Victims of Crime Research Digest No. 14
Child to Parent Violence and Aggression: An Introduction
By Shanna Hickey and Susan McDonaldFootnote 1
Understanding and awareness of the various dynamics at play in family violence have evolved significantly over the past four to five decades (Barnett, Miller-Perrin and Perrin 2010). As terms such as “wife assault,” “woman abuse” and “battered women” became common in the late 1960s and 1970s, the first women’s shelters were established at a very grassroots level. The federal Badgley Commission in the early 80s (Committee on Sexual Offences against Children and Youth 1984) brought child abuse into the spotlight for Canadians, as adults testified to the abuse they had experienced at the hands of family members or trusted adults. In 1983, dramatic amendments to the Criminal Code replaced the offence of rape with three levels of sexual assault (Roberts and Gebotys 1992). More recently, the abuse of seniors by family members — often their principal caregivers — has also been recognized. Growing numbers of researchers and professionals (see Weegar 2017) now recognize other forms of family violence, such as Child to Parent Violence and Aggression (CPVA). While CPVA has always existed, greater understanding, research and advocacy has helped to pull it out of the shadows and into discussions about prevention and interventions.
This short article provides an introduction to CPVA by examining research from Canada and other countries, as well and Canadian statistics on family violence and the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic. It concludes with outstanding questions for Canadian researchers, policy analysts and the general public to consider.
Child to Parent Violence and Aggression (CPVA) is also known as adolescent–to–parent violence (APV), child to parent violence (CPV), adolescent violence in the home (AVITH), and adolescent to parent violence and abuse (APVA) (Bonnick n.d.; Selwyn and Meakings 2015; Thorley and Coates 2018). CPVA, the most widely used term, is used in the remainder of this article.Footnote 2 It can be defined as a pattern (as opposed to a one-off incident) of violence and aggression by children and adolescents which causes parents, caregivers, siblings or other families members to experience fear, loss of control or altered behaviours in order to avoid further violence or altercations (Adopt4Life 2020; Selwyn and Meakings 2015; Thorley and Coates 2018).
Little research has been done on CPVA in Canada. In the UK, where there is a greater level of general awareness of CPVA, a fair amount of research has been done, including a 2018 survey and an ongoing evaluation of programs to determine which interventions work.
What do we know about CPVA?
Researchers and experts have yet to agree on a definition of CPVA, in part because it affects families with many different backgrounds and needs, including adoptive families, families of origin, special guardians, children with Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND), and children with complex trauma histories (Adopt4Life 2020). Behaviours that are common in CPVA include: coercive control; domination; intimidation; physical, verbal, psychological or financial threats to gain power; and physical and verbal assaults (Selwyn and Meakings 2015; Thorley and Coates 2018). The inclusion of intent in the definition is contentious as many parents and caregivers argue the complexity of underlying mental health and special needs prevents their child from having an intent to harm (Adopt4Life 2020).
The causes of CPVA point to a complex relationship with trauma and UK researchers argue that understanding a child’s relationship with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is critical (Thorley and Coates 2018). Researchers have noted that children may have witnessed or experienced domestic violence; may have had pre-natal exposure to, or are currently using, substances; may be involved in the criminal justice system; and may have difficulties at school (Bonnick n.d.; Cottrell 2001; Thorley and Coates 2018). Researchers have also found that children with SEND are overlooked in the CPVA literature, but often have many of the relational complexities of CPVA (Thorley and Coates 2018). Furthermore, researchers are curious about the long-term impacts of having a complex or tumultuous sibling relationship (Thorley and Coates 2018).
There has also been discussion in the literature of the gendered nature of CPVA, akin to “mother abuse” (Cottrell 2001; Selwyn and Meakings 2015). There are several ways in which gender dynamics can play out. One example is that children who witness intimate partner violence against women may learn that such violence is acceptable or may be hostile toward their mother for not protecting herself from abuse (Selwyn and Meakings 2015). Researchers have indicated that the statistical trends cannot be fully understood without more data, but some postulate that girls’ violence is less likely to be reported than boys’ violence (Selwyn and Meakings 2015). Another possible explanation of the lower numbers of female child perpetrators is that police are more likely to pursue action when a male child perpetrates violence against his mother rather than a female child (Selwyn and Meakings 2015). This research has yet to explore similar power dynamics with non-binary or transgender children, parents and caregivers.
