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When your child is your abuser: The family violence women don't want to talk about.

WARNING: This article includes details of family violence.

“He’s going to actually kill me, I’m going to lose my life.”

This is the thought Kirsty* recalls reciting in her head, over and over, when her son James* wrapped his fingers around a beer bottle, looked her in the eye and swung it toward her face.

Moments earlier, the then 17-year-old had terrorised her as he smashed up the family kitchen.

She fled outside, but he sniffed her out. His 188cm build towering over his mother’s tiny frame, he grabbed her by the throat and dragged her across the ground for 100 metres, all the way back to the house.

There, a beer bottle became his weapon of choice. She ended up in hospital, with a broken nose, seven stitches across her face and two black eyes.

Kirsty, 57, had suffered years of abuse at the hands of her own son, at their home in Central Victoria. And it took her to the brink of death before she was finally ready to put her own survival before her motherly instincts. She drew the deepest of breaths, and took out an indefinite intervention order against her son.

It’s a near unthinkable decision for most parents – or, as Kirsty says, “a hard pill to swallow as a mother”. But it’s one that thousands of parents are facing across Australia.

In Victoria alone, during the 12 months to March 2017, police were called to 5104 family incidents where the accused was aged 17 or younger. A little over 600 of them were under 13 years old. And in about two-thirds (3247) of cases, a parent was the alleged victim.

The figures, obtained from Victoria Police, are more than double what they were in the same period 10 years earlier, when police were called to 2042 family incidents where the accused was a child.

Figures for adolescent violence in the home are growing. Image: Getty.
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Kirsty tells Mamamia James started out like any other little boy – mischievous, sweet, caring.

But at age five, he witnessed an ordeal that would scar him for life. Four months after Kirsty became a single parent, James saw her get physically assaulted by her brothers. She was so badly beaten, she wound up in hospital.

As James grew older, a dark streak emerged. And by age 13, the verbal, psychological and physical abuse against his mother was already getting “out of control”.

Her son, she says, had come to understand violence to be an acceptable way of handling situations.

“My son accepted violence as a solution to conflict, and because he’d seen it so many times, not only from other family members and ex-partners, but also on TV and video games, to him it was a normal way of dealing with things.”

Kirsty says she always knew that what she was suffering at the hands of her son was family violence. She had, after all, been a victim of it before.

But this time it was different. She didn’t want to go to the police. She was her abuser’s carer, bonded by blood, and she wanted to protect him.

Whenever she looked for support, she hit dead ends. There were no services that could help.

So, she kept her suffering a secret throughout his teenage years.

“As a mother, struggling with my son’s violent behaviour, it was a very confusing and confronting time,” she says.

“When social attitudes are that a parent should sacrifice themselves for their children’s happiness… You feel guilty breaking up a family. So you compensate by giving everything to the child, and ascribe them more importance than your own self.”

* * *

Uniting Kildonan clinical family therapist Jo Howard, who is Australia’s leading researcher on adolescent violence in the home, is all too familiar with this narrative.

Almost 20 years ago, while working as a family violence support worker, Ms Howard realised women who had left violent partners could suddenly find themselves in a situation where their own sons were beginning to employ the same aggressive behaviours against them. And, like Kirsty found, there was no help available.

Ms Howard says there is a high level of under-reporting when it comes to adolescent violence, which ranges from verbal, to financial and physical.

“Parents feel a lot of shame and embarrassment that it’s happening in their family, and they feel they will be blamed by the system for not being a better parent,” she says.

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“It’s only been through community awareness raising that parents are slowly gaining the confidence to seek help.”

Not only does Ms Howard believe adolescent violence is “a lot more common than people think”, she says it’s a growing problem.

READ MORE: The rise and rise of abusive teens in the home.

While fathers and daughters can of course be involved, Ms Howard says the reality is that adolescent violence is largely a gendered issue. Boys, who naturally develop slower than girls, are most likely to absorb any aggressive behaviours toward their mothers.

She says the majority of offenders are boys aged 15-17, and about 80 per cent of victims are mothers – most of whom are single, separated or re-partnered.

