From Oliver Twist to Cinderella, the idea of overly oppressive parenting is not new and beyond the world of children’s fiction, there is much data showing that parental control transform into violence against children. While child abuse is horrendous, it is at least widely recognised, giving authorities and charities the opportunity to tackle it. There is, however, another aspect of domestic violence which often goes un-reported. This is the reciprocal to parental abuse of children: it is parental abuse by children.
New research by Oxford University suggests teenage abuse of parents is a widespread problem, with over 1,892 reported cases of 13-19 year-olds committing violent assaults against their own parents in 2009-10. In interviews with the researchers, parents who had been abused by their children described feelings of intense shame and a belief that the violence of their children was a consequence of their own failings as parents. This, along with a fear of the consequences for their children if they reported the problem, led many adults abused by teenagers to avoid contacting police. It is therefore difficult to know how many cases of parental abuse by children there really are.
But why is parental abuse by children happening? This 2010 report by Parentline Plus suggests that there are socio-economic factors which can make teens aggressive towards their parents. One such factor is parental unemployment. Research has shown that children whose parents are unemployed are 3 to 4 times more likely to have an emotional or conduct disorder. Furthermore, children from households with the lowest 20% of incomes have a three-fold increased risk of mental health problems than children from households with the highest 20% of incomes. These factors show that while in cases of parental abuse by children, the kids are the perpetrators of violence, their decision to be abusive may result from their own vulnerability due to their socio-economic situation.
Socio-economic factors seem to be influential in teen aggression towards parents but there are other causes too, such as the impact of technology and celebrity culture on children and family relationships. These factors are unique aspects of modern society suggesting this problem may be more widespread than it was in previous decades. The effect of technology on family relationships is profound and, as this article describes, the impact of the internet, gaming and mobile phones has led to a ‘distancing’ between parents and children. Parents know less about what is going on in their children’s lives and, consequently, have less ability to exert influence over them. As well as parents having less control, children may be becoming increasingly aggressive towards their parents, and in extreme cases violent towards them, as a result of the violence associated with the glamorous celebrity culture of modern times. The celebrity culture has encouraged some children, perhaps subconsciously, to see domestic violence as an acceptable form of familial interaction.
This article is not intended to excuse teens who commit violent acts towards their parents or to criticise parents for failing to protect their children from negative influences. Rather, it has tried to look at the causes that go beyond a teenager’s decision to act aggressively in order to consider possible solutions to the problem. This is a serious problem which requires multi-lateral action in order to protect parents, dissuade teenagers from resorting to violence and, perhaps most importantly, looking at the larger issue of how more respectful and loving families to be created.
Obviously, the priority should be protecting vulnerable parents. Earlier this year, the Home Office made some progress towards this by including 16 and 17-year-olds in its official definition of domestic violence. However as the Oxford study points out children who are under the age of 16 are still left outside the official definition. While the Oxford research recommends that this immediately be extended to children of 13 or over, I believe more research has to be done both to see how widespread this under-reported issue really is and also to explore measures of preventing violence and protecting parents that do not involve criminal courts.
One way of doing this is by educating parents about how their behaviour influences that of their children. This report describes how ‘children learn violence from their parents’ and thus by reducing violence by or between parents, children are less likely to view domestic abuse as an appropriate way of behaving. Teenagers themselves of course have a role in preventing the spread of this form of behaviour. Teenagers often fight their parents in front of friends in order to show their strength or to make a point. If friends encourage this behaviour, it can only have negative consequences for family relations – this will not, of course, necessarily lead to violence, but any deterioration of relations should be prevented if possible. Teenagers should encourage respect of parents from each other.
Parental abuse by children is a complex issue with many causes. But by educating both teens and parents about appropriate family respect, by protecting vulnerable parents through the courts and by doing more research to understand why teenagers become violent towards their parents, progress may be made to resolve this issue and to slowly heal the generational divide between parents and children.