Photo - Nathan Brown

Broken dreams

by Stephanie McLean

For most new parents, looking at their newborn baby for the first time conjures an overwhelming sense of love and pride. Coupled with the hope that one day their baby will grow up to be happy, healthy and someone who does good for the world.

It’s never part of this dream however, to imagine a child that grows up to become violent towards its parents – but for a growing number of families, this is becoming their reality.

Jayne* has a teenage daughter named Jessie* who started behaving violently towards her at the age of 10.  As a single parent, Jayne was struggling to keep the family afloat financially, and at the same time Jessie’s grandfather had become gravely ill. Things had reached crisis point for the family and Jayne believes violence was Jessie’s way of gaining some control over the situation.

It began with verbal insults and destruction in the home. Jayne recalls Jessie’s first outburst which resulted in a house full of trashed Christmas decorations: “She’d say over and over again, ‘dig a hole and kill yourself, povo bitch’”.

By age 12, Jessie’s behaviour had escalated to the point where Jayne felt helpless. Jessie was regularly slapping, hitting, kicking and body-slamming her mother, as well as using other measures to control her.

“She’d steal my phone so I couldn’t ring anyone, she’d take my car keys so I couldn’t drive anywhere,” Jayne says.

One of Jayne’s biggest challenges in dealing with Jessie’s abuse was her inability to find appropriate support networks. When she attempted to seek help from several organisations, she was more often than not met with a response that failed to understand how a child could be abusing her mother.

Jessie, who is now 14, left home last year and went to live with another family member. Jayne grieves the loss of her daughter, who she says will never come home: “She’s my child, I want to sort it out. Mothering isn’t a 12-year thing, you’re a mother for life and I definitely want my child home.”

Crime reports show last year 870 children were placed on intervention orders for displaying violence in the home, and 20 per cent of those children breached their orders and continued to be violent.

Police statistics reveal 6000 reports were made in Victoria in 2014 alone by parents experiencing abuse at the hands of children under the age of 24.

Eddie Gallagher, a clinical psychologist based in Melbourne who specialises in children’s violence towards parents, has been working with families for the last 30 years.  He believes this issue is fairly new, having increased dramatically over the last 20 years.

“This abuse is difficult to recognise, as children are automatically seen as victims in our society”, says Gallagher. “In doing this sort of work it’s clear how parent-blaming social work, psychology and the helping professions are in general.”

He also says a shift in social attitudes can be attributed to the increase in this type of violence, pointing out there is a diminishing level of respect for older people in our society, compared to other cultures around the world.

He adds that this tendency is constantly reinforced in children’s media and advertising, with programs like The Simpsons and Ja’mie Private School Girl, that portray children as heroes and adults as idiots.

“When The Simpsons first came out, not that long ago, it was seen as quite shocking by a lot of people. Now it seems really tame and I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t let their kids watch The Simpsons anymore.”

According to Gallagher, you really can have too much of a good thing. He claims a move towards a modern, more intensive style of parenting poses a threat to children’s behaviour.

He says an increase in child focused parenting and a decrease in control can result in a high sense of entitlement in children, which plays a big part in violence towards parents. Gallagher sees this group as being the most at risk for
violent behaviour.

Sadly, nearly 50 per cent of the children Gallagher sees who are abusing their parents have witnessed other violence in the home, signifying that this is often a learnt behaviour.

“Typically it’s a father being violent towards a mother, and even though the violence may have taken place many years beforehand, the child has lost respect for the mother, as she has been a victim”, says Gallagher.

He says that a sense of control is central to children’s violence towards their parents. Children are attempting to control their parents, and, at other times, disempower them. They’re not trying to dictate their parents’ actions or decisions; they just don’t want their parents to have any control over them.

Despite the need for more awareness, Gallagher says Melbourne is one of the most proactive places in the world when it comes to the issue of children’s violence towards parents, with three different group therapy programs having originated here.

Anglicare’s ‘Breaking the Cycle’ group is an eight-week therapy program for parents whose children are being violent towards them.

Breaking the Cycle team leader, Helen Landau, says specialised services are so important, as often parents are too ashamed to talk about this issue in everyday parenting support groups.

“One of the most important elements of the Breaking the Cycle program is looking at the behaviour of the young person, and then examining how the parents are responding to this behaviour and how this can be done more effectively”, says Landau.

The program’s first aim is to stop the violence; secondly it attempts to help parents understand the impact the violence has on their relationship with their child in order to encourage repair.

“We help parents recognise the pain of that loss,” says Landau. “The dream that when you had a baby was not to be hurt by that baby.”

According to Landau, in the majority of self-reported cases most parents say the violence diminished if not ceased some three to four months after the program. However, she reminds us the program is but a wraparound service and suggests a variety of responses are needed: “The group is not in isolation, it might be during or following some family work that is helping parents with the child in mind.”

Photo by Nathan Brown

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