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Lack of support for parents who live in fear of their teenagers, study shows

Parents living in fear of their abusive and violent teenagers are being left without support because of a lack of understanding of adolescent violence directed at parents, according to the first academic study into the issue.

Data from the Metropolitan police revealed that there were 1,892 reported cases of 13- to 19-year-olds committing violence against their own parents in Greater London alone over a 12-month period from 2009-10.

Dr Rachel Condry, lead researcher at the University of Oxford, which carried out the study, said there was little support for parents in such circumstances from police, youth justice teams or other agencies.

“The problem has, until now, gone largely unrecognised, which can mean that parents can find it very difficult to get help,” she said.

“The parents we spoke to said they were stigmatised and felt ashamed – they were experiencing patterns of controlling behaviour that were similar to domestic violence. One woman told us she would get up in the middle of the night to make her teenager dinner because she feared the consequences if she didn’t; others talked about walking on eggshells.”

Britain’s incoming director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, warned last month that teenage violence in the home was a hidden aspect of domestic violence: “There is a lack of respect and a lack of regard for authority. When I was growing up the thought of striking a parent was beyond the pale. Is that peers? Is that TV? Is that the general environment in the house? You are not born to commit domestic violence.”

Nicola, a mother in West Yorkshire who did not want to be named, said her daughter first started to behave violently towards her when she was 13. “She’d push me, punch me, lose her temper and smash the house up – it got to the stage where I was scared stiff,” she said.

“I thought it was me, my mothering skills. People were asking me why I couldn’t control her, but what was I supposed to do? Beat her up?”

Nicola was sent on a parenting course, but felt there was no one to help her. “I’ve got three other kids and none of them were like this – it wasn’t like I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said.

The study, co-authored by Caroline Miles, found that 87% of suspects in the London study were male and 77% of victims were women, although fathers could feel more reluctant to report the issue, said Condry.

The study found that, in the reported cases analysed, 60% of victims were classified as white European, while 24.3% were African-Caribbean. It says: “Families reporting adolescent-to-parent violence are likely to be at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale”.

Of those who recorded a profession, 46.7% were unemployed, 11.6% described themselves as housewives, while 3.4% were teachers and 2.9% were nurses.

Condry said it was a problem that could hit families in any demographic. “It is not the fact of being a single parent that is causing this issue, but parenting an adolescent is difficult and perhaps if a parent is on their own there is more potential for things to go awry.” The study found that a range of issues, including exposure to domestic violence, peer influence, mental health issues and drug problems had played a role, but there was no one reason for adolescent violence against parents.

“There may be issues around what we think of as poor parenting but many families we spoke to did not have those type of histories – that is uncomfortable for society, but we have to get a handle on the complexity of this issue,” she said.

When asked what she thought had provoked her daughter’s behaviour, Nicola said: “She has always seen me dominated, but I’m having counselling now and I’m starting to stand up for myself.”

Eventually she got support from the Rosalie Ryrie Foundation, a charity that deals with family violence. “They were fantastic; they showed me different techniques and it’s much better – she still loses her temper but she’s not as violent,” she said.

“It’s hard to ask for help. Other people should remember that it’s easy to say stand up to them, but it’s much more difficult when you are in that position.”

Condry said: “We want our victims to be entirely blameless. We think parents should be in control of their own children – but this is not an issue that can simplistically be blamed on bad parenting.”