CPVA tends to inspire feelings of guilt, shame and isolation in parents. Parents’ social supports, friends and family members begin to dwindle as they become less willing to engage in chaotic family dynamics, pass judgment or experience burnout (Selwyn and Dibben 2017). Parents often wait long periods — even years — before reaching out for help and few know where to get help. If not the police, to whom do they turn? In a UK study, three-quarters (75%) of parents surveyed reported that professionals lacked the expertise needed to help with CPVA and overall, that parents felt blamed for what was happening when they sought supports (Selwyn and Dibben 2017). Child protection investigations can compromise parents’ employmentespecially if they work in social services or as psychologists, psychiatrists, teachers or coaches (Selwyn and Dibben 2017). A May 2020 Huffington Post describes the phenomenon, including the immense challenges faced by parents and available resources (Treleaven 2020).
Statistics Canada published its latest family violence statistical profile in March 2021 (Conroy 2021). The profile provides data from police-reported incidents of family violence in 2019. The latest profile notes that in 2019, out of 399,846 victims of police-reported violence in Canada, 102,316 — approximately one-quarter (26%) — were victimized by a family member. Two-thirds (67%) of family violence victims were female.
The perpetrators of police-reported incidents were most often the current spouse (31%) or a parent (20%), followed by a former spouse (13%), a sibling (11%) or a child (11%). A larger proportion of female victims than male victims experienced violence from a current or former spouse (51% versus 29%, respectively), while male victims were more likely than female victims to experience violence by someone other than a spouse (71% versus 49%, respectively).
While the proportions of child and sibling perpetrators (11% and 11%) are less than those of current or former spouses (31% and 13%, respectively), they are significant and warrant attention.
Although few empirical studies have been completed in Canada to date, the following Statistics Canada table illustrates decreasing numbers of police-reported violent offences committed by youth aged 12–17 years against biological parents, legal caretakers, and other immediate family members, such as biological, step, half, foster and adopted siblings.
|Year||Relationship of the Accused to the Victim|
|ChildFootnote 4||Other immediate familyFootnote 5||Total|
The numbers show a steady decline from 2009, when the total rate was 14.1 victims per 100,000 population, to 2019, when the total rate was 7.9 victims per 100,000 population. Throughout the past ten years, the number of parent victims has been higher than the number of other immediate family member victims.
To explain the 10-year downward trends in police-reported incidents, Canadian researchers wonder whether aspects of the larger context have changed. For example, are more services available to families so they do not need to call the police? Have attitudes changed about the value of reporting incidents to police? Has the violence decreased in the past decade? And if so, why? Further research is needed to fully understand this trend.
In 2001, Canadian researcher Barbara Cottrell from Nova Scotia published a short overview of parent abuse, its effects and contributing factors, the involvement of the criminal justice system and helpful ways to move forward.
Cottrell notes in her report that parents in Canada are legally responsible to provide for their children until they are 19 years old. CPVA complicates this responsibility, especially should police become involved. Cottrell further notes that many parents hesitate to contact police for fear that assault charges will be laid either against a child or themselves (for acting in self-defence). Some parents report that police involvement led their child to become more angry and resentful, and some parents felt a loss of control after contacting the criminal justice system. As with other studies (Meier 2018; Selwyn and Meakings 2015), the report notes that some parents felt guilt, fear and isolation and needed support to reassume a compassionate and kind leadership role in their families.