Ms Howard says the biggest contributor to adolescent violence is a child’s experience of family violence inflicted by their father.

As a result, families can find themselves stuck in a cycle of raising boys who severely lack conflict resolution or self-soothing skills, instead becoming violent toward their mothers as a first resort. Just like daddy did.

LISTEN: Mia Freedman speaks to Rosie Batty. Post continues below.

Child psychologist Dr Michael Carr Gregg has a different take, believing it is today's protective and overly positive parenting that has come at “a terrible cost”.

His latest book, The Prince Boofhead Syndrome, unashamedly blames parents for failing to teach children discipline and respect, in turn creating boys who are self-absorbed, rude and - worse - violent with their mothers.

“If we allow young men to stand over you, to physically or verbally intimate you, use bad language, show disrespect, then I think we are creating permission and space for them to do that.

“Add to that inaction by the males in the home that’s condoning it, and a diet of violence (and pornography) as entertainment.”

Dr Carr-Gregg says up to 70 per cent of mothers admit to having been physically or verbally intimidated by their teenage sons.

“I think this is a very serious and under-reported issue and we need to nip it in the bud. We can do that by starting with clear intelligent, authoritative parenting: set limits and boundaries, have consequences for poor choices, and never ever back down.”

While Ms Howard accepts that there is a strong sense of entitlement in young offenders, in part influenced by our technology-centred and consumerist culture, she strictly stops short of blaming parents.

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“Parents are doing the best they can. When a mother is experiencing violence, her ability to parent is severely undermined. She’s not able to exercise authority," she says.

Ms Howard stresses that placing blame isn’t helpful. What we need is to support the mother, strengthen the parent-child relationship as much as possible, and teach the young person new skills, new boundaries and new respectful attitudes, she says.

“Our society has put so much expectation on parents and particularly on mothers – we are quick to blame mothers for anything that’s detrimental or antisocial in their children.

“The world can be a really hard place to navigate for young people and parents, and blaming really is disempowering parents."

* * *

For parents who are already on the receiving end of abuse from their children, programs specifically designed to tackle this problem have begun to emerge.

As Ms Howard explains, the reason adolescent violence requires a response unique to most types of family violence is because the perpetrator is in the care of the victim.

“A mother won’t get up and leave their child. She wouldn’t want an intervention order that leaves the child homeless,” she says.

More importantly, with the right programs in place, Ms Howard says there is an opportunity to break the intergenerational cycle of violence.

Programs are only just emerging to help mothers like Kirsty. Image: iStock.

“We want to do as much as we can to support young people in having a healthy and happy development – and to prevent future violence (against later partners).”

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Ms Howard says the most successful approach is two-pronged: programs should provide support for the parent and teach the child better strategies to manage their emotions.

Ms Howard has driven the introduction of several such initiatives in Victoria since 2013, including at Uniting Kildonan where a 10-week program has been running for two years.

Her hope is that with more awareness, more government funding will be funnelled toward combating adolescent violence. Because the need, she says, is desperate.

* * *

After taking out an intervention order against her son, Kirsty kept her ordeal a secret for 20 years. She was well into her 40s when she finally allowed herself to be rid of any guilt or shame.

Kirsty's biggest hope is that her story encourages other abused parents to come forward, which will in turn help drive the creation of more support services.

“I don’t want any other parent or child to go through what I and my kids have been through," she says.

“My son needed help... but the services weren’t there.

“I lost my son. To see this monster come out that I’m terrified of, it broke my heart.”

Kirsty says the violence ended up catching up with her mental health, and she has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder.

But she has also been driven to turn her life around. She is a proud mother to a daughter who serves in the Australian military. She has completed training to help other victims of adolescent violence, and she has worked hard to promote awareness.

“I’m not ever going to recover. But I’m in control of my life.”

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. If you are in an emergency, please dial triple-0. 

For more information about the program at Uniting Kildonan in Victoria that specifically targets adolescent violence, click here. The Victorian Government also funds several initiatives (for more information, click here). For details on the program run in Queensland by Carinity, click here. In South Australia, Junction Australia can help (click here) and in Western Australia, Peel Youth Services run a program (click here). 

*Names have been changed

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