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As a mother, carer or relative, you may find that your child is using violence or abuse to intimidate and control you, and perhaps other family members as well. It has gone beyond ‘acting out’, and you feel something’s not right.
You may find it difficult to accept that what your child is doing is abusive. Perhaps you feel like it’s your fault that your child has ‘turned out’ this way. Feeling stressed, guilty and ashamed, you may just try and put up with it.
You are not responsible for the abusive behaviour, but you are very important to the solution. By accepting the seriousness of the situation and seeking support, you may find the confidence and skills you need to regain control and heal your relationship with your child.
You and your family are entitled to be respected and to live in safety.
Abuse is any act that creates fear, and is intended to cause physical, emotional, psychological, financial or property damage to gain power and control over another.
Adolescence is the stage between childhood and adulthood — our brains keep developing right up to the age of about 25. During this time it is normal for young people to challenge authority and rules as they prepare to become independent and to run their own lives. So how do you know what is healthy anger and conflict, and what is abusive behaviour? You know when something’s not right — listen to your own thoughts and feelings.
Myth: “They’re just letting off steam, they can’t help it”
Abusive young people can control their behaviour. They choose to use violent or abusive behaviour to control and disempower you.
Most abusive young people use a combination of verbal and emotional abuse, threats and property damage, as well as physical violence. This behaviour generally gets worse as the young person grows bigger and stronger.
Mothers often blame themselves for their children’s behaviour. They may even feel their children are punishing them for being a bad mother. This can leave mothers feeling like failures, and feeling they can’t manage the situation. This is not helpful. Young people may behave violently for a variety of reasons. Whatever the reason, behaving violently or abusively is not healthy or respectful. Young people must be responsible for their own behaviour and actions.
Many toddlers show aggression. Although most grow out of this, some slowly escalate as they get bigger and stronger. Although violence can start at any age, it often becomes a major problem between the ages of 12 and 17 years. Of all adolescent offenders, current statistics indicate that two thirds are male and a third are female.
The following factors may make abusive behaviour more likely, more severe or harder to control. It’s important to remember that none of these things ‘cause’ violence.
Substance misuse — Young people may be more aggressive and show less remorse when they are using drugs and/or alcohol.
Mental illness — Youth mental health services can support you to learn about the mental health issue and how best to both support yourself and ensure your family’s safety and wellbeing.
Trauma and loss — War, migration, death, family separation, illness and grief affects how a child develops, copes with stress or conflict, makes decisions or handles emotions. This can lead to abusive and violent behaviour.
Experiencing family violence — Children who experience family violence may be more ‘at risk’ of using violence themselves, particularly if they are male children. They may begin to see violence as a normal and acceptable way of communicating or resolving conflict. Like adults, they use violence to gain a temporary sense of control and power in an out-of-control situation where they feel powerless and worthless.
Men’s violence toward women teaches children to be disrespectful to their mother and undermines her authority. Children who grow up with these abusive attitudes unchallenged are more likely to abuse and use violence against their mother.
Sexist attitudes — Common attitudes in our society allow males, including young men, to feel they are entitled to control women and the household. Physical strength and dominance are seen as defining qualities of being a man. Such attitudes and peer pressure can encourage macho behaviour in boys.
Attitude of over-entitlement — Parents sometimes put their energy into giving their children whatever they want at the expense of instilling them with a sense of responsibility. Some children see it as their parents’ job to make them happy — at any cost!
Temperament — Sometimes there is just one ‘difficult’ child in a family who has personality traits such as being stubborn, impulsive and combative.
Myth: They’re also victims themselves
Abusive young people may have suffered trauma, grief or loss — but this is an explanation not an excuse. By helping them learn to handle their feelings better, you will be doing them a big favour.
Family violence and abuse perpetrated by adolescents is a problem that cuts across all types of families from all backgrounds. However, for many reasons, mothers are more likely to be abused.
Women are still primarily responsible for parenting, and so mothers may be the ones in charge of ‘laying down the law’, while at the same time feeling more protective of the children. This is particularly the case for women who have left their partners — sole and separated mothers are the most frequent victims of violence and abuse from their children.
There is no evidence single parenting itself leads to abuse by children, unless there has been past family violence. However, sole parents may lack support to respond to their children’s violence, be more isolated and find it harder to deal with abuse from their children.
Young people may also abuse younger brothers and sisters, who may consequently suffer developmental problems, and long-term emotional and relationship difficulties where the abuse is serious. It is important that you intervene.
If your child is being cruel to pets or animals, take this seriously, as it can be a sign of very serious issues. For more information, see the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) Victoria website. Child Protection will also respond to severe cases of animal cruelty to pets or animals.
Myth: “They must be mentally ill, on drugs, or traumatised…”
There is no excuse for violence. Some abusive young people may have a mental health, drug or alcohol issue, but they can still control their behaviour.
