SPECIAL REPORT: 'I'm petrified of my violent child'
'I have lived through feeling petrified of my son - I was scared to even start a conversation with him for five years.'
Words flow from Sarah Stephenson*, tears pricking her eyes as she shares her heartbreaking experiences.
Her story is harrowing but one which she tells as the founder of Everybody Hurts, a Chesterfield volunteer-run support group for those on the receiving end of child to parent abuse.
Sarah is a lone parent who has been divorced from her children’s father for eight years. She is raising 16-year-old twins who have Asperger syndrome, a form of autism which makes relationships and communication difficult.
The condition wasn’t diagnosed until Daniel* was 13 and Olivia* was 15, after he was violent towards family members and she had mood swings of screaming and sobbing.
Sarah said: “Looking back there were so many telltale signs with Daniel. He was always different from other children. He didn’t understand the rules of play. I remember several times having to go to school when children were playing catch. He didn’t know what to do with the child when he caught them, he would swing them around by the hood or have his hands around their throat.
“He was a difficult child. I took him to the Child and Mental Health Services when he was seven and they told me he was a normal boy with anger problems.”
A year later, Daniel turned violent towards his twin. Sarah said: “He hit his sister’s face into the side of the bath and broke her front tooth” .
At the age of 11 he started throwing things. “He would use anything to hand as a weapon,” said Sarah. “We didn’t have a remote or a phone that wasn’t held together with black tape as that was what he would throw at you.”
The aggression intensified when Daniel moved up to senior school. Sarah said: “Every morning when I was trying to get him up for school, he would kick and punch me - he once punched me six times until my arm started to go numb.
“The main difficulty is that he refuses to attend school because of general anxiety - his attendance is now around 30 percent. I’m trying to get him into an autism specialist school which is independent.”
The most shocking incident - and one which still traumatises Sarah- happened when the twins were 12. Sarah said: “He chased his sister upstairs with a carving knife; she managed to get into her bedroom and push the bed against the door to stop him coming in. She could feel him hammering, stabbing and slashing at the door. I got a phone call at work to say I needed to get home because my son had run amok with a carving knife.”
Three months later, Daniel hit his gran on the arm with a Wii Fit board, attacked her with his belt, grabbed the phone as she tried to call for help and smashed it against a wall and threatened her with a knife. By the time police arrived, Daniel was sobbing and rocking and had calmed down.
Sarah said: “The way I saw it he was that he was like the Incredible Hulk. He’d be David Banner walking down the street looking completely normal, something would happen to make him green with anger, then afterwards it was as though he couldn’t remember a thing. I recognise that a lot of it was down to frustration.”
Sarah had to go to hospital after trying to resolve an argument between the twins. She said: “He grabbed me, threw me against a wall, bent my fingers back and hit me in the ribs with the block on the end of a computer power cable. I sunk to the floor sobbing.”
Sarah’s frustration at the lack of parent support groups spurred her into action.
Three years ago she launched Everybody Hurts for victims of child to parent abuse, which is believed to be the first of its kind in the country.
The award-winning organisation gives its 50 members a chance to talk through their problems with fellow parents and find out where they can get professional help.
Linda Stevens, a counsellor and treasurer of the group, said: “It’s a lifeline for people to just know that we’re there, to know that we’re on the end of the phone and that they’re not alone.”
Sarah said: “It’s open to people in Derbyshire who are living with, or experienced, child to parent abuse.
“All we need is a first name, a phone number or an email address.
“There is no cost, no admission or membership fee, no charge for tea of coffee. These people live with enough barriers as it is.
“We’re not here to offer solutions as such, just a listening ear which can often be the start of the parent opening up to others, and helping them to access whatever counselling or other support that can help them to get stronger. Hopefully strong enough to survive living with their abuser.
Let’s not forget the young person who is being violent. They are likely to be feeling just as lost and frightened as anybody else in the family.”
