Annie watched in horror as Charlie, red-faced with rage, snatched a picture frame off a wall and slammed it against the bedpost. The glass shattered. He picked up a long shard and brandished it like a dagger. Stalking towards Annie, he growled, “I’m gonna kill you.”
This type of abusive behavior in relationships is far too common. 29% of women and 10% of men in the US will experience domestic violence in their lifetimes. Child protective services investigates more than three million reports of abuse and neglect annually. However, Charlie and Annie’s altercation isn’t included in either of these statistics.
That’s because Charlie is a 13-year-old boy. And Annie is his mother.
What the parents living next door may be hiding
Like Annie, I’m the mother of a son who acts out. Both our boys are products of the foster care system, adopted as toddlers, and who are diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and Conduct Disorder (CD), serious behavioral disorders. They have both received medication and thousands of hours of treatment, but nothing has helped.
When Annie and I tell friends, family, and mental health professionals about our sons’ behaviors, we are met with disdain and disbelief. In the same way many sex abuse victims are treated, parents like us are blamed and shamed into silence. We have been forced underground, into private Facebook groups where we find non-judgemental support from thousands of other parents in similar situations.
Four years ago, Lillyth Quillan founded the online parent support group, Parents of Children with Conduct Disorder. She says, “More than 1,000 families have come together to share their stories; to know they are not alone. They are emotionally raw and shredded to the marrow at how they’ve been treated and not believed by close friends and family.”
How many families this affects
The general public assumes these situations, where children are violent towards their parents, are isolated to a handful of sensationalized episodes of Dr. Phil.
This is simply not the case.
While the anecdotal evidence of children with serious disorders abusing their parents is abundant, quantitative data is desperately lacking. This is why I recently surveyed more than 200 parents of children diagnosed with, among other behavioral disorders, RAD and CD. This type of informal survey is an invaluable way to begin to understand the scope of the problem.
According to my survey, Are You In An Abusive Relationship? more than 90% of the respondents are in chronically abusive relationships – and the abuser is their child.
- 93% say their child threatens them, other family members, or pets with physical violence.
- 65% say their child grabs, hits, kicks, or otherwise physically assaults them.
- 71% say their child hides their behavior from others and blames them for their outbursts.
These aren’t merely numbers; each one is a tragic story. Here are just a few of the examples shared anonymously by survey respondents:
“My son purposely hurts the cat to get my attention.”Anonymous parents
“My daughter attacked me with a steak knife.”
“My son choked me and broke my wrist.”
These findings show that it is alarmingly common for children with serious behavioral disorders to abuse their parents.
When children abuse their parents
Intentional Child to Parent Violence (I-CPV) is deliberate, harmful behavior by a child to cause a parent physical or psychological distress. These are purposeful behaviors intended to gain control over, and instill fear in, parents. I-CPV takes many different forms and varies in severity. It is often chronic and usually directed at the child’s mother figure. 
One surveyed mom has a moon-shaped scar on her forehead from her 14-year-old daughter grabbing her by her hair and slamming her face onto the stove. Another mom says her son tried to push her down the stairs and makes homicidal threats towards her.
Parents like these sustain physical injuries and may develop mental health disorders including PTSD. They are isolated from friends and family. Their marriages can become irreparably damaged. They frequently lose jobs and friends. Other children in the home suffer secondary, if not primary trauma.
Without highly specialized treatment, the child perpetrating the abuse will not get better. Far too often, it becomes necessary to have them institutionalized, or end up incarcerated, for the safety of their siblings, parents, and themselves.
Hypervigilance – and fear – are common for parents in these situations. One mom describes how, “Before my son was taken to the hospital, then jail, and then a treatment center, I had to sleep with my door locked and a chair jammed under the knob because he knows how to pick locks.” She suffers with PTSD after years of chronic abuse.
