That’s Men: Violence towards parents is too big a problem to solve alone

The victims of teenage violence towards parents are usually mothers, although fathers also are attacked. Sons are more likely than daughters to be violent to mothers.

The victims of teenage violence towards parents are usually mothers, although fathers also are attacked. Sons are more likely than daughters to be violent to mothers.

 

At 14 she hits her parents and siblings, drinks, uses drugs and goes missing. She is one of an unknown number of young teenagers who are violent towards their parents and sometimes towards other family members.

The phenomenon is largely hidden but at a conference two years ago, Declan Coogan, a lecturer at NUI Galway, who gave the example of the 14-year-old, said some research has suggested that violence by adolescents towards parents could occur in as many as 18 per cent of two-parent households and 29 per cent of one-parent households.

Statistics based on calls to the Parentline helpline show that of the aggressive teens complained of in 2013, 41 per cent were girls and 59 per cent were boys.

It’s a desperately distressing situation for all. Parents are upset, bewildered and sometimes frightened. The aggressive child is also, it seems safe to say, unhappy.

What’s going on is a power struggle. The teenager is attempting to control the rest of the family. Violence is part of that.

This is completely different to the more usual conflict situation in which teenagers try to see how much they can get away with. That can lead to some pretty tense confrontations – but essentially they are trying to push the boundaries and will return within the boundaries (sometimes with ill grace) when they are hauled back.

Teenage violence against parents, on the other hand, has that bid for power added to it. The dynamics of what is going on are not all that easy to untangle. Some families are so used to conflict that the escalation into violence is not that big a step.

Other families, and this often includes middle-class families, have what Coogan described as “overentitled” children who use violence to get their way.

Sometimes there is probably no satisfactory explanation at all. For example, with the girl described above, nobody noticed any difficulties out of the ordinary in her younger years.

It’s a dreadful problem for parents. As often happens with other forms of domestic violence, they blame themselves for what their children are doing and they may try to discount the aggression as not terribly serious. They may fear that an approach to social workers will bring blame on themselves.

One possible way of dealing with this distressing situation is called “nonviolent resistance”. In this approach, parents stand up for themselves, but they do so in a nonviolent way. They still fight with their teenager but they do it without violence and without seeking to humiliate the teenager in any way. And they stand their ground with regard to their expectations and rules.

The research that has been done so far suggests that the teenager becomes less aggressive in response and engages in more positive behaviours. Parents themselves grow in confidence. They learn ways to stop confrontations from escalating into violence when standing their ground. They learn many practical techniques too. It all helps them to deal with a problem that is, frankly, a nightmare for the family: and not only for the parents but for other children (including teenagers) in the family.

The victims of teenage violence towards parents are usually mothers, although fathers also are attacked. Sons are more likely than daughters to be violent to mothers.

This is, I think it is fair to say, a problem that is too big to solve alone, even though parents are often reluctant to share information with anyone else. A first step towards getting help could be to call Parentline, a voluntary organisation that has been around and helping parents since 1980 and that organised the conference at which Coogan spoke. They get more than 3,000 calls a year from “parents, grandparents, guardians, minders, concerned friends and siblings, health workers and doctors”, according to its website. The callers are from all income groups and family types. Fathers comprise about 14 per cent of callers.

If this is your problem, do yourself a favour and call 1890-927277 or 01-8733500, or see parentline.ie.

pomorain@yahoo.com Padraig O’Morain is a counsellor accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness on the Go. His mindfulness newsletter is free by email.

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