The Shame and despair of being physically attacked by your own child
The girl who held a carving knife to her mother’s throat. The son who broke his mum’s ribs. And the brutalised parents told by social workers THEY are to blame
As the fist slammed into her cheek, Louise Cowell felt her gum split and her mouth fill with blood. her attacker shouted: ‘I wish you would get cancer and die!’ before running off. Cleaning herself up at the sink, Louise burst into tears. this was the fourth assault she had endured in a month. But even more shocking than the violence is her attacker’s identity: her 15-year-old daughter, Beth. For Louise, 45, a former accountant who quit work when she became a mother, is the victim of a complex and almost entirely hidden form of domestic abuse. ‘It’s incredibly distressing,’ she says. ‘For the person you love most to lash out at you like this is terrible. But when no one believes your side of the story, that becomes another layer of pain and shame.’
Beth kicked, slapped, scratched and punched her mother in the assault. this time, because Louise had said she couldn’t spend the night at her boyfriend’s house while his parents were away.
On one terrifying occasion, Beth, an only child, even held a carving knife to her mother’s throat for saying she was wearing too much make-up for school.
Louise and her husband, a 40year- old accountant, live in a friendly village in the Midlands.
When the trouble started, they were horrified. Believing their child had psychiatric or hormonal problems, they hoped mental health support or even medication might help her. But when questioned by social workers, Beth falsely claimed she was defending herself from her mother. so Louise was sent on a parenting course while Beth’s behaviour was never explored. ‘this was frustrating but also terrifying,’ says Louise.
‘I love my daughter, so being physically hurt by her is heartbreaking. I struggle to find any joy in life, because of how things have turned out with my child.’
I know Louise’s agony only too well because I’ve experienced child-to-parent abuse myself. It had such a profound effect on me that I quit my job as a paralegal and in 2019 set up Parental education Growth support (PeGs), to help other affected parents.
I’m convinced it is vital to share some of the stories I have heard from desperate parents, anonymously, in the hope of shedding light on this complex issue.
Doctors, lawyers and teachers are among the parents logging on to our daily virtual drop-ins — often terrified that false claims made against them by their children could cost them their livelihoods. I’ve spoken to parents whose children have emailed their workplace to make claims of abuse against their parent.
A recent survey of working parents who use PeGs revealed almost a third had quit their jobs as a result of their child’s behaviour. A further 44 per cent had been forced to reduce work hours. Our members suffer the full gamut of abuse: physical, mental, technological — such as loading spyware onto their phones, installing secret cameras at home,
harassment on social media — and even sexual.
As appalling as it sounds, 17 per cent of our parents have been on the receiving end of sexualised behaviour such as lewd language or being touched inappropriately.
yet authorities barely grasp that this problem exists. As one social worker told Louise: ‘unless we actually see Beth hit you, because we’re child services and our job is to keep children safe, we’ll believe her over you every time.’
for Beth, child services became a tool which she used to control and threaten her mother.
Criminologist dr Amanda holt says this approach can lead to bizarre distortions of justice: ‘say a single mother feels she’s at risk of serious harm from her child and leaves the home to keep herself safe. The family courts would class that as child abandonment.’
Beth first lashed out in 2021, aged 14. her mother found her on the phone in the early hours and took it away. In rage, Beth gouged her mother’s face, ripping into her cheek with her nails. ‘I ran from the room, bleeding, while she hurled abuse. My husband and I spent the night in shock.’
The next morning, Louise stayed in bed while her husband showed Beth photographs of the injuries she’d caused. Beth apologised but said it was her mother’s fault for provoking her. Louise recalls: ‘We both wanted to believe she hadn’t meant to hurt me, so we somehow accepted that version of events in the hope we could move on.’
Now, Louise wonders whether their lenient response made Beth feel she could manipulate her parents. ‘When Beth was younger, we were close,’ recalls Louise. ‘We’d bake together and snuggle on the sofa watching cartoons.
‘If she didn’t get her own way she’d throw a tantrum but it wasn’t until she hit puberty that she started becoming violent.’
soon, Beth was physically assaulting her mother weekly. she only occasionally lashed out at her father — barging past him or pushing him in temper. she also smashed precious ornaments, stole cash from her mother’s purse and once kicked a hole in a wall.
LOUIES worried about a group of ‘ troublemaking’ friends Beth was involved with. ‘she didn’t get into fights, but started messing about in class,’ says Louise. ‘ she used to care about her studies but lost all interest in them.’
Things came to a head last March when Louise confronted Beth about missing money. In response, Beth held a carving knife to her mother’s throat. After her father wrestled it off her, Beth told a teacher her mum had attacked her.
This triggered the school’s child safeguarding protocol and social services were informed. ‘ during this process, we handed over a dossier of evidence,’ says Louise.
