Martin and Susan’s carers were committed to their children; they worked hard to understand their behaviour and to offer them love and commitment. Although the children seemed to be building bonds of attachment the level of aggression did not abate and the parents were at a loss to know what to do to make a positive impact. They had tried tolerance, love and understanding to no effect. They could not understand what they were doing wrong and felt responsible for the fact that they appeared to have had so little impact on their children’s behaviour.
One reason for these feelings was the messages the parents were given from professionals when the children were placed; i.e. that love, commitment and security would help their child heal. This carried with it the underlying message that the lack of progress was the responsibility of the parents; i.e. the children had not changed because, despite their best efforts, the parents had not offered them enough of what they needed.
There are other reasons. Very few parents of aggressive children know other parents who are struggling with similar problems. Parents may therefore find it difficult to talk about or acknowledge their struggles. When they do they may be given conflicting advice which can make them feel blamed. This advice can range from suggestions that they are too strict or too lenient, that they are too loving or not loving enough. They might be told that the best solution is to give up on their children and place them back within the care system on the premise that the children are not really their children. They might conversely be told that they are doing a great job and then left to struggle on their own. This is likely to lead to parents feeling isolated, alone, misunderstood and powerless. They struggle on alone, with little opportunity to talk about the reality of their experience. This has sometimes been likened to living in a war zone, but a war zone that nobody sees and which parents have to present as a state of peace.
Earlier in this article we highlighted the impact on children of living with the trauma of abuse and neglect. In our experience the impact on parents is often similar. Living with an angry, aggressive child is traumatic since the nature and extent of the behaviours they display are not single incidents, but ongoing lived experiences that permeate every facet of family life, often for many years. Traumatised children are frequently described as hyper-vigilant; parents may also become hyper-vigilant, unable to relax and enjoy times when their children are more settled. They may have internalised a belief that, if they let their guard down, disaster is likely to follow. Like their children the response to living with this level of trauma may be to develop one or more of the trauma responses: flight, fight or freeze. However, also like children some or all of these responses might not be available to parents.
The flight response implies placement breakdown and this is something that many parents, however desperate they feel at times, cannot countenance. They love their children and have made the commitment to them that has allowed them to manage the challenges presented by their children over many years. This love and commitment may preclude disruption. The flight response may, therefore, not be available to parenting figures because it means giving up on their child.
Living with aggression from a child is frightening and we recognise why parents might feel anger and frustration; i.e. the fight response. However, while being an understandable response to provocation, acting on anger by shouting at or smacking a child is only likely to increase the child’s violence and put the parent/carer at risk of accusations of having physically abused their child. Responding to aggression with anger is therefore not a helpful response from parents who are the adults and who must take responsibility for their actions; the fight response is therefore not one that is available to parents.
The only response may therefore be the freeze or dissociative one. This, in many ways, can be likened to the dissociative response of traumatised children who had no one to talk to and no language to articulate what was happening to them. They believed that the abuse occurred because they were bad babies or children. They gave up trying to make sense of a world that was confusing and frightening. They retreated into a world of their own. Parents, who are not given the opportunity to have their experiences validated, may feel they have no voice and no language to articulate their experiences. They may feel that they are ‘bad’ parents and that they are responsible for their child’s difficulties. They may struggle to make sense of what is happening in their family and may respond by retreating from the support of friends and relatives whom they either want to protect or whom they feel will not understand.
Parents may be afraid of their child’s violence but, being unable to articulate it or protect themselves from further abuse, they learn ways to accommodate it into their belief system. Like women abused as adults they may rationalise and minimise the abuse, for example by referring to it as ‘hitting’ rather than assault. They may appear to be flat and emotionless and laugh at situations that the average person would be likely to find frightening and potentially abusive. At the same time they may lack the ability to articulate what is happening or protect themselves from further abuse. They feel that they are being blamed by people around them and begin to believe that they are worthless and blameworthy.
These responses may be particularly intense in adults who have had an early traumatic history themselves. This does not mean that these parents will act on their feelings. Rather their early experiences might give them greater opportunities for tuning into the inner world of their children and to really know what is going on for them. Conversely, therefore, these parents while seeming to be angrier or more dissociative might be doing a really good job of tuning into and mirroring their child’s distress.
Returning to the fight response to a child’s aggression, many parents with whom we work acknowledge that they have responded to their child’s anger, aggression and rejection by shouting at them and occasionally smacking them. All have expressed feelings of failure at doing this; they do not feel good about shouting at or smacking their child. They feel ‘bad’ about their reactions and are aware that they are not being effective in dealing with their child’s difficulties. They talk about having a level of anger they did not know they possessed and did not demonstrate prior to the child’s placement. Often the parents’ relationship is in disarray; they may find themselves arguing about the child and about the way to deal with him/her. They are likely to have little time for themselves as individuals or as a couple. Most parents with whom we worked would like to be calmer and more understanding. All are keen to consider more appropriate and less angry responses to their child’s difficult behaviours and are looking for support and help for them and for their children.