In 2017, Crime Prevention Ottawa published a summary report by Kelly Weegar, a PhD candidate in Psychology at the University of Ottawa, detailing current research about a trend of rising incidents of family violence among non-spousal family members.Footnote 6 The report mentions CPVA alongside non-spousal family violence, sibling violence, parent violence, and homicides. Weegar (2017) notes factors that increase the risk of CPVA include exposure to family violence; a weak bond with parents; adolescent depression; substance abuse; and power-assertive parenting practices (Calvete, Orue and Gamez-Guadix 2013; Ibabe, Jaureguizar and Bentler 2013; Ibabe and Bentler 2016).
Another essential aspect of CPVA to consider and understand within the Canadian context is the higher rates of family violence in Indigenous communities compared to non-Indigenous communities. Systemic injustices created and perpetuated by federal policies, programs and laws led many First Nations, Métis and Inuit children and families to experience abuses and intergenerational trauma. It will be important to examine the links between colonization and CPVA in the Canadian context.
Research from other countries
In 2019–2020, Family Safety Victoria and the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare completed a project on CPVA. The project explored youth violence in the home through an online survey, a focus group and a symposium (Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare 2020). Results of this study confirm a lack of evaluated programs in the field that target adolescents who use violence in their homes, as well as a shift in language: service providers no longer use the word “perpetrator” to describe young people who use violence (Ibid.). The study identified gaps in existing research, including: how to work effectively with adolescents with a disability who are violent in the home; which services to access for support to assist young people; and early interventions (Ibid.). Challenges for service providers included: information sharing across sectors; knowing when and which services to refer; a lack of service supports for children under age 12; and inclusive programming for Indigenous families, same-sex partners and those from diverse backgrounds (Ibid.). The study also highlighted a number of effective strategies: boundaries and consequences for behaviour; accountability; respite for parents and caregivers; addressing shame and blame for all family members; and exploring how young people feel about violence.
In 2013, United Kingdom researchers Selwyn, Wijedasa and Meakings surveyed parents who had adopted children between April 2002 and March 2004, collecting information from a total of 390 families with 689 adopted children. Following the survey, researchers interviewed 35 parents who had experienced an adoption disruptionFootnote 7 and 35 who had described family life as “very difficult.” Also included in the study were: 12 adoption managers who had supported and responded to requests for help; 10 social workers who had placed or assessed the placement that had been disrupted; and 12 children who had experienced a disruption. Findings indicated that gender was not a factor in adoption disruption.Footnote 8 Authors noted that a similar number of boys and girls were adopted each year, and that neither gender nor ethnicity were associated with greater risk of disruption. Age, however, was a factor: children who experienced an adoption disruption were older on average when they entered into care than those with intact adoptions (three years old versus one year old, respectively). In addition, teenaged adoptees were 10 times more likely to experience disrupted adoption than younger children.
Selwyn and Meakings (2015) completed two additional studies for the Department for Education and one specifically for the Government of Wales.Footnote 9 Using national data,Footnote 10 the researchers found that disruption occurs relatively infrequently (roughly 3% of all adoptions in both England and Wales). Following the methodology of their previous work, the researchers selected and interviewed 20 Welsh adoptive families (10 who had experienced disruption and 10 who had described parenting as “very challenging”).
Parents had mixed experiences with professionals; some felt that the professionals had contributed to parents’ sense of shame and blame, while others felt they had received good support. Families who felt better supported by a team noted that it usually consisted of multidisciplinary support including social workers, psychologists, mentors and sometimes even occupational therapists or educational psychologists (Selwyn and Meakings 2015). Further, families reported that social workers who consistently took their child’s side failed to recognize the power and control dynamics already dominating the family relationships. Researchers also found that parents whose child “left home” were statistically more likely to feel blamed by professionals in comparison to parents whose child was still at home.
Between November 2016 and March 2018, Selwyn, Magnus and Mitchell (2019) evaluated three interventions in the London area: three-day training for professionals; a one-day workshop for adoptive parents; and an 8-week group program for adoptive parents. The goals of these interventions were to understand CPVA and to teach skills of non-violent resistance and therapeutic parenting.