Everybody Hurts has been honoured for its support of parents, receiving awards from Foundation Derbyshire and Chesterfield Volunteer Centre last year.
The group, which meets once a month on Monday mornings in Bolsover Library and Tuesday mornings in Staveley Community Fire Station, is expanding into Chesterfield’s Community Centre on Tontine Road and Clay Cross Methodist Church in September.
An online survey by the charity Famiily Lives found that only 56 per cent of parents had sought help for their child’s aggressive behaviour.
An alarming 35 per cent had not sought help because they did not know where to go to find that help.
A further 11 per cent did not seek help because of they felt there was stigma attached to it.
Despite the impact on their family life, 20 per cent of families did not seek help for fear of damaging their child’s life chances and instead suffered in silence trying to manage the behaviour themselves.
Jeremy Todd, chief executive of Family Lives, said: “Over a two year period, of 83,469 contacts made to the charity, 27 per cent of callers were seeking advice regarding their children’s aggressive behaviour.
62 per cent of callers were seeking advice about their child’s verbal aggression and 31 per cent concerned physical aggression.
“Worryingly, 88 per cent of calls concerned a child’s aggressive behaviour within the home environment.
“It’s likely that children act out in the home environment because it feels like a ‘safe place’ and it is not surprising if this potentially leads on to acts of teenage relationship and adult domestic violence in the future.
“Rather than encourage children and young people to lash out verbally and with their fists, we need to help them to find solutions by articulating their feelings and thinking logically about the potential outcomes and impacts on future life opportunities should they commit violent acts.”
Daniel’s physical and emotional attacks have pushed Sarah to the brink. She said: “Three years ago he kept telling me how useless I was, how rubbish I was, that he wished he never had to see me again. The words that were coming out were pure evil.
“I felt so broken, so worthless, I thought I must be the worst mum ever and that I must deserve how he was treating me.
“I had a look at what tablets I had and I was that close to taking them all. I took one sleeping tablet - I was thinking about my daughter.”
Daniel has twice threatened to take his own life, texting a friend about his intention. In March he overdosed on pills prescribed for his stomach upsets. Sarah said: “It was what he had to hand as I had everything else locked away. Fortunately, the tablets didn’t have a very high toxicity. The consultant at the hospital said ‘does he have access to these tablets readily’ …. you could hear the tut-tut.
“The feeling of being blamed, being judged by other people - and always found wanting is awful.”
Daniel has been cutting himself for two years so knives are locked away out of his reach. But he used the blade from a pencil sharpener brought home from school to slash his arms in his last bout of self harming.
Sarah has sought help from the Multi Systemic Therapy Team in Derby to devise coping strategies. She said: “Their sole aim is to work with families where a young person is at risk of going into care or the criminal justice system and the outcome is to keep them in the family.
“They helped me set up several safety plans, one was around the family in general, one was around Daniel’s self harm and one was around support for me.
“They helped me look at what happened immediately before a flare-up, what happened during it and what happened after. We were able to pick up and identify that I could have left the room which would have diffused the situation as Daniel wouldn’t have had an audience.
“For a long time I used to think that I needed to have conversations with him there and then; quite often they would end up erupting and afterwards I would think ‘was it worth forcing this conversation? Now, I will go into his room or send him a text message saying ‘I need to talk to you, can you come out when it’s convenient’?”
The professional advice is working. Sarah said: “In the last couple of months, it’s like a black cloud that has been over us for years is lifting.
“I went to pick Daniel up from a friend’s at the end of February and he said ‘Mum, I want to tell you something - I want to tell you that I love you, I want to thank you for putting up with me, thank you for not giving up on me. For the first time in three or four years, I had a birthday card from him with five kisses on it.
“I will never be back in the position where I fervently believe that my son hates me. I know deep down he does love me.”
* Sarah’s surname and the names of her children have been changed.
For more information, contact Sarah on 07582 175435 or email: everybody [email protected]