The Secret Next Door (Child on Parent Violence)

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.”
“My daughter attacked me with a steak knife.”
“My son choked me and broke my wrist.”

Anonymous parents

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. [1]

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.” [2] 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.

95% of adoptive parents jump in heart-first, but unprepared

Our recent Facebook poll showed up to 95% of adoptive parents are not sufficiently trained on developmental trauma and the related diagnoses including Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).

Survey by @RaisingDevon March 2019

While adoptive parents don’t understand the scope and magnitude of developmental trauma, they do do expect children coming out of foster care to have some issues. Among the adoptive and fostering communities, these are considered “normal for foster kids”:

These issues are indeed common among foster kids, but normalizing them is a problem.

Because parents are told these behaviors are normal, and will diminish once the kids are safe in their “forever home,” they don’t raise the alarm bells they should. We often lose sight of the fact these behaviors are usually symptoms of neglect or abuse.

All children adopted out of foster care or international orphanges have, by definition, experienced one or more adverse childhood experience (ACES). ACES are traumas including being separated from a caregiver, physical abuse, neglect, and more. Unfortunately, most adopted children have more than one ACE which can cause developmental trauma when experienced by a child before the age of 5. During those formative years, their brains are rapidly developing and so particularly vulnerable.

According to one study documented in The British Journal of Psychiatry, nearly 50% of children from deprived backgrounds (and from foster care) may meet the diagnostic criteria for Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).

YET only 5% of adoptive parents are trained to recognize the signs of developmental trauma and get help for their child.

This is a staggering lack of pre-adoptive training considering the high likelihood (as high as 50%) their child will have developmental trauma.

Here’s what parents are saying about the lack of pre-adoption training

In foster parenting training we were told about RAD but that it was so rate that it was not worth much discussions as we would likely never see it in our home.”

Micci

We knew RAD was a likely thing when we started fostering, not because our agency bothered to tell us, but based on our own research.

Adrienne

We knew and were trained and immediately sought help through a therapist we were already using. It didn’t change a thing though. She still tried to have me killed this past November. All the resources, professionals, etc didn’t make it any better.

Christina

I recognized something was wrong on day 2. It took me 10 months of researching to find what it was.

Julia

Yes I knew, but NO I was completely unprepared for the extent to which the challenges would be.

Laura

We adopted 15 years ago and were told nothing and knew nothing about RAD. I should add that I am a medical professional and was never taught anything about this.

Nancy

We were not taught about it. In fact we were not even told he had been diagnosed with it. Of course we were told that he had had Leukemia and would need follow ups.

Beth

Love alone is not enough

While few pre-adoptive parents are trained on developmental trauma and RAD, they are consistently told “these kids only need the “love of a forever family” to heal and thrive.” While it’s true they need love in a forever family, love alone is not enough.

Just as love cannot heal a broken arm, strep throat, or leukemia – love alone cannot heal developmental trauma. Developmental trauma is a brain injury that requires highly specialized treatment.

Without adequate training, parents are unprepared to recognize the symptoms and get the early intervention these children so desperately need. Sadly, far too many families are already in crisis before they get professional help. In some cases the children end up institutionalized or incarcerated. Other families are forced to trade custody for mental health care. Some adoptions fall apart.

These are preventable tragedies, in many cases, if only pre-adoptive parents were trained and prepared.

What parents need in pre-adoptive training

For adoptive children to thrive, our pre-adoptive training (often called MAPP classes) must be reformed. The information needn’t be told in a way that scares away prospective adoptive families. But it does need to be comprehensive and allow each family to honestly evaluate their ability to care for a child from hard places. It also needs to equip parents to recognize when they need professional help and to know how to get it.

Prospective adoptive parents ned to walk away from training with:

  • A comprehensive understanding of developmental trauma – the science of trauma, the risk factors, and potential impacts to the child.
  • A familiarity with the hallmark symptoms of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD).
  • Practical training on the how-to of therapeutic parenting.
  • A full understanding of the warning signs that a child needs professional help.
  • Guidance for how and where to find help.

Parents must understand that they are not able to heal developmental trauma on their own. Let’s give them the information, community supports, and mental health resources they need to successfully help their child heal and thrive.

Resources

If you’re an adoptive parent who wasn’t provided with training on this important topic, here are some resources to check out. More resources are listed on our Resources for Parents page.

Support Groups

(Let them know @RaisingDevon sent you!)


2/3 of kids with RAD are first misdiagnosed with ADHD

It’s not ADHD!

Our recent Facebook poll showed that 67% of children first misdiagnosed with RAD (and other developmental trauma diagnoses) were first diagnosed with ADHD.

