'You'd walk out if your husband hit you - you can't when it's your child'

By Sarah McDermott
BBC News

Published

Most parents never have to worry about being attacked by a violent child, but if it happens, they face a dilemma. They can't just walk out - and they may fear that seeking help will have repercussions for their child. Research suggests the problem is often hidden, and far more common than we imagine.

Last summer, 10-year-old Aidan decided he was going to kill the family dog. He lured her behind the sofa with a sausage before putting his hands over her muzzle and around her neck.

"The crazy thing is that he actually loves the dog and me the most out of anyone," says Aidan's mother, Hazel. "But we are the two that he will target and sometimes he will hurt her to get a reaction out of me."

Aidan kicks and hits, and he used to bite. He tells Hazel that he hates her and wants her to die, that he's going to get a gun and shoot her. He's tried to push her down the stairs, and now that he's worked out where her blind spots are - she has a visual impairment - he throws things at her that she can't see coming. Recently it was a kettle, which fortunately hadn't just been boiled - but Aidan didn't know it was cold when he picked it up and launched it.

"It looks like abusive, bullying behaviour," Hazel says. "I feel like I'm in a domestic violence relationship. You say the first time your husband hits you you'll walk out the door, but you're not going to do that with your child are you? Because you're the child's protector, as well as his victim."

All of the knives in the house have been locked out of reach since Aidan armed himself from the cutlery drawer and went for another member of the family. But he'll use anything sharp - scissors, even nail clippers.

"Everything leads to violence," Hazel says. "He is drawn to violence and will see the violence in any situation. We can't even watch simple children's programmes because if there's the slightest bit of violence he will re-enact it, re-enact it, re-enact it."

Aidan was four when Hazel and her husband adopted him and it was immediately clear he had much more complex needs than they'd been led to believe.

"We knew from day one there were serious problems," Hazel says. "But we thought, 'Well, he's in a very strange environment, his foster placement wasn't healthy… Let's see how it goes.'"

But things didn't go well. Right from the off, Aidan punched, pulled hair and spat.

Hazel and her husband hoped that the violence might abate over time, but it only got worse. Twice by the age of five Aidan had hospitalised the teaching assistant at the specialist unit where he went to school - the first time by kicking her full in the face as she bent down to pick up something he'd thrown on the floor in a rage.

I know how violent he was - I saw the bruises all over the teaching assistants
Hazel
Aidan's mum

School staff were given specialist training to learn how to hold Aidan safely when he was being violent. She remembers the first occasion she saw Aidan after an "extended hold" - up to 50 minutes long.

"He was sitting on a little sofa in his classroom stripped down to his vest because he was sweating, with a teaching assistant beside him, and he was just shaking and quivering - it was awful," she says. "I sat down and he just curled up on my knee, foetal style. It was really distressing."

Looking back, Hazel wonders whether she should have allowed the school staff to restrain Aidan like this, although how else they could have contained him she's not really sure.

"It must have traumatised him, but I know how violent he was," she says. "I saw the bruises all over the teaching assistants and I don't know what else they could do to keep themselves safe."

The school then built a padded room, a soft, safe space for Aidan to go when he was a danger to himself and others.

"But he was in there every day," Hazel says, "and he'd be so angry that he smashed the reinforced glass on the door three times."

It was at that point the school told Hazel that they couldn't manage her son any longer.

In 2010, researchers at the University of Oxford carried out the first ever analysis of police data on child-to-parent violence, finding 1,900 offences recorded in London over a 12 month period.

Criminology professor Rachel Condry, who led the project, estimates that nationwide there are tens of thousands of cases each year, most of which go unrecorded.

"It's such a hidden problem - there are just so many parents that don't feel like they can report it to the police or don't get any help or don't find services," she says.

Parents have often told her they experience years of violence before reporting their children, and only make the call when they are really in fear.

"They're quite rightly really worried about criminalising the child and what the consequences might be," she says.

Because no-one talks about it you think perhaps you're the only person that's experiencing it
Helen Bonnick
Child to parent violence and abuse specialist

Before Condry's study there had been very little research on child-to-parent violence, and in fact little awareness that it existed.

"It wasn't on any official website, in any government policy - there was no mention of it anywhere," she says. "And yet when I spoke to people who worked with children and families, in all sorts of different areas, they talked about coming across these cases all the time, so it was this really interesting silence."

Families may not even tell their friends what is going on.

"There's terrible shame in this," says Helen Bonnick, a former social worker who has written a book about child-to-parent violence.

"If you're a parent, your role is to bring up your child to be a responsible member of society and a loving, caring, human being, and if that's all gone wrong, people feel that they've failed. They really don't want to talk about it. And because no-one talks about it you think perhaps you're the only person that's experiencing it."

