A New Kind of Violence Erupts Inside the Home: Parents Beaten by Their Own Angry Kids

updated 11/17/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/17/1980 01:00AM

Enraged by a spanking, an 11-year-old shoves his mother against a doorjamb, fracturing her back. When she falls, he kicks her in the face. An isolated occurrence ? Not at all, warns Henry Harbin, 33, a psychiatrist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore. "Someone you know could easily be in such a situation." Harbin and Denis Madden, 40, a psychologist and Roman Catholic priest, are co-authors of "Battered Parents: A New Syndrome," an article published last year in The American Journal of Psychiatry. This pioneering study, based on two years' research among 35 troubled Baltimore families, examines a social disorder largely unrecognized because the victims are too embarrassed to complain. Harbin discussed parent-battering with Karen Peterson of PEOPLE.

What form does this violence take?

Usually slapping or slugging. But one 16-year-old nearly killed his father by shoving him down the stairs. A 15-year-old stabbed his sleeping mother a half inch from her heart. And a 17-year-old who often beat his parents would first take a Spanish sword from the wall, tear up the place with it and then threaten to kill them.

How did you discover these cases ?

Dr. Madden and I have been studying adolescent aggression and incidentally learned of teenagers who had threatened or attacked their parents. There was no literature on the subject. So through private practice and referrals, we started tracking further cases among adolescents hospitalized with emotional disorders.

How widespread is parent-battering?

About 1.5 million parents in the U.S. have been physically harmed by their teenagers, according to our colleague Dr. Richard Gelles at the University of Rhode Island. That amounts to nearly one family in every 20 with children of that age. The syndrome has come to light partly because what once were family secrets have now gone public. Courts and community agencies are examining domestic problems more and more.

Are the batterers male ?

Usually, but the syndrome cuts across sexual, economic, social and racial boundaries. An upper-middle-class 17-year-old girl, an outstanding student, twice tried to kill her parents by arson. The mother is the victim in 60 percent of the cases.

What is the profile of a parent-batterer?

Our study included virtually no psychotics or alcohol or drug addicts, but 25 percent had had brushes with the law. Most were teenagers, though one was a 10-year-old. Few had been abused as children. They all lived with their parents. Frequently they victimized other family members as well.

Were a disproportionate number of these kids from single-parent homes ?

Only one-fifth. One 19-year-old often sent his widowed mother to the emergency room by punching her in the ribs.

Why can't parents deal with the problem?

They typically refuse to acknowledge the violence even to themselves, or they say, "The kid was upset and won't do it again." Admitting you've raised a violent child isn't good for your self-image. In therapy, the parents of the 11-year-old who fractured his mother's back claimed they could not describe their son's behavior as either right or wrong. The mother of the 15-year-old who stabbed her in her sleep tried to remove him from psychiatric treatment after two weeks.

Aren't these parents frightened?

Of course. But they're even more afraid of owning up to failure and guilt, despite their anxiety about what might happen next. You end up with a family conspiracy of silence, and the kid gets away with violence.

Ho w do the battered parents cope?

They adapt in the extreme. They don't use discipline for fear of setting the kid off. They turn inward, isolating themselves from outsiders. One teenager so dominated his parents he could successfully call from his bedroom for them to shut up or else.

What did the parents in your study have in common?

A number of them had some form of illness—alcoholism or mental problems, for example—and they felt additional guilt about their own struggles. Also there was usually a rift between the parents, with the adolescent sometimes acting as a pawn in the power struggle. One 16-year-old's mother listened delightedly whenever her son beat up her husband. "I was glad that bum was getting it," she told a therapist.

Does society help foster the syndrome ?

The lines of family authority are changing, with parents unsure whether to be bosses or buddies. When neither father nor mother rules effectively, the adolescent is virtually in charge. Some adolescents are seeking to replace an ineffective parent.

What is your advice to battered parents?

First, face the problem. Give up the myth of family harmony and get help. If violence is already a pattern, call the police when needed. Maybe hospitalize the child while you recover your self-confidence and authority. Remember, the whole family has to pick up the pieces together. ?

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