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Adolescent Violence Toward Parents Is the Most Hidden Form of Domestic Abuse

In a rare study, 30 percent of youths in detention facilities were there for acting violently toward a family member — in 72 percent of the cases, their own mother was the victim

You never expect to fear the onyx-colored pupils of your son’s eyes. But they’re fully dilated now and he’s standing in front of you, a fully grown, 18-year-old man, not letting you get into your car. He was yelling at you earlier — he yells a lot lately, which is strange, because he didn’t cry much when he was small enough to fit into your arms. 

He shoves you, but you don’t fall. You’re afraid to call the cops because the last time you called them, they showed up to your front door with their guns drawn, and you were afraid that if you let them in, they might shoot him dead. 

He’s called you a bitch, he’s slammed doors in your face, he’s threatened to kill you. He’s never hit you, but he’s been close. The last time he was belligerent, you took your younger son and daughter to the Starbucks down the street where you called his doctor and begged him for help. But like everyone else you’ve turned to, he told you there was nothing he could do. Your plan, in the interim, is to leave the house and come back once the black rage empties from your son’s brown eyes.

You’ve been walking on eggshells for months, waiting for the next time he snaps. Because it’s never a matter of if he’s going to snap but when his fury will focus its attention toward you. You used to believe in hell and heaven: now you’re certain that hell is on earth, right here in this moment, and you’re living in it. You’re thankful that at least today, your younger son and daughter aren’t home. You feel guilty that they’ve witnessed so much violence. But you tell yourself there’s really nothing more that you can do because everyone you’ve reached out to for help isn’t able to do much. And at the end of the day, he’s your responsibility, your son.

Your life has come to this: Begging your eldest son for permission to be allowed to get into your car so you can leave to call 911 and ask the paramedics to come take your son and put him in a 72-hour psychiatric hold. It’s something you’ve been thinking about doing for months, but up until today haven’t had the courage to do. When he moves aside, you get into your car as you normally would, mindful that haste might spook him. 

You drive off in the direction of your aunt’s house, leaving your son behind in an empty house. You begin to cry, bursting with tears. The road in front of you is blurry. You take out your phone, and you dial the numbers. You’re not sure that a psych hold is what your son needs, but you’ve run out of options so you tell the paramedics what he told you, that he says he doesn’t want to be here anymore. 

You don’t breathe a sigh of relief when they tell you that someone is on their way. 

* * * * *

Sarah (a pseudonym) tells me that she returned to the house that day and watched as medics, flanked by social workers and police officers, forcibly took her son to the hospital. “He was there for three days,” she says. Prior to that day, she hadn’t slept for months. “I couldn’t even breathe. I had anxiety attacks. I got shingles in my brain. When they arrested him [the first time], I went through a nervous breakdown. I fainted in the house.” 

She tried to reach out for help. “I called places, I called doctors,” she says. “I called psychiatrists. I asked some psychiatrists to do an in-house visit. They wouldn’t come. A few of them said that, “Well, he needed to ask for help.” I tried to get help from so many resources for him, but it was a dead stop for me, wherever and whoever I reached out to.”

When it comes to incidents of violence between a child and their parents, there is a glaring hole in both information and resources. “I think it’s because it is something that hasn’t yet reached the status of ‘social problem,’” says Amanda Holt, a criminologist at the University of Roehampton, London, who’s written books on adolescent violence and abuse toward parents. “It’s a bit like how adult intimate partner violence was understood 40 years ago — that it was a ‘family matter’ that outside agencies shouldn’t get involved in.”

As a consequence, there’s little professional support in place for families like Sarah’s, who are basically forced to decide how far they’re willing to go to get help. “Parents can, of course, call the police and many do,” says Holt. “But for understandable reasons, parents often don’t want to involve the police and risk their child getting a criminal record. Some turn to social services, but they will often not get involved if there isn’t a child in the home at sufficient ‘risk of harm.’ Sometimes siblings will be at risk, and social services may then intervene, but otherwise parents have to struggle on alone.”

