By: Madeline Jones/UK Telegraph
My ten-year-old son was playing happily with my elderly aunt recently, until she jokingly tapped him on the arm for being cheeky. His face changed, his eyes darkened and he raised his hand to her – not in play but in threat. “He seemed so angry,” she said to me afterwards, “I felt quite scared.”
I am the mother of an angry son. He feels he was “born bad”. Sometimes he becomes so upset at life that he hits out – at himself, at other children, at the world. His former headmaster said he had “no empathy”. As a result, he’s not yet managed to form friendships: other children feel he might lash out at them. He might.
People have asked me if I’m scared that he’ll hit me. As puberty approaches, and he will very soon be bigger and certainly much stronger than me, the answer is, “if I get this wrong, possibly, one day, yes.” I’ve a big job on my hands.
I adopted my son at the age of four as a single parent. He was the product of a very violent home and was hospitalized at the age of two after a brutal attack at the hands of a parent. Social services removed him but what he saw and suffered in the early years of his life has affected him badly.
The NGO, Family Lives says that over a two-year period, 31 per cent of over 85,000 calls to its helpline “concerned physical aggression” by children.
But the shame is often so great – the sense that the violence must be a result of your bad parenting – that many of us suffer in silence. As a result, there are no true figures for child to parent violence, or CPV. Yes, it has an acronym now, and high levels of CPV in adoptive families is one of the key themes to emerge from Adoption UK’s new report, out today.
It is recognised that nurture, love and care in the early years of life, something most of us take for granted, are crucial in forming the brain. If the child’s need are in some ways not met, their brain will be hyper alert, in fight or flight mode, easily triggered into fear by noise, change and other people, and without the ability to rationalise or regulate emotional outbursts.
It’s not just traumatised children coming through the care system; even those from happy homes can be hardwired for anxiety. Science has found similar behaviours in babies who have high level of cortisol through maternal stress or illness in pregnancy. It also registers in some cases of incubated premature babies.
The nature of CPV means help and understanding for families is rare. Adoptive families like myself who have taken on damaged children find it hard to access support; for birth families it is even harder. But there is help and hope out there.
“I see the aggression as a form of communication”, says Alan Burnell, co-Director of therapeutic organisation Family Futures. “I would be asking: ‘What’s happened to you? Who has hurt you? What has hurt you? What has caused you to be afraid?’ Once addressed, these behaviors can be managed by the parent and successfully change the outcomes for the family.”
Sarah Naish, a former social worker who brought up five adopted children, set up the National Association of Therapeutic Parents to help teach a successful way to ‘repair’ children. Based largely on the therapeutic work of psychologists like Dan Hughes and Kim Golding, it advocates consistent high praise, high nurture, high-boundaried parenting – slightly different from the loving but disciplinary model most of us experienced in childhood.
“We get all kinds of parents coming to us, foster parents, adoptive parents, biological parents. We hear of children who kick, bite, punch, pinch, head butt their parents, steal, smash their parents’ possessions, threaten them with knives or other weapons. I know of one who woke up in bed to find their teenager standing over them with a can of petrol and a lighter.”
Such behavior is an expression of “the same frustration, fear, insecurity you often see in toddlers,” she says. “It’s just in older children we call it violence and aggression. But it’s still our job to help them with their emotions if they have never learned how to.”
As for my son, he has never hurt me or threatened me. He is gentle with his hamster, caring to small children and writes reams of ‘sorry notes’ – but he is still that boy to many who know him. A few weeks ago, he purposely smacked another boy for taunting and pushing him. Hard. As his arm swung back, I saw the horror in his face. Afterwards he cried. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to but he kind of made me and I feel sad that I did it.”
That lack of pleasure in making a victim out of someone else made me hopeful for the future. It gives me faith in what I believe in my heart: that the experts are right and the damage that has been done in his early years is repairable.
The A-Z of Therapeutic Parenting, Strategies and Solutions by Sarah Naish is published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, £15.99