Almost five years ago, Louise Sinclair* adopted her daughter. The child had been apprehended shortly after her birth and spent the first 18 months of her life in foster care.
Sinclair was concerned about the trauma her little girl would have experienced, losing her birth mother at an age when she would not have had words to process why, and then later, losing her foster caregivers. Still, the new mom felt confident that with time, patience and a therapeutic approach to parenting, she could help her new daughter to heal.
“I have a background in child and youth work and a master’s in social work,” she told HuffPost Canada. “I had the skills that I would need to be able to raise a child who presented challenges and I knew where to find help.”
But Sinclair did not anticipate what came next. When her daughter moved in, she would want to be picked up when upset, but then she would dangle limply and not grip onto Sinclair, when the new mom demonstrated affection. The little girl didn’t seem to have a sense of her body in space, and that was the first red flag of a sensory processing disorder (SPD).
As time went by, Sinclair’s daughter had meltdowns set off by the smallest requests or shifts to the schedule. She was extremely oppositional, even to the point of self-harm, and would eventually be diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD) and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD). Her behaviour increasingly became violent, morphing from screaming fits to kicking, biting and punching — often, but not always, directed towards Sinclair.
“You’re the parent and it’s your responsibility to fix it, to make her feel good, to build her up, to make her life nice,” said Sinclair. “That’s what you do when you love someone. But it’s a very confusing thing to do that and still be told that somebody hates you all the time, every day.”
Defining child-to-parent violence and aggression
Such displays of aggression and violence from children towards adults can range from making threats, exhibiting uncontrolled rage and being verbally abusive to inflicting physical harm (hitting, kicking, punching, biting, throwing objects or using a weapon to cause injury).
Child-to-parent violence is not unique to the adoption community, although Adopt4Life, a not-for-profit organization that supports adoptive, kinship and customary care families in Ontario, points to research from the U.K. that indicates up to one third of parents and caregivers within this population have experienced it.
Parents raising biological children may also see such patterns of aggression, if their kids have certain neurodevelopmental conditions, experienced early developmental trauma, are living with mental illness, were exposed in utero to drugs, alcohol or certain medications, or are impacted by other complicating factors.
It’s important to note, however, that by no means all children who are adopted nor who have been diagnosed with the aforementioned conditions will exhibit symptoms of aggressive or violent behaviour. Rather it is in the scope of possibility and needs to be acknowledged and better understood by healthcare professionals, social services and first responders.
The impact on parents of violent or aggressive behaviours
Feelings of confusion, fear and often hopelessness are common to parents and caregivers, like Sinclair, experiencing child-to-parent violence and aggression (CPVA).
Other than living with sky-high levels of anxiety and distress, what these parents and caregivers also have in common is that they risk facing stigma, suspicion from authorities, and a lack of understanding and supports, if they reach out for help.
Lauri Cabral, a member of Adopt4Life’s advisory board, said that parents often find that service providers are ill-equipped to deal with child-to-parent violence, that they’re fearful of labeling young children.
“But the research shows that taking this out of the shadows is really worthwhile. If parents are allowed to talk and brainstorm, they can help [service providers] figure out how to help them in their homes.”
Walking on eggshells at home
Sinclair sometimes finds herself second-guessing her own instincts. “I ask [my daughter] to pick up these three crayons in the middle of the floor and 45 minutes later she’s destroyed the house,” she said. “You can have a really good day and then you ask her to do one thing and it’s gone from fantastic to hell within two minutes. And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking that I should be able to parent better or I shouldn’t have pushed her on those crayons. You lose your confidence.”
“We’re one big blow-up from needing crisis intervention again.”
With CPVA, the dynamics of control in the family fundamentally shift. “You end up feeling controlled by this behaviour and you’re modifying the way you parent in order to adapt your parenting techniques to the threat from a child,” said Cabral. “You think, I better just give her the dessert because if I don’t something bad is going to happen. So it turns the whole proper authority of a parent on its head.” This distortion of family order can lead to a deep sense of shame for parents.
