As a foster and adoptive mom, I have seen and heard more than my share of the violence that can occur in a home due to the trauma some adopted children have experienced. What one hears on the news barely touches the surface of what foster and adoptive parents are experiencing on a daily basis as they try to help these kids heal. But what exactly is child-parent violence in adoption?
Child to Parent Violence (CPV) occurs when a child is abusive or threatening to the parents in the home, mainly the mother, but in some cases, the father as well. This can include verbal abuse, threats of violence, uncontrolled rage, damage to property, and actual physical violence such as hitting, kicking, punching, biting, and throwing objects. Though this is happening everywhere in the world with families who have adopted children with a trauma history, it is not talked about so much in the United States and is only beginning to be discussed in other countries such as the United Kingdom.
Why Is There a High Prevalence of Child to Parent Violence in Adopted Children?
To understand why there is a high prevalence of foster and adopted children attacking their parents, we need to look at the importance of attachment to the young child. Attachment between a primary caregiver and a newborn through the first several years of life is essential. The quality of the attachment has a significant impact on the child’s physical, emotional, psychological, and cognitive development. How attached a child feels to their primary caregiver determines their ability to trust all other relationships they will experience in their environment. The child who is healthily attached will feel safe, heard, and valuable.
When a child is raised with a healthy attachment to their caregiver, they will also learn how to self-regulate. If an infant cries because of hunger and a parent is there to feed them, their needs are met. If they are wet and cry and a parent comes to change them, they see that they are worth taking care of. And if they are afraid and cling to a mom who rocks and soothes them, they feel safe. They can integrate these ways of soothing and, in turn, learn to handle stressors for much longer periods because they trust that they will be cared for.
A child’s brain also develops more typically when attached to a caregiver in whom they feel safe. However, when a child grows up in a home where their needs are not met, and they are abused or neglected, their brains develop differently. Stress chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline are activated all the time, and this affects an infant’s brain development. They do not learn how to regulate their emotions, and they discover early on that the world is not a safe place and there is no one they can trust.
As an unsuspecting adoptive family enters the picture with all intentions of loving and caring for their new child, they may find they are met with disdain. The child whom they try to love ends up pushing them away. They may seem overly irritable and difficult to please. Yet what is happening is really the only way the child knows how to protect themself from the worst thing that could happen to them. The person who is supposed to love and care for them hurts or abandons them. And they will do everything in their power to push that person away, so they never get hurt again.
The tendency to react this way is due to an insecure-avoidant style of relating. The child fears intimacy and lacks trust in adults, so their goal is not to learn to bond and trust but to push away from the relationship by controlling their environment.
Why Aren’t More Adoptive Parents Talking About What is Happening?
The main reason you don’t hear about this more often is because of shame – shame, and judgment.
One adoptive parent, who is also a psychologist, talks about how low he feels living with the fact that he has a six-year-old child who beats him up almost daily. This has been going on for two years now. He discusses not only the struggle but also the embarrassment if family and friends discover what is going on.
Other parents tend to assume the adoptive parent doesn’t know what they are doing. They give the same menial advice that has been given to them for years. As if the adoptive parent never thought of those ways of dealing with the behavior in the first place. And so, the repeated violence at home and the criticism from their peers become very isolating.
As the child grows, the abuse worsens, and so does the judgment and shame. Parents often live with feelings of confusion, fear, and hopelessness on top of the high level of anxiety and distress. The stigma of having a child that beats up on you silences distressed parents. And most counselors are unequipped to deal with the situation.
One woman discusses how she has to walk on eggshells all the time when at home, overthinking every request she makes of her daughter. She may decide to ask her daughter to pick up three crayons left on the floor. Yet, forty-five minutes later, her daughter has destroyed the house in a rage.
The bad thing about living with CPV is how a parent finds themself modifying their parenting to avoid the backlash. It affects their confidence. Parents begin to give in to a child’s request they would typically deny, just to prevent the aftermath that could occur if the child gets upset.
I once fostered a teenager who refused to do anything around the home. Not even take out her own garbage. In the beginning, I would withhold things like video game time or outings until she completed her chores. But then I started finding things smashed and broken around the house. The silverware drawer was ripped off its track; the front part torn from the sides.
Ceiling lights shattered, the vacuum cleaner busted, or the metal trashcan with a massive dent in it, unable to open and close anymore. Finally, with no outside assistance to help with the problem, I just quit giving her chores. I was a single mom with three other children to care for. I didn’t have the money to replace everything she broke. This whole shift in the family order leads to an immeasurable sense of shame.
What Are Some Examples of Child to Parent Violence That Families Are Facing?
Jenn and Jason
Jenn and Jason adopted two siblings they fostered as toddlers. On the outside, as a tween and teen, they appear to be typical children who are into rock stars and sports. But on the inside, it’s an entirely different story.
When their son was around three or four years old, he would go into hour-long rages over the smallest things, such as being told to put on his swimsuit so they could go to the pool. They would go into his room and find his dresser pushed to the other side and his bed flipped over. As he aged, his violent tendencies became worse, and most of his aggression was directed at Jenn.
He began threatening to hit her or slap her in the face, and eventually, he did until Jason intervened. So he hit Jason. As he raged, he would call Jenn horrible names. The stress began to take a toll on her mental well-being, and she lived with anxiety on a regular basis.
Her son had all sorts of therapies and was on medication to help regulate his moods. Yet during the worst conflicts, he would kick holes in walls and break appliances. They even had to call the police to get help restraining him, and he had to be hospitalized short-term.
Amy and Carly
Amy describes a typical day when picking up her children from school. As the kids piled into the car, they all handed her their lunch boxes, water bottles, backpacks, pencils, and pens. They did this every day so that her 11-year-old, Carly, couldn’t use anything as a weapon.
Carly also had to sit caddy-corner to Amy while she drove. This way, Amy could see Carly in her rearview mirror. When Carly would sit behind her, she has, in the past, used Amy’s seatbelt to try to choke her from behind. And when she sat in the front seat next to Amy, she frequently grabbed the steering wheel. So the back seat was safest.
On this particular day, Carly wanted to stop to eat tacos at a Mexican restaurant. She was told that they could have tacos at home but wouldn’t be able to eat out. Within moments, the raging started.
Carly violently kicked the seat in front of her where her 13-year-old brother sat. Then she punched to the side of her where another sibling was seated. He crouched into the door with his hands over his head for protection.
When the calming techniques Amy learned from Carly’s therapist didn’t work, she had to pull over and call the police for help. By this time, Carly was banging her head against the window.
When the police arrived, Carly had been restrained in Amy’s arms (and legs) as she headbutted Amy, spit, and slapped her. With one swift headbutt, Amy lost a hold of her, and she ran into traffic. However, when Carly saw the police, she immediately calmed down.
Unfortunately, this is the norm for parents raising adopted children with an attachment disorder. Many psychologists and scientists have finally realized the impact early childhood attachment has on the developing brain. Yet our society has a long way to go in accepting parents’ stories without judgment and helping both the adopted children and their families find the safety and resources to heal.
- Family Law Explored – What are the Different Types of Family Law?
- What Are the Rights of a Father to an Unborn Child?
- 28 Different Types of Victimization and 5 Chilling Examples
Alexandra Christensen is a freelance writer and editor. When she is not working on an assignment, she can be found hanging around with other writers on Medium.com/@alexandra_creates where she writes mostly about raising foster and adopted kids and those with invisible disabilities.