Why children abuse their parents
While there is no one clear “cause” leading to antisocial behaviors like I-CPV, there are a number of underlying factors to consider. Perhaps the most significant is “developmental trauma,” a term coined by leading expert, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, MD. When a child is chronically neglected or abused at a young age, their brain development may be impacted, causing long-term issues sometimes including physical aggression. This is called Developmental Trauma Disorder (DTD) and is commonly diagnosed as CD or RAD.
While developmental trauma can explain much of RAD, not all children who are violent towards their parents have a trauma background. Some children from nurturing families are diagnosed with CD. Psychologist Stanton E. Samenow, PhD specializes in working with juvenile offenders and says early identification of emerging antisocial behaviors is key. He points to a study that found “aggression at age 8 is the best predictor of aggression at age 19, irrespective of IQ, social class or parents’ aggressiveness.”  He believes, regardless of environment and parenting, children become antisocial by choosing the bad behaviors that eventually become an entrenched pattern.
As a parent, I don’t believe these are mutually exclusive views and find both to be informative. My son has a history of developmental trauma. As a result he struggles with impulsivity, attachment, and cause-and-effect thinking. At the same time, his behavior is not involuntary. He is making a choice when he acts aggressively and knows right from wrong.
Why families can’t get help
Even once parents understand the complexity and seriousness of the abuse taking place, there is nowhere to turn for help. Unfortunately, the systems designed to protect victims of other types of abuse don’t have a mandate to protect the victims of I-CPV.
Most domestic violence shelters are for intimate partners, and, for example, offer no help to a mother whose son or daughter beats her. Advice commonly given to victims of domestic violence simply doesn’t work. Take for example the following from the online article, “What to Do if You Are in an Abusive Relationship“:
1. Talk with someone you trust
Parents are rarely believed by friends, family, teachers, and mental health professionals. Instead, they’re blamed for their child’s misbehavior and labeled bad parents. One mom says, “My son can be incredibly sweet and charming when he wants to be. My friends, his teachers – my own mother – don’t believe my 9-year-old son is dangerous because he’s so good at hiding his behavior.”
2. Call the police if you are in immediate danger
Parents receive little assistance from police, especially if their child is under the age of 16. They also hesitate to press charges knowing incarceration is not the “treatment” their child needs. One mother called 911 after her son beat her. The officer said to her son, “It’s okay, Buddy, you’re not in trouble. Let’s talk.” The next time her son beat her, she ended up in urgent care.
3. Make a plan to go to a safe place such as a shelter
Despite their child’s abusive behaviors, parents are still legally and morally responsible for them. Even if parents want to seek safety, their hands are tied. “If I were treated this way by a man,” says one mother, “I would have left long ago. But because this is my daughter, my options are limited.”
Unfortunately there are no good solutions for these parents, and no quick and easy cures for their children. Few therapists and mental health professionals are equipped to offer the highly specialized treatment needed. While there are promising advances in neuroscience, emerging treatments are not accessible for most families. They’re expensive, rarely covered by health insurance, and unavailable in most areas.
Out of all the families she’s worked with, Quillian says only one family has ever received appropriate treatment. “One. One family experiencing what I believe to be the absolute bare minimum of care. One.”
What needs to change
I-CPV isn’t merely talk-show fodder. It’s happening behind closed doors in your neighborhood. It’s happening in Annie’s home. It’s happening in mine.
While the US lags behind, there appears to be growing awareness of I-CPV in the UK where a new domestic abuse bill includes I-CPV. US citizens can support these families by asking their legislators to draft similar legislation which would not only provide legal remedies, but more importantly, facilitate funding for research, prevention and treatment.
We need viable treatment options for our children, as well as resources to combat the violence and destruction we face in our daily lives,. We need help and the support of our communities. That begins with a national dialogue about I-CPV and viable treatment options for serious behavioral disorders.
Parents deserve the same support and understanding that all victims of abuse deserve. Until then, they will suffer physical and psychological harm while their child faces a lifetime of relational, educational, financial, and legal struggles.Let's connect!