At the three-day training, participants included 16 women and three men; all were therapists, social workers, consultants, nurses or educators. Half of the professionals had several families struggling with CPVA. After training, professionals expressed confidence in helping parents and/or children change the ways of thinking that contribute to CPVA; in assessment, interviewing; and giving parents the skills to deal with CPVA.
The one-day workshop involved 48 adoptive parents. Of these, 22 (46%) completed a questionnaire before and after the workshop. Between them, these 22 parents had adopted 13 girls and nine boys who ranged in age from six to 20 years, with the average age being 11 years. After the workshop, parents reported greater confidence in their parenting skills and that their knowledge of CPVA had improved either “quite a lot” or “very much.”
The group program involved eight weekly three-hour sessions and attracted 64 families. Of these, 57 (89%) completed a questionnaire at the beginning of the program and 49 families (77%) completed a second questionnaire at the end of the program. Researchers also conducted follow-up telephone interviews with eight parents. Most participants (n=34, or 60%) were seeking support for their sons and 40% reported their child had a physical, neuro-developmental or emotional/behavioural difficulty.Footnote 11 Many families also received additional telephone support either from another parental adopter consult or from PAC-UKFootnote 12 while participating in the parenting group. Out of those who responded to the second survey, all, but one parent, found the supports they received “a bit useful” or “very useful” with 88% stating it was “very useful.” In addition, 72% of the parents responding reported increased parental presence in their child’s life due to learning strategies from the course. When asked which parenting strategies had been most useful, 94% reported de-escalation techniques. After the training, almost all parents (98%) reported they were confident that they could meet their adoptive children’s needs, which was an improvement for 26 parents who had reported differently during the pre-training questionnaire.
In a 2020 article in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, O’Toole et al. present the results from a qualitative study exploring perspectives of CPVA among practitioners in the United Kingdom. In the study, 25 practitioners in diverse fields (e.g., youth justice, police, charities) participated in four focus groups. Three key themes emerged: the need for consistent definitions of CPVA; the need for professionals to have a better understanding of CPVA risk factors; and the need to identify effective responses to CPVA given that current reporting methods were considered ineffective and potentially harmful to families. Importantly, the study called for a coordinated, multi-agency CPVA strategy.
Another qualitative study conducted in the UK involved a total of eight participants in two CPVA intervention programs. All participants had been violent not only with their mothers, but also with siblings and step-fathers. The researchers conducted face-to-face interviews with the participants and recorded participant behaviour observed during the interviews. The researchers, Papamichal and Bates (2020), noted key themes related to social contexts and the participants’ perceptions of their emotional states. A key finding, echoed in other studies (Thorley and Coates 2018), is that CPVA links with adverse childhood experiences, unsatisfactory relationships with parents, perceived emotional rejection by parents, and emotional dysregulation in young people.
In a 2021 Spanish study, researchers Junco-Guerrero, Ruiz-Fernández and Cantón-Cortés, investigated the direct and indirect effects of exposure to violence within families; insecure attachment in the family system (manifested as disengagement and/or preoccupation); and how youth justify CPVA toward mothers and fathers. A total of 904 high school students aged 13 to 20 years participated in the study. A quarter of the students (25.4%) acknowledged having committed serious (more than six incidents) psychological assaults against their mother and 20% against their father. Concerning severe (three to five incidents) physical aggression, 2.2% of the participants acknowledged that they had committed it against their mother, and 1.7% against their father. Researchers measured participants’ violent behaviour with the Child-to-Parent Aggression Questionnaire, and also used other standardized questionnaires. Researchers observed strong relationships between exposure to violence within the family, emotional insecurity, justification of violence, and CPVA toward mothers and fathers. The results showed that youth exposed to violence at home tend to be more aggressive in the future compared to youth who had no exposure to violence at home. These results suggest that prevention and treatment of CPVA should focus on improving security within the family system, as well as modifying attitudes toward violence.
