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How We Respond In Cases of Adolescent-to-Parent Violence

Adolescent to parent violence is increasingly being formally recognized as a family and societal problem. Parents are often hesitant to report adolescent to parent violence because there really are no standard protocols for police to respond and then evidence-based treatment practices are practically non-existent.

There are devastating consequences of this type of violence for families and interventions, research and assessment have fallen short of addressing needs. Adolescent to parent violence is reported to occur in between 5 and 22% of the population. However, it is likely greatly under-reported as a family problem.

The full extent of this type of violence is unknown. Yet, it is clear that youth who exhibit violence toward parents and caregivers represent an important population in need of effective prevention and intervention services. The behaviors confer risk for academic, psychological, developmental and legal consequences for the adolescents themselves. Development of empirically-informed practices for screening, prevention, and intervention will maximize the likelihood that at-risk youth will be connected with evidenced-based services to positively alter negative trajectories and reduce risk of legal system involvement.

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Although some consistency exists regarding increased risk for adolescent-to-parent violence as a function of age, gender, and ethnicity, the phenomenon
is more comprehensively understood by considering the interactive and complex set of risk and protective factors occurring at multiple levels of the youth’s environment. Moreover, we must look beyond the socio-demographic and micro-system levels of influence. In other words, to identify risk and reasons why this may occur in families, we still need to look into other personal and societal influences in order to design effective interventions and assessment tools. The ultimate goal is prevention.

We can take several different approaches to understanding factors associated with adolescent to parent violence. Most focus specifically on how parent and child factors interact and predict later violence. Some say adolescents learn to rely on aggression as a general strategy of interacting with others through distorted cognitive processes, impaired problem-solving and negative perceptions of social cues that develop in the context of sub-optimal parenting.

Others say that aggression results from observing then imitating aggressive behaviors and violent acts in others. Some say that youth aggression is learned and reinforced through coercive and harsh parenting practices. Alternative frameworks suggest that aggressive youth are influenced by a culturally-bound belief that considers aggression an appropriate response to perceived threat. Others say aggression is a reserve strategy utilized only in the presence of intolerable stress.

We seek to identify families as the target for intervention and try to explore problematic interactional patterns, promote respectful relationships,
and improve conflict resolution skills. We define adolescent-to-parent violence more narrowly, as “a pattern of behavior that uses verbal, financial, physical or emotional means to practice power and exert control over a parent”.

The overall prevalence rates for adolescent to parent violence identifies males as more likely to instigate this type of aggression in the family. That said, we are cautioned against taking a criminal justice approach and treat these youth as criminals.Developmentally appropriate interventions is most productive in these cases. Even when youth commit acts of violence typically perceived as adult-like, they are still developing and are not full adults themselves. The evidence surrounding such behaviors supports interventions, though the evidence itself may suggest incarceration as a response to adolescent to parent violence.

The relative emphasis that parents place on control, punishment, and responsiveness in regard to child-rearing strategies is reliably detectable and predictive of various important child outcomes. A disciplinary
strategy labeled as “power-assertive,” characterized by corporal and psychological aggression, in combination with high levels of supervision and punishment was positively related to adolescent-to-parent violence.
“Power-assertive” parenting strategies tend to mediate the association between family relationships and adolescent behavior such that families with less positive family relationships, who also employed power-assertive parenting strategies, had higher levels of adolescent-to-parent violence. Different forms of problematic parenting styles, including overly permissive and overly controlling practices, are also linked to adolescent-to-parent violence.

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Commonly identified factors to consider as they influence adolescent to parent violence include:

  • Parenting styles
  • Parent-child relationship
  • Family structure
  • Community
  • Peers
  • School
  • Substance use
  • Inadequate support systems
  • Power imbalances
  • Conflict resolution skills
  • Stigma

Building effective interventions for families with adolescent to parent violence rests on practitioners’ ability to accurately assess these behaviors in families. This a distinct area of family violence. The National Center for Juvenile Justice recognizes the need to reform the way adolescent-to-parent violence is assessed in the juvenile court system and has called for important advances toward developing optimal methods of responding to families.

One county developed an internal screening tool to delineate different offender ‘types’ to improve system responses in adolescent domestic battery cases. Their effort inspired the National Youth Screen and Assessment Project, a multi-site research initiative to empirically validate these typologies. The result: the Adolescent Domestic Battery Typologies Tool[ADBTT]. Now available as a framework to help inform juvenile court decisions regarding youth who enter on charges of adolescent to parent violence.

The ADBTT offers a valid and reliable tool for understanding the unique set of characteristics of individual youth. Recommendations during dispositions can thus be tailored to reduce risk and achieve better outcomes. This framework encompasses four distinct types of youth who exhibit violence towards parents or caregivers:

  1. defensive youth who direct violence toward a parent in response to victimization,
  2. isolated incident youth who utilize violence as conflict resolution strategies in the face of atypical stressful circumstances,
  3. family chaos youth who exhibit violence in the context of inconsistent parental authority, and
  4. escalating youth whose pattern of violence has effectively shifted familial power dynamics to position the youth to being in control over the parent/caregiver.

Specific interventions for youth who are aggressive against a parent are scarce and many of those that exist lack real empirical evidence to support their use. How we respond to adolescent to parent violence is varied. There’s the law enforcement response, juvenile justice system and mental health professionals’ response to adolescent to parent violence.

Police responses are inconsistent across jurisdictions. Parents, of course, are largely reluctant to call the police and also ambivalent about the best course of action for their families. This contributes to it being an under-reported problem. Also, parents don’t all seek the same response. Some want the child removed and others simply want the police to talk to their child. Also, many parents report feeling that the police minimize the situation and thus leave parents feeling a sense of hopelessness about real change for the family.

Police also struggle with how to most effectively respond to such reports. They lack guidance on proceeding during such calls and mostly rely on personal discretion. Even when police make an arrest, parents may end up dropping the charges or recanting their statements to prevent further legal entanglement of their child.

Juvenile justice, similar to the police, lack solid guidance on how to respond to reports of adolescent to parent violence. Between agencies, inconsistent responses result, and by different representatives within agencies. Some jurisdictions have implemented diversion programming to curtail recidivism and divert youth from detention. Specialized courts were created to offer assessment, specialized legal professionals, intensive supervision, dedicated dockets, victim services and offender programs to families with adolescent to parent violence. So far, the data suggests that outcomes vary as a function of factors such as age and arrest history.

Adolescent-to-parent violence is a multi-faceted and systemic family problem and is likely caused by a complex set of interrelated factors. We need to develop well designed protocols to organize community responses, armed with valid, reliable and useful assessment measures to effectively inform agency responses. These can help determine the best route for targeted, evidence-based treatment services for individual families.

We know a fair amount about adolescent to parent violence. However, future progress depends upon a collective, cross-discipline, systematic shift in focus. This includes the development of theories that explain the nuances of these behaviors along with tests of hypotheses based on these theories.

While theories are being developed and tested, adolescents are still acting violently toward their parents and caregivers. Society can’t wait for these results to act. We need to continue to gather research, develop theories and meanwhile, utilize those strategic treatments and interventions we have at our disposal to help save families. As more reliable data exists, we can adapt our interventions and treatment approaches to reduce the detrimental impact that adolescent to parent violence has on entire families and society as a whole. It IS everybody’s problem.

 

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