Despite her best efforts to find professional help, Sarah struggled alone for months. “No one would come help,” she says. “I called the city, and they’d say, ‘We can come, but if we come, he has to be drawing a knife at you, or he actually has to say he wants to kill you,’” she explains. “And that wasn’t the case. I wanted help for my son. Then I contacted this psychiatrist. I don’t know who referred her, and actually, she came to the house and she spoke with him, but that was just one day.”

Holt says that often, when children are violent toward their parents — similar to how survivors of domestic violence received little public sympathy in the past — it’s something that parents are blamed for. “The answer is often thought to be that parents should just ‘toughen up’ and use more discipline,” she says. “There aren’t any advocacy groups or campaign groups that support parents in this situation, and often where there are local programs in place to support families experiencing it, they’ve emerged out of the hard efforts and commitment of one or two practitioners who feel strongly about the issue, and have cobbled together a support package while working with little support and few resources.” 

One such resource is Step-Up’s FIRS (Family Intervention and Restorative Services) program, a nationally recognized adolescent family violence intervention curriculum in King County, Washington. “We’ve been really working at our juvenile court to reduce the number of youth in detention, and the number of youth in the juvenile justice system, and to instead try and get them the therapeutic help they need so they don’t repeat the crime,” says Lily Anderson, a social worker and co-developer of the program. “Our courts decided, because there were so many kids coming in for this, to create a special [six-month] diversion program for them and not put them in detention. They won’t be formally charged if they agree to go to counseling and get therapeutic help.”

Anderson says that half of the kids that they’re serving in FIRS have mental health issues, ranging from ADHD to depression and anxiety. “Some have been diagnosed with bipolar,” she says. “And they do have more impulse control issues. Sometimes it’s the mental health disorder that’s behind their going into aggression and rages, and just having a hard time managing their emotions and their feelings and their anger.”

Complicating matters more is that the law in Washington state, as well as other states, says that once the child is over the age of 13, a parent can no longer force them to take any sort of medication that may help temper their outbursts. “Many parents are saying the age of 14 is too young for them to get to make that decision,” says Anderson, who also notes that laws differ in every state. “They’re working on changing that after some pretty tragic incidents have occurred. But regardless, that law was made to protect kids from needing to have parents okay their care. And I think for some children it was helpful, but then on the other end, when you have youth who are out of control, they’re just not mature enough to make the right decisions.”

Though family violence researchers first identified adolescent-to-parent violence in 1979, Anderson calls it the “most hidden form of family violence.” “It’s the least researched and documented form of domestic violence,” she says. “In 1998, our juvenile courts started recognizing the high number of parents saying, ‘I’m afraid of my kid. I don’t want to take them home.’ Parents had bruises and the judges and probation counselors didn’t really know what to do or how to address this issue.”

“As the courts in King County began tracking these incidents, they found that 30 percent of the youth in detention facilities were youth who were there for being violent toward a family member,” Anderson continues. “Most often the violence is directed toward the youth’s parents — 72 percent of the cases in King County are violence against moms.”

While there’s no national statistics on violence toward parents, Anderson says it’s a worldwide issue. “Our data is similar to data in London,” she says. “Rachel Condrey, who’s done a lot of research on this issue in London, we looked at her data and our data, and it was almost exactly the same in terms of the number of perpetrators, who the victims and perpetrators are, if they’re male or female and the number of other family members.”

To be clear, when kids are physically violent toward their parents, it’s most commonly a son lashing out at his mother. “Our program does include boys and fathers where the boy has been violent toward his father — they’re a small number, however,” says Anderson. Violence toward fathers by daughters is the least likely, “Probably because they’re afraid of their father’s strength.”

