child will fall in love with and “the way I saw it, I had a responsibility to that person to give them the best version of my child that I can.

“Forty years ago, my kid would have been in Artane,” she says, referring to the former industrial school. If the only way her eldest son knew how to connect was through fighting, she feared he would end up in prison or a morgue. “This wasn’t a future I wanted for any of us, so I took a deep breath and kept going. And then I started seeing the changes.”

Gardaí

A significant moment also came after, having called gardaí on occasions when he was at his violent worse and she feared for her safety, a barrister told her never to call the Garda again. She said she didn’t want to have to rescue a child with mental health problems from the criminal justice system.

This impressed on Lore how gardaí were not her solution as they would inevitably “see my child as bad not sad”.

Now, Lore says, she and her son’s relationship has strengthened, if anything, during the pandemic. The work they put in over the previous three years helped prepare them for the pressure of lockdown and remote learning.

Before this interview, she asked him did he want to say anything for the piece. After a characteristic teenage groan in response, he agreed he was glad that she had found NVR, which ultimately made it easier to be himself and Lore to be herself.

Yes, he continues to test boundaries, but she is not fighting back. Rules are very clear, as are her requirements and his responsibilities.

While it’s tough at times being a parent, she agrees, “the rewards are awesome. And if you had told my four-years-ago self that I would say that, I would have laughed in your face.”

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