‘My son said he’s going to kill me one day…and I believe him’
Countless women are living with violent abusers they cannot escape – because the perpetrators are their own children. Anna Moore investigates
‘They love their children – they don’t want them criminalised, they just want help.’ Photographs posed by models
From the outside, Kate’s life looks a success story. Each weekday, she leaves her home in a beautiful part of the country to drive to her executive job with a well-known finance company. Her LinkedIn profile shows a suited, smiling professional; she has been with the same company for decades.
Few are invited into her home, though, as one glimpse inside would tell you something is wrong. The floorboards are bare, the carpet is gone – Kate threw it away when her son poured five litres of paint down the stairs. There are slash marks – made with knives and razor blades – in her living room sofa, on her oak table and over every other kitchen surface, crisscrossing the door of the fridge. For a while, Kate lived without heating and electricity as her son had knocked through the wall between his bedroom and Kate’s, pulling out the wires, and the radiator. ‘I didn’t get it fixed at first because a plumber would take one look and say, “What the hell?”’ says Kate, 51, who is a single parent.
‘Now I don’t see the damage,’ she continues. ‘Everything I owned has been destroyed. My jewellery has been flushed down the toilet. He must have smashed 35 TVs, and I’ve lost count of the phones. My life is really scary. If you look at my call list, it’s 999, Samaritans, the crisis team, the doctor.’
Kate survives on the edge of crisis. She sleeps on the sofa because it’s safer – closer to the front door – always in clothes suitable for leaving the house. She has slept in her car many times. ‘My neighbours must know,’ she says, ‘but I never look at them, I just keep my head down in shame. I don’t understand how they’ve never called the police. I think if it was my partner, not my son, they would have.’
Kate’s son is now 24 – but his extreme behaviour began when he was 12 and refused to go to school, exploding with rage when Kate attempted to talk him round. At that stage, she sought help from everywhere – the truancy officer, the school, social services, the GP. (She once managed to drive her son to the surgery and, when he wouldn’t enter the building, her GP agreed to see him in their car. However, her son refused to go back and still has no formal diagnosis or treatment.)
Kate was sent to parenting classes where advice on boundaries seemed meaningless for a child with no fear of consequences, whose fury went through the roof in seconds. (And if it was a simple parenting issue, why was her elder son successful and law-abiding? Now 33, he lives nearby with his own family.)
Every cry for help has led nowhere. Sessions with a CAMHS (child and adolescent mental health services) psychologist were terminated early because her son ‘didn’t engage’. Kate once begged social services for respite care but her son’s behaviour was judged ‘too extreme’ to place him. Police have twice referred Kate to a local domestic abuse team who told her that they don’t know how to help. They work with people who can escape the situation – but the ‘perpetrator’ here was Kate’s son.
‘I feel guilty, I’m ashamed, I’ve blamed myself the whole way through,’ says Kate. ‘I’m law-abiding, I’m a good person but I should never have had children. He used to be this beautiful little boy: this confident, popular little person who loved me, who was always smiley. Now the only emotions he shows are anger and rage. It must be my fault.’
This agonising combination of love, shame and self-blame is typical in parents experiencing child-to-parent abuse (CPA) – and for decades it has stayed well under the radar, unrecorded and under-researched. Dr Amanda Holt, reader in criminology at the University of Roehampton, has worked in the field for 20 years – her recent research on parricide, the first large-scale study in England and Wales, found a parent is killed by their child every 19 days. (Although the perpetrators were mainly adult children, the youngest was 11.)
‘It’s a bit like the domestic abuse field 50 years ago when campaigners and practitioners were saying “this is important, this is happening”, but no one was recording it, no one was counting it or developing policies and practices,’ says Dr Holt. ‘It’s a very difficult thing to get our heads around. The assumption is that the parents hold the power. CPA turns things upside down.’
It’s gradually changing. A slowly growing body of research suggests that CPA impacts up to five per cent of families and covers behaviour from physical abuse (such as punching, biting, strangling, use of knives) to emotional abuse (such as blackmail and coercion) to economic abuse (including theft and the destruction of property).
It’s highly gendered – mothers are more likely to be victims – and single mothers seem most vulnerable, although as the child gets older this changes and in cases of parricide, fathers are as likely to be killed as mothers. (These are only general patterns – Dr Holt was recently in contact with a grandfather who has been hospitalised twice by the eight-year-old granddaughter in his care.)
Our growing awareness of CPA has led to its recent inclusion in the new Domestic Abuse Act and the Home Office is currently updating its advice on how to tackle it. For Michelle John, founder of support group PEGS (Parental Education Growth Support), expert policy can’t come soon enough.
Michelle launched PEGS in 2019 after her own experience of CPA. At the time, her child was a teenager and Michelle was as frightened as Kate is now. ‘I’d tried to get help,’ she says. ‘I’d contacted social services after a severe incident and asked for an assessment as I needed to make sure that everyone was safe, including my other children. They did one and decided that, because I was safeguarding everyone and I wasn’t a risk to my child, I didn’t meet their criteria.
