Helen Bonnick reflects on her work and developments regarding adolescent to parent abuse:

Ten years ago this week I was just getting to grips with my masters degree in Child Studies and when the time came to start the research for my dissertation I found myself in a unique position. Far from needing to narrow down the topic and define the title ever more tightly, I was looking at a field of research that was sparse in the extreme, where I might even be able to read everything that had been written on the issue, and where the greatest difficulty was going to be explaining this unrecognised phenomenon to my supervisor. Parent abuse was little known about, certainly not spoken about and a puzzle to those I began to meet with.
My interest in the development of support for parents experiencing abuse from their children stemmed from a situation at work in the 1980s, where we had been forced to concede that we had no real idea how to help a parent living in fear of her son. Over the years I had moved in to work within education, where I had not only spoken with parents struggling to get their teens out of bed and to school, but also started hearing about fits of rage and violence that destroyed the home, and of the impact on younger siblings. So I was blithely confident that I would be able to find a sizeable sample for the qualitative research I had planned. Naively I had not factored in the shame that parents experienced, their own anxieties about taking part and potentially creating more trouble, or indeed the need for recognition by those I depended on for referrals. In the end I worked with three mothers. (My dissertation can be accessed on request. The abstract is available here.)
I now frequently hear the phrase, “Once your awareness is raised, doing nothing is not an option”, and that is certainly what I experienced from 2006 onwards. Encouraged by Eddie Gallagher, and other practitioners and academics in Australia and America, and armed with my ‘Google alerts’, I continued to study, to network, and to harangue! I have an intensely painful memory of sitting in a car talking on my mobile to a Woman’s Hour researcher, gabbling away in my incredulity that they would seek my advice or opinion.
As I spoke to friends and family – and anyone who would listen - I began to find what Barbara Cottrell had described in her groundbreaking text: that this was a phenomenon much more widely experienced than had been imagined. Wherever I went, someone would say, “Yes, this is happening to me”; but it was not acknowledged openly, and even five years ago it was difficult to find help. Break 4 Change was just taking off in Brighton and Hove, as Eddie Gallagher came over to Britain in 2009 to lead some training. Unless you were living on the Wirral and able to access the PEACE group though, or you had an understanding local CAMHS service, or a progressive YOT manager who grasped the fact that this was not simply a parenting issue, your best bet for support was through the Parentline Plus (now Family Lives) helpline. As early as 2000 they had launched a campaign calling for more support for parents of teenagers, and they are still one of the main sources of data for the incidence of child to parent aggression and violence.
While parent abuse had come to the attention of academics in Australia, New Zealand, America and Canada much earlier, I would date the start of British mainstream interest to the period 2009 – 2010. Researchers within the social sciences were unearthing a surprising issue that was proving difficult to categorise. See for example Holt  and Hunter, Nixon and Parr.  The premise that parents were ultimately responsible for their teens’ behaviour, fiercely promoted by government policy, was now being held up to the light and found wanting. The year 2010 also saw the launch of the three-year Oxford Adolescent to Parent Violence (APV) project, followed not long afterwards by a bid from Brighton University for European funding for a two year project Responding to Child to Parent Violence; and the BBC aired a documentary, “I Hate Mum”, showcasing the work of Greenwich CAMHS in supporting families where children were violent and abusive.

From then on, the pace of development was extraordinary, across research, practice and indeed policy. As Respect launched a toolkit at the start of 2011, for those working with teens who were using violence in close relationships, simultaneously more targeted interventions were developing within mainstream services, adopting and adapting programmes from the States and Australia, or utilising knowledge from other fields; and an ad hoc pattern of delivery within youth offending, domestic violence organisations, and independent agencies was emerging. Across many disparate fields of work, in each case it seems to have been a clear response to an identified issue for which there was no other known avenue of help. And in May 2011, after pondering for several years how I could best contribute to furthering the debate, Holes in the Wall was launched to bring together into one place, everything I could find about child to parent violence.

As Adfam, the Oxford APV Project, and researchers into adoption disruption separately published their findings over the next three years, a bigger picture was emerging. It was clear that parent abuse was not confined to one particular group of people, but that it could be found wherever you looked and asked the right questions, with many different routes and correlates, whether within mental health, youth justice, social care or disability. The first proper set of data from Metropolitan Police records highlighted factors where young people had come in to contact with the law, but this represented only a fraction of the whole.

Looking back over the last five years, it can be hard to comprehend the speed of change. From a perhaps misplaced belief in 2010 that I could attend the one or two conferences in a year, and have heard everything new there was to know about child to parent violence, it would now be possible to attend one or two a month and still miss out on important developments. Importantly, conference venues have served not only for the dissemination of ideas and resources, but also for an intense networking and cross-fertilisation. The sharing of time, knowledge and strategy has made it possible to develop work across the country in a concerted and focused manner. At a personal level, the visibility of Holes has increased at an unbelievable rate of 100% each year, and now attracts visitors from across the globe. Britain is now a leader rather than a follower in the research field.

With the inclusion of policy on APV at government level identified as a key target, intense campaigning brought about important developments such as the inclusion of adolescent to parent violence in the 2014 Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) strategy, and the promotion by the Youth Justice Board of the Step-Up and Who’s in Charge? models of work with young people and their parents. Across the country, and in the face of huge financial constraints, some local authorities have sought to build an approach to APV into already overstretched budgets, with many administrations now owning, at the very least, a commitment to the cause.

Other developments include the intense media interest over the last eighteen months. Parent abuse has featured in news print, radio documentaries and phone-ins, magazine spreads and, television programmes. These moves have certainly brought the issue to the public attention, with a predictable range of responses, but perhaps the main outcome has been that it now feels safer to acknowledge living in fear of your child - an important step on the road to seeking help.

Looking forward, there will be room in this field for further research for many, many years to come.  At the most basic of levels, there remains a desperate need to settle on a name for the phenomenon and to systematise the collection of data. It is still too difficult for parents to access help, or indeed for practitioners to identify a way forward to restore healthy family relationships. The handful of books due to be published in the coming months will be welcomed with much acclaim in a still slim library. But it is indeed an exciting field to be working in, and an exciting time to find myself in such a place. I count myself privileged to be able to contribute to the growth of knowledge, and the growth of provision, where parents are abused by their children.


Helen Bonnick

November 14th 2014