What the Church needs to know about violent behaviours

For some families caring for children who have had difficult starts in life, home can be a place where violence occurs.

In an ideal world, our homes are places of safety; comforting and safe spaces where we can retreat after challenging times at work or school. Those of us who care for children want our homes to be places of refuge, rest and joy for them and for us as parents and carers.

For some families caring for children who have had difficult starts in life, this isn’t always the case because home can be a place where violence occurs.

Child to parent violence (CPV) is defined as a pattern of physical, psychological and emotional behaviour seen in children and adolescents who cannot regulate their feelings in other ways and/or have a great need to gain control over their parent/s or carers (PAC UK). Adolescent to parent violence and abuse (APVA) is another term that is sometimes used.

These terms can be problematic. At best they are simplistic; at worst, the inference can be interpreted as one of blame, demonising a child who has experienced trauma and is struggling, and adding to their already heightened feelings of shame. We need to frame our consideration of this subject within a greater understanding of violent behaviours within the home.

It’s an incredibly difficult subject. Those who experience it can feel embarrassed, ashamed and as though they have failed as a parent or carer. They may feel afraid for their child or family’s future and be unsure where to go or how to ask for help. There is not enough research on this within families who foster, and within adoptive families it is not extensive, so how common it is for families to have to deal with violent behaviour in the home isn’t clear; however, there is unanimous agreement that instances of it are under-reported.

The 2021 Adoption UK Adoption Barometer stated that 64% of adoptive parents had experienced physical aggression from their child during 2020 (the same proportion as during 2019).

This may be something that foster or adoptive parents you know or who are connected to your church or in your community are experiencing.

The impact on families can be profound. It can cause parent relationships to breakdown, one or both adults' employment may be affected and therefore their financial stability can suffer too. On a deeper level, it can lead to a loss of confidence in their ability to parent, growing isolation because travelling to friends or family becomes much more difficult, and the inevitable negative impact that this can have on mental health.

It would be too easy (and wrong!) to label these as just ‘bad kids’ exhibiting wrong behaviours who need punitive consequences to learn the error of their ways, or to blame foster or adoptive parents for not being strict or loving enough, or for not having received enough training to care for children. Neither of these responses are accurate or helpful. If we’re serious about standing alongside families caring for children who have had a difficult start in life, then we need to better understand what is going on.

So, what is going on?

Trauma, including experiences pre-birth, affects the way that a brain develops. One way of thinking about its impact is that it’s like there is faulty wiring in the brain that means children perceive threat even when there isn’t any. This means they often react in situations from the amygdala part of their brain, where the fight / flight / freeze response is situated, without being able to pause, think, problem solve and rationalise their emotions.

All care experienced children have experienced trauma; many will have experienced neglect or abuse and the impact of that will always be present. Many care experienced children have an inner working model that says they are unlovable, worthless and rejected. Some may have moved from home to home, family to family, tried to settle in to 5, 10 or more different homes, and have learned from their experiences that adults cannot be trusted. Some may have lived with one family since birth, but in utero were surrounded by toxic stress that increased the cortisol levels in the bloodstream and therefore, they were born with less tolerance to stress before they’d even lived outside the womb. Our children live with consistent, underlying fear, often unconsciously, without understanding it or being able to articulate it, that they can project in to any and sometimes, every situation.

From the outside it may seem that violent outbursts ‘appear’ from nowhere - ‘they were fine one minute and punching me the next’ - but the reality is that they come from foundations that were profoundly affected by trauma.

The well-known idiom ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’ describes a minor or routine action that causes an unexpected, large out of proportion reaction because of the cumulative effect of smaller actions and pressures preceding it.

What you see may be an aggressive, inappropriate over-reaction to being asked to put a pair of shoes on, but below the surface it may be layered on top of a chronic fear of adults, poor self-esteem, or toxic feelings of shame; perhaps a day full of bewildering, scary environments and differing expectations, overwhelming sensory information that’s too difficult to process; a reduced capacity to understand and regulate emotions, difficulties in building strong attachment relationships and therefore feeling that there’s no one to turn to for help even if you could identify and articulate what you were feeling. Or perhaps all of the above?

When you consider it from that perspective, it is not that surprising that when a child reaches that ‘last straw’ it feels so enormous that it comes out physically and violently at the people around them. A violent response isn’t because a child is inherently ‘bad’ but a clear sign that their reactions are deeply rooted in fear that bursts out as anger.

Our response needs to be from a place of compassion and understanding for the child and the adults involved. This understanding doesn’t condone the actions nor imply that they should be ignored, but it helps empathise with the child and should alter how we respond.

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What can you do?

For a foster or adoptive parent, their child, dearly loved and wanted, for whom they want the absolute best and for whom they pour out their lives, being violent towards them is devastating. Even if they understand the ‘why’ behind the actions, the impact physically, emotionally and on their capacity for compassion cannot be underestimated.

But there is always hope.

If this is something your family is struggling with, there are organisations that have developed excellent training for foster and adoptive parents who are experiencing violent behaviour. They can share de-escalation techniques, help families understand how to keep their children and themselves safe, and support parents and carers to grow in their ability to therapeutically parent which can, over time, reduce levels of fear and overwhelm in children that gives them margin to be able to handle big emotions differently with their trusted adults.

Home for Good would love to help you find the support you need, facilitating peer support wherever possible and signposting to some great organisations who may be able to help with more specialist support. Find out more here.

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If you’d like to know how you can care for families in your church or community, we have three things you can do as you begin to explore this huge topic:

PRAY

Sometimes we tend to use prayer as a last resort, but God wants it to be our first line of defence. We pray when there's nothing else we can do, but God wants us to pray before we do anything at all. Oswald Chambers

Pray for the children at the point of overwhelm and in all the times that could lead up to them; and for the adults as they love, care and put boundaries for safety in place. And if you’re praying, why not let the adults know that’s what you’re doing! Share what you’re praying for, some encouraging bits of the bible that might give them that extra bit of courage that they need on a challenging day.

ASK

If you know that someone you’re connected with is managing violent behaviours in their home and you’re not sure how to help, then why not ask them what they need? Perhaps you could go with some suggestions. Would it be helpful to arrive ‘unexpectedly’ at the home on a hard day, temporarily altering the dynamics and diffuse the situation, or bring round chocolate afterwards? Maybe you could offer to build a relationship with the child to be another adult to learn to trust? If there's a particular day of the week that’s challenging, perhaps you could offer to make a meal regularly on that night? It might be that you start with these suggestions or others, but then there are other things that turn out to be more useful.

When you ask you show your care for the people, acknowledge their expertise in the circumstances and your willingness to play a part.

DIFFERENT PARENTING

Raising care experienced children requires a different kind of parenting, one that is therapeutic and seeks to address the root causes of behaviours. Where there is challenging, violent behaviour this is particularly important. It may look different to the way that you have raised your children or been raised yourself, it may seem counter-intuitive and even permissive at times.

One of the best ways that you can journey alongside those raising children who have had a difficult start in life is by accepting their way of doing things, even seeking to learn more and understand – from them (as the experts in their child) and from your own reading. Often these parents feel they have to fight for understanding and advocate for understanding and acceptance for their child. So when you ask them about it, encourage them!

Acknowledging and understanding their parenting, and simply remaining present and supporting as they parent differently honours them and their children. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this can be life changing for parents and families.

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We used the following resources to explore this topic and help us write this article:

https://www.adoptionuk.org/

https://www.naotp.com/

https://www.pac-uk.org/

Home for Good is not responsible for the content of any external website.

Author:
Claire for Home for Good


Date published:
5 July 2021


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