Report uncovers dramatic spike in children abusing parents during COVID-19 pandemic

OXFORD, United Kingdom — The coronavirus lockdowns around the world have sparked fears that many people may be living in quarantine with violent partners or spouses. A new study reveals a different disturbing pattern growing in isolation: young children abusing their parents.

Researchers from the universities of Oxford and Manchester find this “hidden” problem is intensifying during the pandemic, with the number of violent episodes skyrocketing by 70 percent.

The study of more than 100 families and 47 social workers reveals many moms and dads believe the months-long quarantine is making already volatile homes even more unstable. Parents say being confined at home is creating a “cabin fever effect.” For some, this “pressure cooker” environment leads to violent outbursts.

Researchers say social workers are reporting a 69-percent uptick in referrals for families suffering child or adolescent-to-parent violence (C/APV). More than 60 percent of the social workers believe the severity of these violent incidents are increasing too.

“Everything is amplified, there’s no escape, and it’s not just the person being hurt who’s affected, it’s everyone that sees and hears it. The other children are traumatized by seeing us hurt,” one parent tells the research team in a university release.

What’s causing children to abuse their parents?

Study authors point to the major changes in the daily routines of millions as a trigger for this behavior. With schools and in-person services closing due to COVID-19, researchers say family problems have been building even before the virus became a legitimate concern for many communities.

Dr. Caroline Miles says many of these children are often suffering from traumas, adding that isolation is likely aggravating an already bad situation.

“It is important to bear in mind that many children who are violent towards their parents have safeguarding needs of their own – many, although not all, violent children have experienced trauma of some kind themselves, and/or have mental health problems, learning difficulties, or additional needs,” the senior lecturer in criminology at the University of Manchester says.

“These children are likely to have found the lockdown especially challenging and may have lost much of their external support network.”

Coronavirus fears keeping abused parents from calling police

Making the problem even worse, the report finds many parents are reluctant to report their child’s violent behavior. While some parents say they don’t want to be the cause of their child having a criminal record, others fear bringing more people into the situation will only increase their family’s risk of contracting COVID-19.

“I wouldn’t want to call the police as the danger is far greater from the virus… he would be vulnerable in police cell,” one parent tells researchers. “Before it was hard enough to call the police thinking of the usual consequences, but you could be potentially sentencing your child to death by reporting violence.”

The study also examines the number of APV incidents in each of the 43 police departments throughout England and Wales. Five of those departments report a definite increase in child-on-parent abuse during the pandemic. Nineteen police forces say there has been no significant change in the number of incidents. Study authors believe this may reflect a parent’s reluctance to turn in their child.

“C/APV has tended to be a ‘hidden’ form of family violence, both by families who experience stigma and shame for the actions of their child, and because of a lack of recognition in government policy and service planning,” Oxford Professor of Criminology Rachel Condry explains.

“A child using violence in the family presents an opportunity – an opportunity to intervene, and an opportunity to prevent the child from becoming an adult perpetrator.”

Stopping APV before it gets worse

Researchers say this spike in APV incidents gives lawmakers a chance to address a problem that has been hidden for many years. The study, which focuses on children between 10 and 19, sees an opportunity to help families before their child’s actions turn into adult crimes.

The study authors recommend governments and local authorities increase the support services available to families reporting APV incidents. They add that current programs switching to remote-only schedules has contributed to these problems in isolation. The study warns that a plan for impactful intervention is necessary, especially if a lockdown ever returns in the future.

The study appears in the August 2020 report Experiences of adolescent to parent violence in the COVID-19 lockdown.

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