Most of the articles reviewed in this short introduction to CPVA have been about studies from the UK. There is also work underway in several other countries, both in academe and in service organizations. For example, an article by Ilbaca Baez et al. (2018) describes the first analysis in Chile on the prevalence of CPVA. A total of 1,861 youth between the ages of 13 and 20 years participated in the study (48.1% boys; 51.9% girls) by answering questions about CPVA. The findings showed that psychological, economic, and physical aggression was directed against mothers more frequently than against fathers. Female participants were more likely to be psychologically aggressive, while male participants were more likely to be financially and/or physically aggressive.
Meier (2018), an Iowa State (United States) graduate, wrote an open letter to social workers drawing on her own experience with professionals as she parented seven foster children, five of whom she adopted. In the letter, Meier provides several pieces of advice to the professionals who support families facing CPVA: families desperately need help; they need to feel that professionals believe their experiences; and they would like professionals to use simple language. Families would also like professionals to avoid undermining parent-child relationships, and to understand that families need support with difficult emotions and tough situations (as opposed to always emphasizing positive aspects of situations).
In the spring of 2020, Condry, Miles, Brunton-Douglas and Oladapo (2020) from the School of Law at the University of Oxford in England undertook a study to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and government restrictions on families with regards to violence and abuse. The researchers accessed parent and service-provider survey data, held discussions with policy colleagues, and conducted a Freedom of Information request to obtain data from several police services. The researchers analyzed resources available during the pandemic, along with the resources and services that policy makers and parents felt should be in place to protect families during government restricted periods and thereafter. The final sample included 104 parents with children aged 10-19 years who had experienced CPVA and 47 practitioners who worked with CPVA families.
Parents and service-providers reported that violence during the first lockdown increased (70% of parents reported increased violence and 69% of practitioners reported increases in referrals). More than half (64%) of the practitioners also noted increased severity of violence. Respondents attributed increases in violence to:
- loss of freedom and forced proximity/confinement;
- changes to routines and structures;
- increased levels of fear and anxiety; and
- decreased access to both formal and informal supports.
Interestingly, about one-third (29%) of parent respondents reported declines in CPVA during lockdown; they explained this, however, as a reduction in stress and triggers for violence. Some families impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic have embraced the slower pace, decrease in extra-curricular activities and increased opportunities to reconnect (Condry, Miles, Brunton-Douglas and Oladapo 2020). These families and associated service-providers were particularly concerned about how things would unfold as the lockdown eased. Other families have found the pandemic to be distressing; the isolation has decreased their ability to cope and/or to access their support networks (Ibid.).
CPVA in Canada is not yet fully understood. Canadian researchers and policymakers are encouraged to explore many questions, including: Do Canada’s current family violence data adequately capture CPVA? How do professionals in Canada respond to CPVA? How does parent and caregiver trauma impact the way parents respond to violent children and adolescents? Where are there gaps in services? And which services would best help families avoid crises? How have colonialism, racism and intergenerational trauma from residential schools, the “sixties scoop,” and ongoing child welfare practices impacted CPVA among Indigenous peoples? How do families that include queer or gender non-conforming members — already at greater risk for violence — experience CPVA?
- Adopt4Life. [Adopt4LifeON]. 2020, May 13. Child to Parent Violent Aggression, Pt 2 – for Parents & Professionals. [Video]. YouTube.
- Barnett, Ola, Cindy Miller-Perrin, and Robin Perrin. 2010. Family Violence Across the Lifespan: An Introduction. 3rd edition. Sage Publications, California.
- Bonnick, Helen. n.d. About Parent Abuse. Holes in the Wall. https://holesinthewall.co.uk/about/
- Calvete, Esther, Izaskun Orue and Manuel Gámez-Guadix. 2013. Child-to-parent violence: emotional and behavioral predictors. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 28:755–772.
- Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare. 2020. Young people who use violence in the home: CFECFW summary report on sector data collection as part of the building the evidence project.Melbourne. https://www.outcomes.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Young-people-who-use-violence-in-the-home-CFECFW-summary-report-on-sector-data-collection-as-part-of-the-Building-the-Evidence-project.pdf
- Committee on Sexual Offences against Children and Youth (The Badgley Commission). 1984. Sexual offences against children: Report of the Committee on Sexual Offences against Children and Youth. Ottawa: Ministry of Supply and Services.
