Observing a child hitting or kicking a parent is one of those things that has always made me instinctively gasp inside, it’s a gut reaction which is a mixture of shock, shame and fear, and I think my feeling is on behalf of both the parent and the child. When I say it feels so wrong, so against nature, I don’t mean it should be the other way round. I don’t think parents should hit or kick their children. It’s just that it looks like the strongest expression of a complete breakdown of boundaries and respect, which is why I think parents find it so difficult to deal with. There has been a new report out this week about the increase in the number of kids hitting their parents which leaves me with the same sense of shock.
I have had only one experience of being hit by one of my children – and I mean really hit, not the kind of inadequate flailing around of arms that little children sometimes do out of anger and frustration. No, this was a sudden slap in the face by my first son when he was about five and I remember it so clearly because it was completely out of the blue, he’d never done anything like that before (or since…). My reaction was to hit him straight back. I’m not proud of that (and don’t tell anyone…) but it was just the shock of it, it was an instantaneous reaction. My parents were visiting at the time, so that was fun. Anyway, I apologised and told my son about instinctive reactions and we made up and moved on.
The kind of hitting the report talks about is on a completely different level to that, it’s more of a systemic abuse of the parent by the child, typically coming out of a background of violence and domestic abuse. The minister for preventing abuse and exploitation, Karen Bradley, said: “We recognise that adolescent to parent violence and abuse (APVA) is a hidden form of domestic abuse that is often not spoken about.” I am very glad it’s being talked about; just as domestic violence itself used to be seen as a private matter, and hidden away, the issue of kids hitting their parents has been seen as a private ‘parenting issue’ and it’s usually the parent who is blamed.
I would like to know a breakdown of situations in which this violence occurs because otherwise it will continue to be treated as an individual parenting matter and we won’t be able to gain any further understanding about why it happens. In my, admittedly limited, experience, the parents who approach me are all single mothers of teenage sons, with an emotionally or physically abusive ex-partner in the background. If this is typical then it gives us another reason to tackle domestic violence as a matter of urgency before it gets passed down to the next generation.
The issue I am presented with more often is mothers of teens, both boys and girls, who regularly tell them to “F***k off!” Although individual situations are different and there’s never one simple reason, if there is no background of abuse within the family I think we can at least partly hold to account a parenting advice industry which urges us to centre our children at the expense of ourselves. It’s the kind of advice that tells you to find out what’s behind the behaviour and try to help your child with it, which is tantamount to saying that the behaviour itself is justified if there’s a good enough reason for it. The only alternative advice I see is to impose some kind of humiliating and infantalising punishment, which is a great way of keeping the tit-for-tat fight going into the teenage years when they start winning.
My advice to these parents is to stop focusing on the child and their behaviour and focus instead on your own boundaries and needs and learn to state them clearly and confidently. Think in terms of ‘I won’t accept being treated like that’ rather than ‘he needs understanding’ or ‘she needs to be taught a lesson.’ Start as early as possible. And don’t do the equivalent of what I did and shout “F***k off!” back.