A Theoretical Commentary of Parent Abuse and Intersibling Violence From Both Neurobiological and Social Perspectives

Matthew Dahlitz



Hidden behind closed doors is a disturbing behavioural trend that has gone largely unreported in mainstream mental health: parent abuse and intersibling violence. This article outlines the problem from the few studies that have been conducted and calls for greater attention to the issue.

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Key Issues

Among those in the driver’s seat of domestic violence (DV) are the relatively poorly researched subgroup of child perpetrators. Abuse of parents by their children, also known as child-to-parent violence (CPV), has garnered little in the way of public awareness, and little research exists to guide intervention or support in CPV cases (Bobic, 2004; Cottrell, 2001; Kennair & Mellor, 2007). Similarly, acts of violence between siblings, known as intersibling violence (ISV), are poorly researched, helped by neither consensus on definition nor consistency across data collection methods (Kominkiewicz, 2004; Renzetti & Edleson, 2008; Wilson, 2005). Yet the few studies that have investigated child-initiated violence indicate such actions make up a significant subset of domestic violence (Agnew & Huguley, 1989; Calvete, Orue, & Gamez-Guadix, 2013; Evans & Warren-Sohlberg, 1988; Livingston, 1986; Peek, Fischer, & Kidwell, 1985) without the scientific or clinical focus it deserves. Studies from the USA, Canada and Spain indicate the prevalence of CPV to be in the region of 5–13% (Calvete, Orue, & Gamez-Guadix, 2013) and ISV to be as high as 60–95% (Renzetti & Edleson, 2008), making the latter possibly the most common form of DV (Hoffman, 2005). Child-to-mother violence may be a significant part of the CPV picture, yet it receives little attention (Edenborough, Jackson, Mannix, & Wilkes, 2008), perhaps due to a propensity for “mother blaming” in society (Jackson & Mannix, 2004; Koniak-Griffin, Logsdon, Hines-Martin, & Turner, 2006) or underreporting by shamed and guilt-ridden parents (Kennair & Mellor, 2007). Adding complication to the sparseness of literature on child perpetrators are the widely varying cultural definitions and attitudes toward violent children in the domestic setting (Caspi, 2011) as well as limitations on access to information concerning minors (Cottrell, 2001).

We are thus confronted with the issue of low recognition of the CPV/ISV problem, compounded by social norms and media misrepresentation that result in a lack of consistent social responsiveness (including solid research), leaving clinicians without the knowledge, skills and awareness for effective intervention (Bobic, 2002; Caffaro & Caffaro, 2005; Kominkiewisz, 2004; McGrath, Cumming, Burchard, Zeoli, & Ellerby, 2009; Stein & Nofziger, 2008).

A second, very important issue surrounding CPV/ISV is that of consequences and outcomes of such violence. As well as being devastating for victims and the family, outcomes can perpetuate cyclical patterns of DV. CPV can lead to physical trauma (Cottrell & Monk, 2004) as well as anxiety, depression, fear, shame, hopelessness, despair, and other forces that destabilise individuals and the family system (Holt, 2013; Kennair & Mellor, 2007), and even go beyond to social consequences such as isolation (Routt & Anderson, 2007), strained extra-familial relationships (Kennair & Mellor, 2007), and difficulties establishing new relationships (Holt, 2013). Similarly ISV can result in negative psychological, emotional and social consequences (Barnett, Miller-Perrin, & Perrin, 2011; Button & Gealt, 2010; Kiselica & Morrill-Richards, 2007) with the added negative outcomes associated with sexual abuse (Barnett, Miller-Perrin, & Perrin, 2011).

To summarise these key issues, it seems CPV/ISV may be the most common form of DV, with highly negative consequences to individuals, families and society Yet it is poorly recognised and researched, lacking a clear theoretical framework that may inform interventions.



An Issue of the Heart

Issue of the Heart special cover2Hard copy book now available from Amazon.com:
The Neuropsychotherapist Special Issues are anthologies of articles that have been published in the monthly magazine The Neuropsychotherapist.

This special issue is all about the heart... A wonder of complexity is the human being—something that continues to be a source of fascination and frustration for those of us who have set ourselves to understand human behaviour. This special issue focuses on the heart, an organ with a profound influence over our mental lives.

We are all familiar with the heart in its classical biological role as pump circulating vital oxygenated blood through the body. But how many are versed in its neural and bioelectromagnetic influence upon our brains? Research has revealed the heart even radiates an influence on those around us via electromgnetic fields. In the past such claims might have been dismissed as mere New Age fancy, but with ever more sophisticated and sensitive instruments, formal studies in recent years have demonstrated that our bodies have amazing multidimensional fields of awareness and influence. These findings about the heart continue to add weight to the argument that in the counselling room it is the therapist’s unconditional positive regard, warmth, and personal coherence more than any technique that make for effective therapy. It makes one wonder what the focus of training should be for new therapists—will courses become more focused on students developing personal coherence, practising attitudes of genuine care and compassion, and understanding what they are radiating to clients from their hearts?

Neuropsychotherapy, and the multidisciplinary integration that it stands for, is part of an important paradigm shift in medicine. Likewise, the focus on matters heart–brain in this issue reflects an important shift of understanding in the broader field of health. The study of any one bodily system—even the central nervous system in the case of psychologists—leaves us in the dark on many levels for many phenomena. It is our hope that you will come to appreciate the wonderful, so often implicit influence the heart has on our emotions and relationships, and that we will become more conscious of being authentic and coherent—for our clients and also for ourselves.


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