- Condry, Rachel, Caroline Miles, Toni Brunton-Douglas and Anuoluwapo Oladapo. 2020. Experiences of child and adolescent to parent violence in the covid-19 pandemic. University of Oxford. https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/sites/files/oxlaw/final_report_capv_in_covid-19_aug20.pdf
- Conroy, Shana. 2021. Family Violence in Canada: A statistical profile. Ottawa: Statistics Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2021001/article/00001-eng.htm
- Cottrell, Barbara. 2001. Parent abuse: The abuse of parents by their teenage children. National Clearinghouse on Family Violence. https://canadiancrc.com/PDFs/Parent_Abuse-Abuse_of_Parents_by_Their_Teenage_Children_2001.pdf
- Ibabe, Izaskun, Juana Jaureguizar and Peter M. Bentler. 2013. Risk factors for child-to-parent violence. Journal of Family Violence 28:523–534.
- Ibabe, Izaskun and Peter M. Bentler. 2016. The contribution of family relationships to child-to-parent violence. Journal of Family Violence 31:259-269.
- Ilabaca Baez, Paola Andrea and José Manuel Gaete Fiscella. 2021. Adolescents Who Are Violent Toward Their Parents: An Approach to the Situation in Chile. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. 36:11-12,NP5678 – NP5698. DOI: 10.1177/0886260518808856journals.sagepub.com/home/jiv
- Junco-Guerrero, Miriam, Ana Ruiz-Fernández and David Cantón-Cortés. 2021. Family environment and child-to-parent violence: The role of emotional insecurity. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. (online) https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/08862605211006370
- Meakings, Sarah and Julie Selwyn. 2016. ‘‘She was a foster mother who said she didn’t give cuddles”: The adverse early foster care experiences of children who later struggled with adoptive family life. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 21:509-519.
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- Papamichal, Alexandra and Elizabeth Bates. 2020. “I Want My Mum to Know That I Am a Good Guy . . .”: A Thematic Analysis of the Accounts of Adolescents Who Exhibit Child-to-Parent Violence in the United Kingdom. Journal of Interpersonal Violence 0(0): 1-24. DOI: 10.1177/0886260520926317journals.sagepub.com/home/jiv
- Pernell Plath Meier. 2018, July 5. What social workers need to know when working with adoptive families. Detached: Attachment, Adoption, Social Critique. https://detachedonline.com/2018/07/05/what-social-workers-need-to-know-when-working-with-adoptive-families/
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- Selwyn, Julie and Elaine Dibben. (Guests). 2017, Aug 7. Child to parent violence [Audio podcast episode]. https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/adoption-disruption/id1268644821?i=1000390752241
- Selwyn, Julie, Levana Magnus, and Jo Mitchell. 2019. Children to parent violence project 2017-2018: Final report. University of Bristol: School of Policy Studies. https://helenbonnick.files.wordpress.com/2019/07/cpv_pac-1.2017-18-report.pdf
- Selwyn, Julie and Sarah Meakings. 2016. Adolescent to parent violence in adoptive families. British Journal of Social Work 46(5): 1224-1240. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4985723/
- Selwyn, Julie and Sarah Meakings. 2015. Beyond the Adoption Order (Wales): Discord and Disruption, Report to the Welsh Government.
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- Treleaven, Sarah, “How to get help when a child or teen is violent towards a parent,” Huffpost, May 20, 2020, https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/child-to-parent-violence-help_ca_5ec417e8c5b65303cacb353e
- Weegar, K. 2017. Family violence: Beyond the usual suspects. Crime Prevention Ottawa. https://www.crimepreventionottawa.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Family-Violence-Beyond-the-usual-suspects.pdf
- Wijedasa, Dinithi Nisanka and Julie Selwyn. 2014. Beyond the adoption order: An investigation of adoption disruption in Wales. University of Bristol. https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/102064089/140603adoptionen.pdf
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