Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Child to parent violence and learning disability: removing the stigma

New research published this week by the Mayor of London’s Violence Reduction Unit found that there is significant underreporting of child to parent abuse due to immense shame and fear of the child being removed from the home.

The new study found that at least 40% of parents or carers who experienced violence by their children refused to report it. There was also a lack of awareness amongst parents, carers, young people and even professionals about the issue. This led to an inconsistent and patchwork provision of support for families and a lack of understanding about how to access it.

Frontline practitioners working directly with families have warned they expect levels of child to parent abuse to continue to increase.

SEND and unmet psychological needs 

The study collected data from literature reviews and interviews with strategic stakeholders, frontline practitioners, young people and parents/carers.

Amongst the many complex factors that increase the vulnerability of both parents/carers and young people to child to parent violence were unmet emotional and psychological needs and unidentified special education needs and disabilities.

The report stated that multiple practitioners commented that many of the young people they work with who are violent towards their parent/carer have a learning difficulty or special educational needs.

Similarly, some parents/carers interviewed disclosed that they suspected that their child had special educational needs, but had not received an assessment due to long waiting lists at Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).

One important element of the report was that there continues to be a misconception across society that child to parent violence is a symptom of parental failure, and the abusive behaviours are highly stigmatised. Parents/carers can feel immense shame and isolation, which prevents them from seeking support.

Saddest secret of our time

Parent Yvonne Newbold has long campaigned to lift this stigma about violent children with additional needs. She calls it the saddest secret of our time and says that very day, in thousands of homes everywhere, there are children who have a learning disability, or autism, or ADHD or something very similar, who have episodes of explosive emotional overload where they physically attack their family, often focusing on their own mother.

These children are often mostly wonderful for the vast majority of the time, but when something triggers them, the level of violence they are capable of is frightening in the extreme.

Yvonne now runs Newbold Hope which works with parents and professionals to reduce difficult and dangerous behavior in children with a disability or an additional need. She has also created a series of blog posts called: The First Steps in Turning Around Your Child’s Behaviour.

She added: “Specialist services to support families coping with childhood violence do exist, but there are nowhere near enough of them to be able to help more than a tiny fraction of the families that need help with their children’s behaviour. Where they do exist, and where a child’s behaviour is assessed as being severe enough to warrant a referral, often there are so many hoops to jump through, so many criteria boxes to tick, and so many obstacles to allocating funding for a particular child that it can take years to get that child in front of someone who might be able to help.”

Early intervention is essential

According to the Challenging Behaviour Foundation, children who get the right support early in childhood can reduce the severity and frequency of challenging behaviour and improve their quality of life.

Its Paving the Way report describes how to develop effective local services for children with learning disabilities and behaviours described as challenging. It includes examples of good practice, outcomes and costings, and advice on how to develop evidence-based local services.

The lack of specialist support from services was flagged in the Mayor of London’s report which also highlighted the need for early intervention as soon as warning signs appear, rather than at crisis point.

Key recommendations from the report include:

  • Working to facilitate multi-agency collaboration
  • The training and development of child to parent violence champions
  • Establishment of a central ‘helpline’ to provide information and guidance to practitioners on identifying and making referrals
  • Supporting practitioners to increase awareness of where to get support for this specific form of abuse and/or support/help from others experiencing child to parent abuse.

Child to parent violence is not a new phenomenon

Helen Bonnick is a consultant, speaker, and trainer on child to parent violence and abuse said that over the past ten years, a number of researchers have dissected this issue of child to parent violence, encouraging greater understanding in the world of academia and practice.

This is not a new phenomenon, she says. In the past we have talked about poor parenting, children with emotional difficulties, or delinquent behaviour, and our solutions have been along the lines of greater structure, punishment, or counselling, with the blame often on the parents for “allowing” it to happen.

Helen adds: “Continuing shame and fear of being blamed means that parents may not come forward for help until the situation is desperate, and indeed they may not identify the problem as abusive themselves until this point – particularly where a child’s learning disability appears to be a significant cause. And so, it is difficult to suggest a number or have a sense of prevalence.

“Nevertheless, the reports that we do have – and anecdotal testimony from services – suggests that as many as 10% of families with teenagers may experience violence and aggression at “beyond normal” rates and that for around 3% families, this might be extreme and dangerous.”

She said as campaigning has become established we have seen it tackled on a number of TV soaps and in mainstream media reports, bringing the issue into everyday conversation. Within housing, youth justice, substance use, and adoption services, researchers began to hear about behaviour that looked and felt very like domestic violence but from young people towards their parents. 

Mencap and Holby City storyline

Most recently, Mencap helped advise on a Holby City storyline which highlighted the huge pressure the social care system is under, and what can happen when people with a learning disability can’t access the help they have a right to, with families ending up in crisis situations. 

The storyline featured a nurse, Madge (played by Clare Burt), and her daughter, 19-year-old Lizzie, who is autistic and has a learning disability. Recent episodes showed Madge’s colleagues growing worried that she is being abused by her husband after she collapses due to injuries and needs surgery, but Madge discloses that the injuries are from Lizzie.

In the episode, it was revealed that the family has not been able to access the right social care support for Lizzie because of funding issues. Without the right support to meet her needs, Lizzie’s behaviour has escalated and become more challenging.    

Dan Scorer, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Mencap, said: “At Mencap, we worked with producers to advise on aspects of the storyline alongside a family of someone with a learning disability who experienced similar issues. We hope it will raise awareness of the desperate need for more social care funding so people with a learning disability and their families can get the support they need in the community and not reach a crisis situation.”

People with a learning disability trapped in inpatient units

Mencap used the storyline to help campaign on the scandal of people with a learning disability trapped in inpatient units. An issue that has been flagged numerous times in the media in recent months from 27-year old Stephen who was sectioned for seven years to the mother battling to get her 29-year-old autistic son released from a maximum security hospital.

The charity said that, as shown with Lizzie, there are episodes of ‘challenging behaviour’ triggered by frustration, anxiety and pain rather than intent to harm another person.  

It says that in some cases when someone’s behaviour escalates, people with a learning disability can be sectioned under the Mental Health Act and admitted to inpatient units. Currently there over?2,000 people with a learning disability and/or autism who continue to be trapped in units where they are at increased risk of abuse, and are also in danger of being subjected to restrictive practices – like physical restraint, chemical cosh and solitary confinement. People are also often held long distances from home with limited interaction with their families.  

Dan Scorer adds: “Most people with a learning disability and/or autism who end up in units could be supported in the community if the right services were in place. Once detained in units, people deteriorate because the environment is not right for them. This in turn can make their behaviour more challenging, ultimately making it harder to get them discharged. Despite often fighting for years to get loved ones out, families can be powerless against the system.”



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