When the domestic abuser is your child

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 There are days when Sally*, a single mother of two living in Melbourne’s outer suburbs, doesn’t want to go home from work. She’ll drive around dreaming up errands to run, or come home and just sit in her garage for an hour or two, because she doesn’t want to walk in the door and confront the abuse she’s expecting to receive from her teenage son, Ben*.

“He will smash things, break things, throw things around,” she says. “He will call me a c—. Just sort of trying to get him to hang the washing out or get him to go to bed at a certain time, he doesn’t want to listen to anything. He will just attack me non-stop, you know, ‘you f—ing useless c—, you don’t give a f— about us, you’re a lazy f—ing bitch’.”

Sally left Ben’s verbally abusive father almost a decade ago. But her son, who only started behaving this way towards her after a court ordered him to start regularly visiting his father again, is still a child. And Sally remains responsible for his care.

“It’s so much easier when it’s a partner and so forth, because as an adult you can make those choices, you can say ‘OK, this is not how I’m going to live. I can walk away from this’; when it’s your children, you don’t have those choices,” she says.

Although she feels isolated in her predicament, Sally is far from alone. The little research  available on adolescent domestic violence offenders suggests the numbers are significant, though under-reported, and are rising at about the same rate as adult-perpetrated domestic violence.

In NSW, domestic violence incidents involving juvenile offenders make up about 5 per cent of the total incidents reported, but anecdotal evidence suggests most parents will only engage authorities in desperation and as a last resort.

Last year’s Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence found about two-thirds of juvenile offenders were male, and 80 per cent of victims were their mothers.

Adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg says he is concerned about a connection between violence against mothers and a broader trend of growing disrespect among young males.

“I’m seeing more kids who are essentially lazy, self-absorbed, disrespectful, ungracious and very contemptuous, particularly of women and particularly of mothers,” he says.

He’s just published a book on the phenomenon, which he calls the “Prince Boofhead Syndrome”, and blames it largely on a culture of entitlement that parents are unwittingly contributing to by trying to shield their children from adversity. “Their life is just one giant personalised all-singing, all-dancing, 24/7 catering service,” Carr-Gregg says. “They’re never challenged, there’s no consequences for their bad behaviour or bad decisions, and the parents… don’t set any limits or boundaries.”

He says this sense of entitlement is reinforced by peer pressure. “If you have a whole bunch of boys for whom it is perfectly acceptable to speak to your mother in this contemptuous dreadful way, that then becomes a peer influence. So everyone feels that’s an OK way to treat women.

“It doesn’t bode well for how these boys will treat not only their mothers, but their partners and all women in their lives later on.”

But adolescent violence expert Jo Howard said “we absolutely do not want to blame parents” for the behaviour that, she says, usually has a number of complex, interwoven causes.

“The breakdown of our social fabric, the emphasis on consumerism, poverty, financial stress, all definitely play a role in supporting these sorts of behaviours, which are symptomatic of families that are in crisis or not coping,” says Howard, who is the executive manager of child, youth and family programs at Melbourne’s Kildonan UnitingCare.

“But we do know 60 to 70 per cent of these adolescents have experienced some sort of trauma. It’s usually childhood experience of family violence, but it could also be war, or resettlement, or their own experiences that have been traumatic… that’s impacted on their own development or on their parent’s ability to parent.”

Sally says her son’s behaviour makes it extremely difficult to discipline him, because any consequences she attempts to put in place, such as removing his phone, “just escalates the abuse”. And it’s rubbing off on his younger sister.

“I worry that my daughter will follow that same path now because she views it as normal and sees that Ben gets what he wants from being abusive,” she says.

The family have recently completed a 10-week program at Kildonan UnitingCare, which Sally says was “brilliant”. 

The program works systemically with the whole family to build communication and problem-solving skills, particularly between the mother and child.

“We do still have lots of issues, but things don’t spiral out of control as bad as they did,” Sally says. “Programs like that are great because they give you that bit of insight, a bit of breathing time, a bit of realising that you’re not alone. There are so many other people out there with the same problems.”

After the royal commission recommended an expansion of similar programs specifically tailored to adolescent family violence offenders, Victoria now has three government-funded programs such as the one at Kildonan. In NSW, however, funding to tackle domestic and family violence has gone into the justice system, and the approach is very different.

Domestic Violence NSW chief executive Moo Baulch says she is not aware of any government programs specifically targeting adolescent perpetrators  who have not entered the juvenile justice system. To wait until perpetrators have already entered the system before intervening is a missed opportunity, she says.

“We do very little in this space in NSW to be honest, and I think it’s an area where we should be doing more,” she says. “If you think about things like behaviour change interventions, you’d be wanting to tackle those young men early on because that’s when you can have really effective change in behaviour and in the attitudinal space as well.

“If the only path you have is the criminal justice system, it’s a very dangerous thing.”

Howard believes that tackling adolescent family violence is an essential step to stopping the cycle of domestic violence.

“The earlier we can intervene with children that are at risk of becoming perpetrators, the more opportunity there is for that young person to change,” Howard says. “If we wait until they’re grown-up men and they’re using family violence against their partner it is much harder to get change than when we’re working with an adolescent whose parent or parents are still influential and the brain is still developing.”

Sally is frustrated at the lack of acknowledgement that the issue exists and that it requires a different approach to adult domestic violence.

“There’s all those ads about domestic violence and what effect it has on your children; I’m hearing those ads and thinking to myself, what about when domestic violence is coming from those you love the most, and that’s your children?” she says.

“There’s nothing out there to really show people that domestic violence isn’t just a parent against a parent, or parents abusing their children. Kids are growing up in society today with this whole ‘they’re entitled to’ syndrome. It’s like ‘I’m entitled to this or that, I don’t have to listen to you, you can’t make me do this’. You’re supposed to parent, but how can you?”

*Names and details have been changed

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