Abuse thrives in silence and isolation. Parental abuse is still a taboo subject, like domestic violence was twenty or thirty years ago. Although it may be difficult and embarrassing, it is very important to let others know what is happening.
Breaking the silence by finding a safe place to talk about what’s going on at home, whether it be with trusted family and friends or support services, can be the first step on your journey of regaining control and healing the relationship with your child.
It is usually the mother who recognises the problem and seeks help. Gaining the support and agreement of other adults in your child’s life to allow a consistent approach to discipline is very important. This could include your spouse, your ex-partner, and your child’s teachers at school — the school’s welfare office may be a helpful contact for this.
It is very common for the abusive child to blame you and refuse to take responsibility for their behaviour and refuse counselling or other supports. Don’t be discouraged. By getting help for yourself and working on your own behaviour and responses, the situation at home can improve.
Much as they push the limits, young people need clear rules and consistent consequences to feel safe and secure. Although an abusive child may appear to enjoy their power, they are usually far happier when their parents take control and provide guidance and leadership. By holding them accountable for their actions you are not violating their rights — you are teaching them how to behave appropriately.
It is extremely difficult to remain calm and act appropriately in the heat of the moment — they really know how to ‘push your buttons’. You might benefit from learning different ways of relating to your children and dealing with negative emotions and conflict. Getting outside support will help you to reflect on your own responses.
Gathering information and getting support will also help you regain confidence, stay in control, follow through and negotiate what is a long-term process. There is no quick fix, but the sooner you take action, the sooner the situation will improve, and you may avoid having to take more drastic actions later.
Myth: “It is because his father was violent”
Violence is not biologically inherited. It results from learned attitudes and behaviours.
If your child is using physical violence, you should create a safety plan. This involves thinking about what you are already doing to protect yourself and others, and what works.
Sometimes you may be able to tell when a situation with your child is escalating towards an abusive confrontation. At other times young people seem to just ‘go off’ without warning. There is a limit to how much you can try to reason with someone while they are in a rage. Sometimes the only way to de-escalate such situations is simply to remove yourself and stop interacting altogether.
Have a plan for how you and your other children will leave the house and where you will go. Make sure your other children know how important it is for them to stick to the plan. Keep your wallet and car keys handy and in the same spot.
It is important to learn about your legal rights and the rights of your child so that you are clear about the full range of options available to you, even if you choose not to take legal action.
Physical abuse, threats, having weapons, theft and damage to property are criminal offences. For your safety and the safety of others it may be necessary to consider police involvement. A visit from the police will deal with the immediate emergency and may also help your child realise the severity of their actions. However, it is not the job of the police to provide long-term solutions.
It is possible to take out an intervention order to protect yourself from your child’s abusive behaviour. You can do this even while your child is still living at home. While an intervention order may serve as a ‘wake up call’ for your child, you must be willing and able to enforce the order. If you make threats and don’t follow through on them, your child can end up feeling more powerful.
For more information see the Victoria Legal Aid booklet Safe at Home.
Removing the abusive child from the home for a short time until you feel they have changed their behaviour may work. Unfortunately, in some circumstances, the removal of the abusive child from the home on a more permanent basis may be the only solution to ending the abuse and/or violence. If they are not ready or able to strike out on their own, they may be able to access support through government programs.
It is also important to get support for yourself at this time. It is common for mothers to experience a range of mixed and conflicting emotions — relief, grief, guilt, freedom and failure.
Myth: “It’s because I’m a bad mother”
This is more than a parenting problem. There are many complex reasons why young people are violent at home. You can help protect family members and support them to change, but ultimately they are responsible for their own behaviour and choices.
Anonymous support through a phone service like WIRE or Parentline is a good place to start. They offer a safe place to talk things through, explore options and put you in touch with further support.
Individual counselling can offer a supportive space to explore what’s happening at home. Different counsellors have different areas of expertise; look for someone who has a family focus in their work. (See our post on ‘Counselling‘.)
Family counselling treats the family as a whole, but may not be appropriate if your child is intimidating.
Support groups offer understanding and learning from others in a similar situation. There is a small but growing number of support groups specifically for parents with abusive children. You can read about mothers’ experiences of support groups in Anglicare’s downloadable booklet ‘Adolescent Violence: Women’s Stories of Courage and Hope’. You can also find parenting services and support groups through Better Health Channel, or explore the resources offered by the Department of Education.
Family violence services generally specialise in partner violence. However they may be able to offer assistance and support in understanding your situation, especially if there is a history of violence in your family. Call WIRE on 1300 134 130 to discuss whether there is an appropriate program in your area.
Parenting education teaches valuable skills such as setting boundaries and handling conflict. Look for resources geared specifically towards parenting abusive young people, as more generalised advice might not suit your situation. Specialised publications available online, such as Adolescent Violence To Parents — A Resource Booklet For Parents And Carers, give you practical information and tips on dealing with the problem.
To discuss an issue you may be having with your child's behaviour you can call WIRE for information about possible programs in your area.