Survey by @RaisingDevon, March 2019

6 in 10 kids are being misdiagnosed with ADHD instead of RAD or other developmental trauma related disorders. Here’s what it matters:

  • Stimulant medications typically given for ADHD can exacerbate other symptoms the child is experiencing.
  • A misdiagnosis like this can cause significant delays in the child getting the treatment they need.

Keep in mind, kids with developmental trauma may have attention deficits and other symptoms of ADHD: inattentiveness, hyperactivity, impulsivity. However, the ADHD diagnosis doesn’t correctly point to the cause of those symptoms – the trauma. ADHD is a chemical imbalance often successfully addressed with stimulant medications. These same symptoms from developmental trauma are caused by a brain injury and stimulant medications can exacerbate other symptoms of developmental trauma. 

Here’s what parents are saying about how the misdiagnosis of ADHD impacted their child and family.

Our sons ADHD medicine amped him up causing extreme violent rages. He was arrested 3 times and faced felony assault charges from these rages. It wasnt until I was able to get a doctor to listen to me that he started to get better. His ADHD diagnosis and treatment made life hell at times. He is much better now and while we still have struggles, no one ends up arrested in the process.

S.H.

I parented my child so incorrectly..,we lost so many years. Letting go of the guilt was hard, so trust me I understand!

Katie

We went in completely unprepared for RAD [because of the initial ADHD misdiagnosis]. And it delayed getting a [correct] diagnosis and treatment by several years.

Jesi

We lost three precious years chasing the wrong problem.

Emily

Wrong medication for years, delayed us understanding how to cope with him. Still many professionals dont use the RAD diagnoses and always think ADHD when he can sit still and read for hours on end!

Katalina

Too many stimulants which caused aggression and chaos at home and in school. Terrible situation which makes me angry and bitter.

Karen

It’s how they minimized the problem, only mildly medicated him, and turned all the blame on us, because we apparently couldn’t manage basic behavior management. Mind you, this was social services AND a children’s hospital after an 11 day stay. Nor was it the last time. Still happening, only now he’s self-medicating with street drugs…

Sarah

Why kids with developmental trauma get diagnosed with ADHD

  • RAD and ADHD have many overlapping symptoms. With developmental trauma, kids can be hyperactive, have attention deficits, and other ADHD-type symptoms.
  • Most kids are getting this early misdiagnosis from pediatricians who are very familiar the ADHD diagnosis, but not as well versed in RAD or developmental trauma.
  • ADHD is a go-to diagnosis for kids who are struggling with hyperactivity and inattention school. It only requires diagnosis from a pediatrician and there are a number of medications that can be easily prescribed.

The difference between ADHD and RAD

While RAD and ADHD have overlapping symptoms, skilled clinicians can differentiate between the two. In a 2010 study by the University of Glasgow, researchers found these core items that point to a RAD diagnoses vs. ADHD.

Disinhibited items

  • Does s/he preferentially seek comfort from strangers over those s/he is close to?
  • Is s/he overly friendly with strangers?
  • If you are in a new place, does X tend to wander away from you?
  • How cuddly is s/he with people s/he does not know well?
  • Does s/he ask very personal questions of strangers?

Inhibited Items

  • Does s/he often stand or sit as if frozen?
  • Is s/he a jumpy child?
  • Is s/he wary or watchful even in the absence of literal threat?
  • When you have been separated for a while (e.g. after an overnight apart), is it difficult to tell whether s/he will be friendly or unfriendly?)

While not all children with RAD will exhibit all these symptoms, they are not symptoms of ADHD. Asking these diagnostic questions can enable clinicians to differentiate between the two disorders.

Full information on this research study can be found here:

How to get the right diagnosis

It’s critical that a child gets the correct diagnosis so they can receive the treatment and medications they need without delay. Here are some steps you can take to ensure this happens for your child.

  1. Inform your pediatrician (and any other clinicians) about developmental trauma your child may have suffered. Be sure to use the term “developmental trauma” and that you are concerned your child’s brain development may have been impaired.
  2. Ask your pediatrician for a referral to a psychologist for a full psychological evaluation. A referral may be necessary for your health insurance and also enable you to get into see a psychologist sooner. If the pediatrician suggests trying ADHD medications first, remind him/her of your child’s background and respectfully insist on the referral.
  3. Be cautious about accepting prescriptions for stimulants for ADHD. See a psychiatrist for medication recommendations. Once your chid is stable on mediations usually a pediatrician will take over dispersing them for your convenience.