When a taboo subject such as child to parent violence is discussed there is bound to be strong opinions and feelings aired. When the behaviour of a violent child is witnessed, as it was last week on Channel 5 ‘My Violent Child’, emotions and opinions run sky high. Some people give their judgments freely – ‘I wouldn’t have dared to do that to my parents’ in other words the child is to blame, ‘they shouldn’t let them get away with it’ in other words the parents are to blame. Some take a more impartial view and ask ‘ who is to blame?’ before they consider where the blame lies. What good comes from blaming anyone? Why are we so interested in who is at fault? Rather than focusing on who is to blame we should be asking ‘what is the problem and what can we do about it?’ A parent and child do not exist in isolation therefore how can blame possibly be determined. Presumably those who blame the child believe the child needs to change, those who blame the parents think the parent needs to change.
Surely, we would all agree that the violence in the two families had reached such a pitch that something needed to change. How did it get to this point and what can be learnt from these situations? Of course there will be various influences on the parent/child relationship and each case needs to be considered individually. In chapter 8 of our book ‘Parenting a Violent Child’ we explore what thoughts and feelings are underneath the behaviour of both parent and child so that we can get closer to understanding what is really going on. Parents tell us they feel helpless, useless and ashamed. Children tell us that they are unhappy. All of these feelings chip away at self-esteem and lead to apathy and stuck patterns of behaviour. The only way to change this is for someone to take responsibility for breaking free of the violence.
So, whose responsibility is it? On the programme last week we saw how two parents took responsibility for changing their situation by bravely asking for help. Taking this step enabled the delivery of a variety of interventions that improved the family relationships and increased self-esteem. The parents from South Wales took responsibility for change and this is appropriate. Parents are the adults in the relationship and therefore have a greater capacity for reasoning and making informed decisions. All parents are responsible for meeting their child’s needs. A child is not responsible for meeting the needs of their parents. A child is highly unlikely to take the first step to change.
Taking responsibility doesn’t come naturally for most people. It is easier to blame someone else for what is happening in our lives. In ‘Parenting a Violent Child’ we talk about picking up the mirror instead of the magnifying glass. The mirror reflects our own behaviour and we can choose to take responsibility for it or not. When we pick up the magnifying glass we are focusing on the behaviour of others. In Chapter 9 we look at where we spend most of our energy, whether it is trying to change our own behaviour or trying to change others. When we become clear about what we can do and what we can’t do our attention will go towards changing our own behaviour. We will be taking responsibility appropriately.
Responsibility is something that needs to be taught and it is never too late to learn. When taught appropriately by parents a young person becomes responsible in a gradual transition from dependency to independence through childhood. When children have no sense of independence they can become frustrated and both parent and child can get locked into a power struggle. When a child shows challenging behaviour it is harder to trust that they are capable of being given responsibility. Fear grips parents and they can only imagine the worst outcome ‘he would never be able to go there on his own’ ‘I couldn’t possibly trust him with money’. Being trusted is essential to our self-esteem, so what message does this give to a child? A child will feel that they are not trusted and that they are not good enough which then leads them back to poor self-esteem.
Where there is violence within the home both parent and child are drowning in a sea of despair, shame and misunderstanding. In their own way they may be trying to stay afloat but it is just not working. It is a parent’s responsibility to ask for help and support. Outside help in the form of a lifebelt can give the respite required to calm the desperation and provide safety from harm. The problem arises when parents have had outside help and the situation is still extreme within the home. What can they do then? It is a parent’s responsibility to pick up the mirror and act upon what they see.
We have seen how quickly people judge both parents and children when a child is violent. The blame and judgment can be quite vitriolic, but how does this help? In terms of receiving help and initiating change the responsibility lies firmly with a parent. Lets not forget that we all have a responsibility to break the silence on violence and one way to address this is to drop blame and judgment. This means that more parents will be able to talk about the violence they are experiencing in spite of the shame they feel. For parents living in secrecy and fear ‘Parenting a Violent Child’ will take away the blame and give them understanding, which will lead to change.