'Hurt children hurt' is a truism but hurt children do hurt and though it's a snappy phrase it doesn't quite encapsulate the reality of being hurt by your child. It echoes those memes that haunt me on my Twitter and Facebook feeds declaring 'Adopted children grow in your heart not your tummy'. Not really my cup of tea, all a bit twee and remote from my adopted family's reality. However, hurt children hurt is a reality for many adoptive families and it doesn't fit well with the happy ever adoption narrative that purveys cultural consciousness. That the most vulnerable children lash out and commit violent acts against their parents and carers is an uncomfortable reality for wider society to consider. Violence from children is not often discussed or a suitable subject to raise in polite company but the truth is that it does happen. For many adopted families, the violence in their homes is an ongoing and overwhelming characteristic of their lives.
Of course we can all appreciate that adolescents sometimes lash out or that toddlers have tantrums. I'm sure we've all looked on as some flustered parent has battled with a kicking and screaming two year old in the local supermarket distraught over something they're not allowed. I've been that parent, it's not nice, but usually not too harmful.
What do you do when the injuries you experience from your child are more than accidents or the usual, though challenging, toddler tantrums? What if it is actual violence? Violence that is daily, unleashed by the slightest perceived provocation, personal and sustained, hitting and screaming, verbal and physical abuse that bruises and injures body and eventually mind?
As our family grew we began to experience this type of violence. I wrote a blog in 2014 about some of our family's experiences, not accidents or tantrums but sustained physical assaults that were having a significant impact on us. Admitting that you are struggling to manage your child's behaviour is a cultural taboo. To admit that you're frightened of your child or that their violence has reached an intensity and frequency that it is impinging on your ability to function as a family unity is perhaps too far to stretch. I was nervous as I published the post, I'd checked it with my wife and she agreed that we needed to poke our heads above the parapet.
Like a dentist touching a nerve, the response was immediate and loud. Comments, tweets and private messages all echoing my experience with adoptive parents, foster carers and carers sharing their stories of violence and assaults. One after another for days and days the stories came with adoptive families looking to share their experiences. Drawing these together in a Report on the impact of violence on parents, based on a survey I released at the end of last year, it collated the challenges and experiences that many adoptive parents face. There is limited research into child to parent violence and what there is focuses on adolescents. Many parents told of the violence they experienced from children as young as four. Hard to imagine but that's what they said and the age of the children compounded the reluctance to seek help.
For some children that have experienced trauma, loss and separation they are wired to respond to stressful or challenging situations with a flight, fight or freeze response. If your child's response is fight then that's what you'll have, not a tantrum but a fight. It is a reaction to their perception of events not a behaviour choice that can be fixed with a sticker chart but a trauma response. Ask any adopter what they think of sticker charts and I assure you it won't be pretty.
The majority of parents that contacted me were adopters and were concerned for the welfare of their children, their families and themselves. It was clear that many were in shock, though thoroughly prepared as part of the assessment process to be adopters they'd never heard the phrase 'Child on Parent violence'. If they had plucked up the courage to speak to Social Workers, GPs or teachers they were disbelieved or their concerns minimised as 'normal behaviour', at worst their ability to parent was questioned. Within the adoption community there is limited research on the prevalence of child on parent violence but what there is suggests it is nearly as high as 30% and from the number of parents that contacted me I'd have to agree with that figure. However, there are suggestions that it could be higher depending on how you measure it or define child to parent violence. Regardless, the figure is higher than in the general population, which is estimated at 2 to 4%, and raises questions of the preparation that we give adults as they come to adopt. With one in three parents experiencing child on parent violence then we need to build ethical preparation that informs prospective adopters and gives families tools to manage.
Adopted and fostered children represent some of the most vulnerable children in our society. They have been hurt and that hurt is beyond what most of us will ever experience, it is trauma, loss and separation all at a time when they are developmentally vulnerable. That hurt often manifests in frustration, confusion, fear and grief. That hurt causes them to try and keep their world in an order that stops them being hurt again. That strategy sometimes involves violence.
Adoption is not a new model of caring for children but it is a model that is preferred for children that have experienced some the worst aspects of our society. Should we be so surprised that they express their experiences through violence? We need to ethically prepare and equip families for this challenge and ensure that our children's workforce understand this hidden phenomenon. Hurt children hurt.