‘We all have the right to live safely,’ she continues. ‘When someone says they are fearful of their partner, we don’t tell them, “I’m sorry, but you need to stay there as he is too high risk to put anywhere else.” We don’t send them on a course to learn how to be a better wife. We would never blame anybody who experiences intimate partner abuse – but society tells us this is a parenting failure.
‘The parents we support are years into the journey. They have gone on parenting courses; read every book, every article; downloaded podcasts; they’ve reached out and implemented every suggestion they’ve been given,’ says Michelle. ‘They love their children – they don’t want them criminalised, they just want help.’ But help isn’t there. ‘When parents say they are on their knees, on the verge of leaving, they are threatened with abandonment prosecution by the social services – that has happened to 20 per cent of the parents we see.’
The parents who have joined PEGS come from all backgrounds. ‘We’ve supported magistrates, barristers, police officers, doctors,’ says Michelle. When it comes to their child’s behaviour, there is no one explanation, but there are clear risk factors. Adoption is one – a survey of adoptive parents by Adoption UK found that 63 per cent had experienced aggressive behaviour towards them from their child. Exposure to domestic abuse in the home is another clear risk factor – and this was the case for Kate’s son.
A parent is killed by their child every 19 days. Photographs posed by models
Over a 14-month period, when he was aged between six and seven, Kate had a violent partner who was arrested after a vicious attack. (He ended up in prison.) ‘My son witnessed a lot of things. The worst was when my partner turned up in the middle of the night and held me hostage in my bedroom, smashing it up, with my son helpless behind the door. At the end of it all, I had therapy and victim support. Now I think the impact on my son was forgotten. I don’t think we realised how much it was brewing inside him.’
Another CPA risk factor is additional needs. Imogen is a PEGS parent whose ten-year-old son has been diagnosed with ADHD, autism spectrum disorder and conduct disorder. Although academically gifted, he has been manipulative from very early on. At three, he warned his childminder that if she didn’t allow him on the trampoline in the rain, he would tell his mum that she ‘didn’t keep him safe’. Currently excluded from school for assaulting his teacher, he has triggered child protection proceedings by accusing his therapist of kissing him, and recently ran to neighbours begging them to call the police, claiming Imogen was hitting him. When police came, he admitted it was to ‘teach her a lesson’ and allow him more internet time.
‘He is very strong,’ says Imogen, whose relationship with her son’s father ended before he was two. ‘He kicks, he hits, he throws things at me. Last year, he broke my fingers. He woke me up one morning by bashing my face with an iPad. He has said he’s going to kill me one day and I believe him – he’s not a teenager yet.
‘It’s like living with a very coercive partner,’ she continues. ‘I’ve tried to give him everything – guitar classes, football club – but nothing would be enough. “I want what I want now” drives every single thing that he does, and no one is going to get in his way.’
Joining PEGS with its online forum has been life-changing for Kate and Imogen. ‘It’s like reading my own story again and again,’ says Imogen. ‘The parents have reached out for help and not been believed. If a child is acting out, it’s the parents’ fault and the parents’ problem.’
There are no easy answers here. Dr Holt believes that finding ways to record and uncover it is a crucial first step. ‘All police forces should be flagging it up when they are called to incidents,’ she says. ‘Social workers should be asking their families about it, schools could ask parents if they are experiencing it when they have a child displaying these behaviours at school. Until we know how much it happens, it’s hard to argue for more resources. There needs to be more support. We need to develop specialist interventions.’
Michelle John agrees. ‘I struggle to understand why social services can’t take a whole family approach when they make their risk assessments,’ she says. ‘They need to look at risks to the parents, not just those who are under 18. When parents pick up the phone to ask for help, they are at breaking point. And then they’re told, “It’s your fault.”
‘Unless we have policy and framework, no one knows what to do. But listening and believing and asking, “How can we help?” would be a start.’
ARE YOU SUFFERING FROM CHILD-TO-PARENT ABUSE?
There are no simple answers in this situation, but this advice from support group PEGS may help you to move forward
Talk about what is happening with someone you trust.
Create a safety plan for you and anyone else in the home. It should include where you could go in an emergency, emergency contacts, a spare set of car and house keys, and access to money or a bankcard. Ensure that other children can use a phone and know emergency numbers.
Keep a journal or incident log. It can help you to think more clearly and show professionals the reality of your home life.
During an incident, leave the room or get outside for five minutes if it is safe to do so.
Build on any coping strategies that work for you, such as remaining calm, deflecting or de-escalating the behaviour, removing yourself from the situation, etc. Use time between incidents to consider whether any of these have worked and which techniques you may try next time. It’s fine to address behaviour when things are more settled rather than in the moment or immediate aftermath.
If there is any danger your child will harm themselves or someone else, always call the police.
Reach out to services that can help. For more information and support, you can contact:
- Parental Education Growth Support (PEGS), pegsupport.co.uk.
- The Family Lives helpline (previously known as Parentline) on 0808 800 2222, which offers free and confidential support, or visit familylives.org.uk.
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