When parents are being abused by their child: a guide to CPA

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Michelle John discusses the unacknowledged issues surrounding child to parent abuse, and how schools can help.

More and more parents are reaching out to their child’s school to disclose abusive or violent behaviours happening at home.

In fact, 89% of parents, carers and guardians report that they’ve disclosed their experiences to their child’s school [PEGS parental survey, Spring 2021].

Research into Child to Parent Abuse is in its infancy compared to the extensive studies which have been conducted on other types of abuse – but currently the experts estimate between 3% and 10% of households are impacted.

And yet, there’s no obligation for schools to be trained in responding to CPA – and there are no standard policies in place across the education sector to ensure staff have adequate knowledge and resources.

It’s the same for GPs, police forces, social care teams and any of the other professionals a parent might reach out to – which helps explain why the majority of parents report feeling helpless, hopeless, and largely unsupported.

What is CPA?

Child to Parent Abuse can take many forms, with the most widely reported being physical or verbal abuse. Whether it’s hitting, kicking, strangling or coercion, control and threats, the impact is profound and siblings and pets are also likely to be targeted by violence.

Other behaviours include financial abuse (stealing, forcing parents to pay for items or taking out credit cards in their name), sexual abuse, and online abuse (such as spreading rumours).

Of those parents who were employed before the behaviours began, the majority report needing to reduce their hours at work or leave their job completely as a direct result of CPA.

As with other types of domestic abuse, there’s often a misconception that abuse is always male to female (in this case a son towards their mother – or equivalent female within their family). While this may be the most common, around a third of children displaying these behaviours identify as female – and many fathers, grandfathers, and male carers and guardians are on the receiving end.

There’s also a misconception, not helped by the formerly-widely-used phrase ‘Adolescent to Parent Violence or Abuse’, that this behaviour is only seen within teenage children. In actual fact, it’s more common for parents to begin experiencing CPA (where the behaviour has gone beyond the sorts of boundary pushing we’d expect during childhood and become abusive or violent behaviour) between the ages of five to seven than it is during the teen years; and more than 50% of the families supported by social enterprise PEGS (one of the only UK organisations which focuses on CPA parental support) have children aged 12 or under. It’s also sadly fairly common for abuse to stretch past the age of 18, which may be of note for schools who have students with older siblings who may be displaying these behaviours.

Tell me what’s been happening.

Of course, where a child has Special Educational Needs, this can complicate matters in terms of determining whether the behaviour they are displaying is a symptom, or whether it constitutes CPA. SEN and CPA don’t necessarily go hand in hand either – one often happens without the other, but families can be experiencing both at the same time.

And this is why it’s important for professionals coming into contact with families to have a working knowledge of behaviours associated with CPA, and what can be done to support not only the child but the rest of the family too.

Home v school behaviours

Recognising that the behaviours a child displays can be vastly different at home compared to within school is a huge step forward in supporting families impacted by CPA.

Some of our parents report extra difficulties involved with accessing support from social care teams because the child’s educational setting states there are no behavioural problems.

Naturally, honest and accurate reporting to professional agencies is to be encouraged – but so too is listening to the parents, carers and guardians about what they’re seeing outside of school hours.

Just as we may see an adult being abusive towards their spouse behind closed doors and then never displaying these violent tendencies at work or in social settings, it’s entirely plausible for a child to become violent only towards those within their family.

Responding

Getting frustrated.

One of the complications with CPA is that there’s no set way to respond – what works for one family may not work for another. Children’s behaviours, emotions and responses aren’t cookie cutter replicas of each other – and this is even more true when we’re talking about those who have additional educational needs where there are extra considerations when it comes to their physical health, wellbeing or development. In the most extreme of circumstances, children have been temporarily or permanently moved away from the family home in order to keep their parents and siblings safe, but this is naturally a very last resort only when the behaviour has escalated beyond the point where any other solution will have an impact.

And that’s why open and honest conversations at the earliest possible opportunity are always to be encouraged.

Parents report feeling lonely, ashamed, guilty and isolated – and simply hearing ‘I am listening and I believe you’ can be a huge relief where they have felt able to disclose their situation to their child’s school.

Many parents will have tried various methods to try and reduce the number or severity of incidents – so it’s important for professionals including schools to gauge what has worked well, and what hasn’t worked, from the outset.

Naturally, other organisations such as social services are likely to take the lead on working with a family to improve and hopefully resolve the situation – but having that open relationship where parents can feel comfortable sharing their CPA experiences with their child’s school can be hugely valuable, and having that information as a teacher is key to help them understand the home life of a student.

Signposting

Where organisations such as social services, Forensic CAMHS or not-for-profit services are already involved, it may be that parents don’t need schools to signpost them towards avenues of support. But sometimes, a member of staff is the first professional a parent has spoken to – and in this case, it can be hugely helpful for the school to understand who’s out there and able to help, both from the public sector and the third sector too.

While CPA-specific services have traditionally been few and far between, now that both research and public awareness is increasing, charitable and not-for-profit organisations who have a working knowledge of CPA and can assist a family are also on the rise.

Keeping a directory of local and UK-wide services (including those who can help a family with related problems such as debt resulting from financial abuse) could help connect a family with a professional who can make a real difference.

The blame game!

It can be easy to assume CPA is a parenting problem – however many families will have multiple children but only have one displaying abusive or violent behaviours.

Their parenting experience is likely to have been altered somewhat anyway by the additional needs their child has, and then again when the CPA began. Being able to share that with someone outside of the home, and for that person to listen non-judgemental, can be a turning point in them going on to access more support and working towards a solution for their family.

Michelle John
Author: Michelle John

Michelle John
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