Children’s violence and abuse towards their parents and carers: a social worker’s awakening

It’s no accident that our special avatar this week is a hole in the wall – a photo taken during a violent outburst, and today one of our guest posts is from Helen Bonnick, who runs the website Holes in the Wall. Here she explains the work that she’s doing…

clip_image003Hi, my name is Helen and I’m a social worker. Since I qualified in 1983, I have – sad to say – been anxious at times about making my profession known. It’s not necessarily the most popular of jobs; and you can guarantee that someone in the room will have had a bad personal experience at some point and will want to tell you about it. This has certainly been heightened over the last few years, as I have become involved in campaigning around children’s violence and abuse towards their parents and carers.

I first became aware of this issue in the early 1980s. Flailing around to find something to offer a young and desperate Mum, all we could do then was to refer her to the equivalent of CAMHS. As I moved on to work within education, I became increasingly involved with the difficulties faced by some parents in getting their children to school, and started to have a sense of their home life too. When I had a chance to complete some further study, I made Access to help for parents experiencing violence and abuse from their children the focus of my research. As I started to read message boards and research papers I became acutely aware that of all the professional involvement in families that was failing either to understand or to help, social work was coming off worst. Notwithstanding a few individuals, people overwhelmingly spoke of social workers being glib, patronising and dismissive, and of bringing about a sense of re-victimisation as they added to the sense of blame and even worked to remove siblings from the family. It suddenly seemed incredibly important that I should work to raise awareness of the immense pain and difficulty faced by some families on a daily basis; and that as a social worker myself, I had a particular responsibility to developing knowledge and understanding within my profession.

It is hard to explain what happened next, and even I sometimes wonder at how I came to be where I am now!

My current paid employment as a social worker is as a Practice Educator. I supervise and assess students in non-statutory placements; an important job but by no means a full time one. This leaves me plenty of time to pursue “hobbies”, and first and foremost among them has become running the website Holes in the Wall. From a tiny beginning in 2011, when I might have 5 views on a good day, I wanted to develop a resource that would bring information and resources together in one place, enable networking, and make it possible for people to find what they needed more easily than in the past. Coincidentally, over this period of time there has been a tremendous surge in interest in both the academic community and among practitioners on the ground. Beyond the Adoption Order is just one among a number of important texts which have highlighted children’s violence to parents as an issue that can no longer be ignored. Hard to believe on a bad day perhaps, but Britain is now among a small group of countries leading the way in understanding and resource development – and so I am kept on my toes making sure the website is up to date!

While a lot of the original research work on child to parent violence looked at numbers, a more recent approach has been to find “causes”. It is clear that there is no simple straightforward answer to the question of “WHY?” Indeed, the more I delved into the subject the more widespread were the associated factors, and I started to listen to parents with many different experiences, adoption among them, but also illness and disability, mental health diagnosis, gang involvement, cross cultural issues, domestic violence, and what has been loosely called “over-entitlement”. I resist the pressure to suggest that the experience of one group is worse than another. The important part is the experience of each individual parent, child and family. This has been a steep learning curve for me, but I hope that I too am less glib, more listening, more humbled now, by the everyday lived experiences of so many people around the country, and indeed around the world.

Running the website started to generate requests to speak at training and conference events. I have been privileged to be part of a Home Office working party, and am about to start working on a project that has been dear to my heart for the last two years – mapping all the service provision around the country. But the biggest piece of work on the horizon is a book specifically for practitioners in response to all the requests I have had for information and guidance, and in that sense my work has come full circle. My dearest hope is that it will not be necessary for other social workers to “flail around” as I did; and that, as awareness is raised and information more easily accessible, then each response to a parent will be appropriate – sensitive, empathetic, non-judgemental, the list goes on! We may be some way off a bespoke service in every town, but every worker should know how to respond, how to listen, what questions to ask and what not to say. They may then need to refer on to somewhere more skilled, or they may then be able to offer a timely response themselves.

I welcome comments on my blog, and conversations on twitter. Please do check out the website, which includes links to reading, training events and services. I look forward to hearing from you!

Helen Bonnick

Many thanks to Helen for writing this guest piece for us. We really do recommend checking out the website, and the links on it too.


2 thoughts on “Children’s violence and abuse towards their parents and carers: a social worker’s awakening

  1. Gem

    Thank you to Helen for writing this post and for Adoption Social for sharing. This is becoming a subject that is experienced in our household with my 7 year old daughter having often violent tantrums and my 2 year old now copying. I am often at a loss as to how to manage the behaviour in both children and often feel that I spend a fair portion of my day being smacked or kicked or spat at or bitten by one or the other. Things have been a little calmer, for the most part, recently with my daughter but we have generally one tantrum per day and my son has many. It’s great to hear there is u dear standing and training and resources being made available to increase awareness. Thank you for leading the way.

  2. Ingrid

    Interesting work Helen ,I will have a look on your website from one social worker to another great to see you stepping out of the box to look at how to support all involved with our young people I hope my journey is as productive.


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