It’s not about bad parenting
When Sinclair had her daughter assessed last year, she was able to gain insight into a number of her daughter’s struggles, including diminished cognitive function, oppositional defiance disorder, and ADHD. But one thing in particular made her cry:
“[The specialist] said that it wouldn’t have mattered who adopted my daughter. On one hand, it made me realize that I need to stop beating myself up. On the other, it’s disheartening because it means that it’s not going to be easy to fix.”
Shame drives stigma that makes it hard for families to openly share their experiences. But peer-to-peer support groups can be lifelines, especially for parents who have not been able to find much in the way of help elsewhere.
Getting help if your child is aggressive or violent
One of the hardest parts for parents is that their child’s violence and aggression can be disqualifying, when it comes to certain types of support. Concerns about both harm to peers and workers mean that doors to schools, camps and programs are often shut to children who bite, scratch and punch. “People kept telling me that they don’t deal with aggression,” said Sinclair, “so even getting [my daughter] into a daycare was such a struggle.”
Across the country, families experiencing CPVA should ask to be referred to a centre, or mental health crisis response team, through their family physician or a social worker. But as with so many special needs, particularly when mental health is a factor, the waitlists for services for children who exhibit violence and aggression can be excruciatingly long, and it pays to be a squeaky wheel, documenting incidents and repeatedly requesting supports, when needs are not being addressed in a timely way.
“Instead of jumping to conclusions or quickly giving advice, it would be great if people could be more open to listening and asking how they could be of service.”
This need to persist and self-advocate, of course, is arduous for parents who are already likely to be feeling overwhelmed. And for many families, the pandemic has only made things worse.
Connie Garg’s* eldest daughter, who is 10, has over the years “put her head through about 15 walls,” and given herself over 20 concussions. She often throws things at home too. A sweet and engaging child, who also has many happier moments within her family, she lives with a severe intellectual disability, genetic abnormalities, vision and hearing loss, and FASD, which can raise her frustration levels and also mix the messages her brain receives in relation to her senses and the environment. Connie’s son, who has FASD, an attachment disorder, and multiple other diagnoses, is a smart child and a loving family member when emotionally regulated, but when he’s triggered, he goes on “punching rages” and has come close to stabbing Connie twice. Those kinds of behaviours have been going on for years and keep the family isolated during the best of times, but even more so under the pressure-cooker conditions of the shut-down.
“We used to have someone in our home every day helping out [with therapeutic caregiving], but it’s been just us for over 70 days now,” said Garg. “Trying to manage work and homeschooling and keep mental health in check has been a huge challenge. We’re one big blow-up from needing crisis intervention again.”
In case of crisis, when a child is threatening to self-harm or hurt another family member, or is actively engaging in violent acts, parents and caregivers should call emergency services.
Virtual resources for parents
Adopt4Life just rolled out the first of two webinars to shed light on CPVA, and they are suitable for all families experiencing this issue. They share insights from Professor Julie Selwyn (a UK-based researcher and internationally renowned expert in this area), and spark a discussion about the supports families living with child-to-parent violence need to thrive.
Watch the first of the two CPVA webinars below:
How to help a family experiencing child-to-parent violence
The biggest challenge—and one that’s particularly acute right now—is the ongoing sense of loneliness. “We have to say no to a lot of things in our life,” said Garg. “We say no to parties and get-togethers because our kids can’t handle it. If you keep saying no then people stop asking. But I wish people would keep checking in and asking how we’re doing. Because we’re not okay.”
Cabral said that these families are often viewed as dysfunctional or broken, which can make it even harder for them to reach out for community support. “Instead of jumping to conclusions or quickly giving advice, it would be great if people could be more open to listening and asking how they could be of service,” she said.
“Having people that they can trust to talk to is golden to families living with CPVA. It could be as simple as picking up groceries for the family or having a regular phone conversation with the parent. You don’t need to fix it, you just need to be available to help.”