There are several reasons why this adds up. According to Anderson, the primary explanation is that about 55 to 60 percent of the youth who attend the FIRS program have lived with domestic violence. “Mostly witnessing their father abuse their mother, and the mother has left the relationship and finds that her son is behaving like his father toward her,” she says. “Mothers are more likely to be abused in a similar way to adult domestic violence, with put-downs — being called a bitch, a whore or similar names — humiliation and emotional abuse, along with intimidation and threats (again, often learned from watching an abusive father).” 

But since teenagers are renowned for their raging hormones, according to Holt, it can be difficult for parents to identify the cut-off point for deciding that the behavior is unacceptable and has gone beyond the realms of a teenage tantrum. “I often suggest that we need to look for a pattern of behavior, rather than a ‘one-off’ (though one-offs can be very harmful, too) and also to think about the effect that the behavior is having on a parent,” she says. “For example, adolescents may threaten the parent, be physically violent toward them and/or their home (e.g., smashing holes through walls, throwing objects), be verbally and emotionally abusive or steal from them.” 

For the police to get involved, Anderson explains that the violence has to be physical. “Or a threat to physically hurt or harm someone or a threat to kill someone,” says Anderson. “They won’t arrest for verbal [abuse].”

Many mothers who are experiencing this type of violence say that it reminds them of previous violence they’ve experienced from partners, says Holt. “They report the same feelings, such as ‘walking on eggshells.’” The major difference, of course, is that when we talk about adolescent violence toward parents, we’re still, legally speaking, talking about a child. “Therefore the responses to their engagement in violence needs to take into account their emotional and developmental needs, as well as the legal framework that governs child criminality,” says Holt. “Second, often (though not always) the child has experienced or witnessed domestic violence in the family home, or has experienced other forms of trauma during their childhood, and often the violence is a sign of distress. Therefore, I do think we need to think about it a bit differently, in terms of how to respond in a way that’s going to be positive for them and their family.”

Anderson agrees, adding that she sees a fair number of adopted kids who have been in foster care and have had significant losses in their lives, along with abuse and neglect. “These youth have poor emotion regulation and are easily triggered and impulsive. They are often on medication for mental health issues,” she says. “Their rage makes sense given their history. And they take it out on siblings, caretakers and others.”

For those reasons, as part of the Step Up program’s mandated response, police officers in King County have been trained and are highly aware of this particular form of domestic violence incident. “They go and talk to the parents and really do a thorough interview of the parents and the kid, to determine who’s the primary perpetrator and what’s the history that’s been going on here,” she says. “If they see evidence of the youth being the primary offender and there’s been violence by the youth, they often will take the youth instead of the parent. It’s really up to their discretion. If they feel like it’s child abuse and the parent is being physically abusive to their child, then they’ll arrest the parent and get Child Protective Services involved.”

Unfortunately, for Sarah, her son was 18 at the time of his first arrest and according to Anderson, if the child is 18 or older, they go into the adult system. “Depending on the severity of the offense, they’re quite often put on probation and court ordered to go to domestic violence treatment programs or prison.” In other words, Anderson’s FIRS program isn’t a viable option for young adults over the age of 18 who are still living with their parents. Not to mention that in most states, the program doesn’t even exist. “England is putting a lot of effort into addressing this issue,” says Anderson. “And so is Australia.” The U.S. on the other hand, has yet to fully come to terms with this increasingly prevalent, “other” form of domestic violence. “We shared the curriculum in California,” says Anderson. “I don’t know if anyone ever really picked it up and started using it.”

As such, even if FIRS did offer a program in the city that Sarah and her family live in (they do not), her son, now an adult and still living with her, is no longer eligible for it. “He wants to make the change,” Sarah says. “He’s better today, but there was nothing anyone could do for him back then. It’s definitely not the fucking hell that we went through. I would tell my close friends a few years ago when it was really bad that, ‘This is hell. I’m experiencing hell.’ People always ask, what is heaven and hell and all this fucking bullshit? Well, what we went through, that was hell.”