Like domestic abuse and intimate partner violence, child-to-parent violence affects people from all walks of life, rich and poor, and it would be wrong to assume that it only occurs when children have been in care. In fact, Michelle John, from child-to-parent violence charity Parental Education Growth Support says her organisation helps more birth families than adoptive ones.

As is the case in Hazel's family, mothers are most likely to be the targets.

"Women are much more likely to be victims of domestic violence of all kinds, and that is the case here too," Rachel Condry says. "Although it does happen to fathers, son-to-mother violence is the most common form."

Now no local school will have Aidan - all of the specialist units have turned him down or thrown him out. The nearest one that will is half an hour's drive away, and it's also unable to meet his complex needs.

"They're containing him, but nothing's getting resolved," Hazel says. "The kid is still struggling."

Academically he's already about three or four years behind other children of his age, although his handwriting is beautiful.

Hazel has paid for training sessions to learn techniques that she can use to de-escalate Aidan's violent behaviour, to avoid getting harmed.

One tactic is to hold up a large sofa cushion to prevent Aidan being able to hurt her.

"The first time he grabbed it off me and hit me with it," Hazel says, "So I thought, 'OK, got to hold it tighter.' The second time it worked quite well - I managed to get it between us and he was punching and kicking and trying to get around it, but not managing."

Hazel stresses that her son isn't evil, he is the way he is because of trauma that happened in his past - and that's not his fault.

"Even though it feels like he's an abuser, he's not really - he can't help it," she says. "He's actually such a sweet-natured boy - he's adorable and funny, and we do love each other."

I found the effect it was having on the family as a whole very distressing, and so I made the decision that I was going to take Aidan and go
Hazel
Aidan's mum

But the strain of all this has forced her to give up her job. Her health has gone through the floor - she's had shingles repeatedly and pneumonia more than once in the past year, and now takes antidepressants. Her relationship with her husband has also suffered.

"When we first realised there were issues and things were so difficult, we basically both felt we'd made a mistake and couldn't cope," she says. "But saying that out loud means you have to do something, so neither of us said it out loud. We basically didn't speak to each other for about six months."

When is there a problem?

The Who's in Charge? programme says that when a child's behaviour becomes controlling, threatening, intimidating or unsafe it stops being normal. It provides signs to look out for:

  • You change your behaviour to avoid confrontation with your child
  • You are fearful for your safety or the safety of other family members
  • The child is stealing or damaging other family members' possessions
  • The child threatens you or others
  • The child threatens to harm themselves or engage in risky behaviour - always take threats of self-harm seriously
  • The child is cruel to pets

Click here for a longer list

A couple of years ago, after much soul searching, Hazel was on the brink of taking drastic action.

"I found the effect it was having on the family as a whole very distressing, and so I made the decision that I was going to take Aidan and go," she says.

Hazel's husband persuaded her not to, and although she now acknowledges that was probably the right decision it doesn't assuage the guilt she feels about the other children in their family.

"It's their childhoods that we've put at risk," she says.

Hazel's family had given up visiting other people's houses long before the pandemic. They don't hold or go to any big family occasions; Hazel only sees her own parents while Aidan is at school because they can't cope being around him. And Hazel doesn't meet her own friends with Aidan in tow if any other children will also be there. She and her husband never get a night out or a weekend away - there's no-one they can leave Aidan with who'd be able to manage him.

"It is incredibly isolating," Hazel says.

But she has found great comfort in an online community of parents like her, in forums where people share stories and coping mechanisms, and offer moral support. Discovering so many people in a similar situation was a real eye-opener.

"There are many, many, many families like this," she says.

Where to get help

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger always call 999 and ask for the police. Other sources of support include:

Hazel keeps spreadsheets and is constantly chasing the different agencies involved with Aidan to find out what decisions have been made - or not made. She is always trying to keep the momentum going to find him the help he needs.

"Child-to-parent violence is nobody's business but everybody's business, in the sense that it's no single service or organisation's primary responsibility - I think that's a real problem," says Rachel Condry.

The family's big hope is to get Aidan into a residential school that aims to completely rehabilitate children like him within three years, allowing them to move back home, live with their families and attend normal day schools.

"I really want him in a therapeutic school, one that is actually going to help him," Hazel says.

But the entrance criteria are strict and complicated so it's a long shot.

If Aidan isn't accepted Hazel worries about how things might turn out for him. "He's going to be an abusive partner and he's going to be in trouble with the police," she says. "He will lose it and get in a fight - I see prison."

For now, she continues trying to keep a lid on things. While Aidan is at school she walks the dog and does a bit of mindfulness to prepare herself for his return. He might decide to tear the place apart, throw the contents of the fruit bowl at her and jump off the bannisters. Or, if it's a peaceful night, Aidan will listen to his audio books - the same stories, over and over, following the words on the page. And when it is time for bed the doors downstairs will be locked so that if he gets up in the night he can't bother the dog.

This story uses false names to protect Aidan's privacy

Illustrations by Owen Gent

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