I’ve been working with victims of domestic abuse for 6 years now. And during the course of this work I began to see a direct link between children who bully and adults who abuse. Many of the families I have worked with have had at least one child who has begun abusing the mother after she leaves an abusive relationship. These children have had abuse role modelled for them, and disrespect for their mother’s role modelled for them and it takes a lot of work to undo the dangerous ideas they hold. The link between child bullies and adult abusers is a contentious subject, but an important one for us to consider as it affects so many of us and should be shaping the bullying policies of our schools and universities.
Children who grow up in abusive households are significantly more likely to grow up to become abusers themselves or to be abused. 1 in 3 women in the world will experience physical or sexual violence, most commonly from a partner, so we are talking about a huge portion of the population that is affected by these issues. And yet for women seeking help and support from domestic abuse services there is little help once they have left the relationship and even less support in supporting them to parent children who have been exposed to abuse. Thus the cycle of abuse starts up again, as many survivors of abuse don’t have the skills, energy, time or knowledge to undo the damage done to their children. These children are often abusive to their mother and sometimes to other kids in school. When I first started looking into this 6 years ago I couldn’t find any information, online or otherwise on child to parent abuse. Now though child to parent abuse awareness is spreading and it has in the last few years become an issue that is finally being talked about. Because bullying isn’t just something that happens at school. Lots of children who have grown up in abusive households bully their non abusive parent. Bullying needs to be looked at within a wider context. And it needs to be looked at alongside abuse.
People with abusive mindsets share two things. A core belief in inequality and a sense of entitlement. Bullies also share these two beliefs. In my head bullies and abusers are interchangeable terms. They both mean the same thing, bully being a kid-friendly term for a child abuser, adult abusers getting called out for what they are.
The fortunate thing is that children are much easier to work with and less fixed in their ideas than adults. It is depressing that the world’s leading rehabilitation program for domestic abuse perpetrators has less than a 40% success rate, but this is probably because the main issue is that an abusive mindset is not a psychological problem within the abuser’s brain, but a cultural and societal problem. It is the result of the toxic masculinity created from being raised in a patriarchal society with rigid gender expectations and unhealthy beliefs about the value of women. And it is constantly reinforced by the media, by the options on supermarket shelves, by the fashion industry, by governments and more. It is everywhere we look. All aimed at controlling women and portraying them as inferior to men.
Studies have shown that the behaviour of abusive people is mostly deliberate. They actively choose to behave in a way that exerts domination and control over their partner, in order to get their needs and wants met. In other words, they KNOW what they are doing. Their actions are intentional.
I do not know anything about rehabilitating abusive adults. I do however know about helping children who have been taught by their abusive parent to be bullies. I know how to help their mothers to parent them in such a way that will guide them towards being respectful people. And much of the work I do with mothers and their children works equally well in a school setting.
I was on the committee that developed our primary school’s anti – bullying policy where we defined bullying as ‘an act with intent to harm’. Most school’s approach bullying as being repeated actions. I disagree with this. Bullying is the softer, kid-friendly word we use for abuse. One act of abuse is enough to call it abuse. One act of bullying is enough to call it bullying. Why do we diminish the experience of the victim by insisting that they be repeatedly abused before we will give the matter the level of importance that is requires? I see this as a gross negligence of the hurt child, and further evidence of how as a society we protect abusers, at all costs. It seems preposterous that a child must be hurt repeatedly before we will take the incident/s seriously and call it for what it is. In what other area of life would this be the rule? “Oh you were only broken into once Mrs Smith, come back when you’ve been broken into again and then we’ll deem it a burglary.” “Someone put their penis in you without your consent? Well when it happens again that will be rape!”
Who does this ‘repeated actions’ definition of bullying help and support? Only the child doing the abusing (except not in the long run, as being indulged in your abuse of others is incredibly dangerous to all of us, no matter what our age). In my view the important and crucial part of defining bullying is ‘intent to harm’. This is where bullying links in with the adult abusive mindset. Both abusers and bullies are driven by a desire to cause intentional harm to others in order to have some need or want of theirs met.
The great thing is what with kids we can (most of the time) undo the toxic programming they have received from their abusive parent. Of course there will be children who will bully who have not grown up with an abusive parent as well, and children will bully for a variety of reasons but bullying can be handled the same way regardless of why the child is bullying. The important thing is that they are not able to get away with it, that it is recognised for what it is and action is taken to stop it and support the victim. That cannot happen until we re-define what we consider bullying to be. We should be putting the victim’s needs at the centre and calling any act with intent to harm what it is – Bullying.