Recognising child and adolescent to parent violence and abuse

Published: 21/02/2023

Author: Helen Bonnick

Child and adolescent to parent violence and abuse (CAPVA) has been in the news, but surprisingly only been the focus of serious academic study for the last ten to fifteen years.

In that time we have seen the development of specialised responses - in some cases working with the whole family and in others, with just the parents – dotted around the country.

What is CAPVA?

There is no official definition, but the term CAPVA (and other similar phrases) describes the harmful behaviours used by children and young people towards anyone caring for them in a parental role.

These behaviours can be physical, psychological, financial or even sexual, and include coercive controlling behaviours. They may come from a place of fear and anxiety, from emotional overwhelm, as a response to abuse, or as a direct attempt to control the environment.

Common situations include the experience of domestic abuse, early trauma, mental health issues, and outside risks such as sexual and criminal exploitation, meaning that some cohorts may be over-represented in the figures. This is more than a response to a parenting issue, and traditional parenting support may actually serve to increase the levels of risk.

Agencies are working with children as young as four whose behaviour is such that parents are fearful for their safety and are having to adjust the way they live.

Once young people reach the age of 16 they fall within Domestic Abuse legislation, however the services working with adult perpetrators are often not trained or equipped to understand the very different needs of this group of people. We see that the abuse of older people by their adult children has many similar features to the younger cohort, and these families are similarly being left behind in the development of responses.

Finding support

It is thought that CAPVA may affect as many as one in ten families, however there is no comprehensive data collection system. Despite the significant impact on family members, including poor physical and mental health, breakdown in relationships, isolation, loss of income and housing; there is still no clear sense of overall responsibility by any department or profession. This means that parents find it difficult to locate support.

Siloed thinking can mean that the risks to family members are sometimes not understood, leading to a significant proportion of parricides among the annual femicide statistics.

Working together

A group of academics, practitioners and policy leads meets regularly to promote greater understanding of the issues involved and to work towards the establishment of a coordinated response which recognises the wide-ranging issues and the needs of the whole family.

We are aware that social work academics often include CAPVA on training courses – but there remain professionals who lag behind in their conceptualisation and understanding. This is something that social workers come across on a day-to-day basis and so it is vital that awareness of CAPVA is included in training and in risk assessment, as well as being incorporated into family work.

More information about CAPVA can be found on the website Holes in the Wall. This acts as an international knowledge and resource hub for all things CAPVA, bringing news as well as information about training events and a Directory of Services.

You will also find links to a Practitioner’s Guide and Briefing Papers, which are designed to give an accessible and easily digestible overview of this important issue. We would be delighted to offer a presentation about CAPVA at one of your events, and welcome enquiries for more information. 

We would welcome greater representation from social care as we work together to support families to live safer and healthier lives.

Helen Bonnick

Helen Bonnick is a social worker with over 30 years of experience in the field of family work, at both practitioner and supervisory levels, based first within local authority social services teams.