‘Pictures of my injuries and the diary I’d started keeping of what she’d done and when. This wasn’t to get Beth in trouble, but to protect ourselves and get her the help she needed.’
Louise had been to the doctors with her injuries but social services didn’t consider this evidence that she was the victim. The couple were interviewed by police, although not arrested or charged — but Beth’s threats and violence continued. ‘ Last summer, I told Beth to stop smoking and she hurled a glass tumbler at me. It smashed on the kitchen floor and some shards cut her foot.’
Beth told her mother: ‘I’m going to tell them you did this to me and guess who they’ll believe.’ social workers arranged a video call with Louise. sure enough, they said Beth was suffering trauma and Louise needed to do better.
‘If you don’t,’ said one of the two officials on the call, ‘we’ll consider removing her from your home.’
devastated, Louise began contemplating ways to kill herself. In spite of Beth’s behaviour, she couldn’t bear to think of her child being forcibly taken away. ‘I felt desperate,’ she admits. ‘The only way I could see this intolerable situation ending was if I died.’
Thankfully, she called a friend who talked her out of hurting herself. she also contacted PeGs, which provides a range of support and advocates for parents with social services.
for Louise, a release of sorts came last december when Beth turned 16 and went to live with a relative.
‘ she’s still under social services, but we’re not involved. I’m torn between relief that I’m no longer living with the person who kept hurting me and mourning the fact my child has gone. I feel like I’ve profoundly failed in a role that should have been a source of great joy. Thankfully, my marriage has survived — but only just. We feel broken as a couple.’
There aren’t any statistics on child-on-parent abuse, but figures from Metropolitan Police data last year reveal that 81 per cent of incidents reported involved sons and that 69 per cent of victims were female. It was estimated that 40 per cent of victims do not report this type of abuse at all.
At PeGs we see a lot of parents taking the path of least resistance to avoid an abusive child turning violent. This is the point 40-yearold dental nurse stephanie has reached. ‘I love my son, but I’m very scared of him,’ she says.
‘dan’s 15, with the strength of a grown man. he hits and kicks me so hard I’ve ended up with broken ribs and a broken ankle. once he pushed me down the stairs.’
stephanie, who lives in the North West of england, has ended up in hospital three times with her injuries, but tells doctors they were accidents: ‘They seem suspicious, but I don’t want my son to end up with a criminal record.’
her husband, a supermarket manager, is so afraid of their son that he focuses on calming him down, rather than challenging him. Their son has had outbursts for as long as stephanie can remember. ‘We thought it was a phase but the stronger he’s got, the more damage he’s able to do to me.’
she is convinced her son has a mental health problem. They have been waiting six months for him to be assessed by doctors.
The family are not aware of him being violent with anyone else and he’s doing fairly well at school.
And there is another victim of his behaviour. he may not have physically turned on his ten-yearold sister yet, but the couple are aware of the emotional fallout.
stephanie says: ‘he gets his own way over everything: what we watch on TV, what time we eat.
‘It feels like we’re creating a monster — and seeing us so impotent sends out a terrible message to our daughter. But appeasing him keeps him calm and protects her from seeing him hit me. Where we go from here, I don’t know.’
The domestic Abuse Act (2021) refers to child-to-parent abuse, saying if the child is 16 or older, this falls under the definition of domestic abuse with all the protection that ought to afford.
STILL, many parents feel reluctant to report their own child no matter their age. Jane, 51, is a single mother of three from south Wales. her youngest son is 24 and began psychologically abusing her when he became the last of her children still living at home.
‘he left school with good exam results, got an apprenticeship and is doing well as a car mechanic,’ she says. ‘But he won’t move out and he treats the dog better than he does me.
‘he pays nothing towards the bills, but takes money from me. When I say I don’t have enough to give him — I work part-time as a carer — he tells me I’m pathetic.
‘ sometimes he follows me around the house videoing me on his phone, laughing. The other day he barged into my bedroom when I was getting dressed and filmed me naked.
‘I don’t know what he does with those videos — to be honest, I can’t bear to think about it. I’m constantly on edge.
‘he calls me names, insults my intelligence and tells me to go to my bedroom as though I’m a child. I can’t tell anyone — not even my other kids — because I sound so pathetic and feel so ashamed.
‘I keep asking myself where did I go wrong with him? I wake up each morning and just hope it’s the day he’ll say he’s moving out.’
This is a horrible example of coercive control — a crime we’ve only recently even acknowledged exists. yet it is now taken seriously by the authorities and punished by the courts.
I hope that soon, child-to-parent abuse will be recognised and taken equally seriously.
FOR support with child-to-parent abuse, contact PEGS at pegsupport.co.uk