My Child - My Abuser
Abused by our grown-up children: mothers open up about this little-understood form of domestic violence
Broken arms … I had a badly damaged jaw, strangled …
Lizzy* picked me up at her local train station and drove me to the lounge of her favourite hotel, where for more than four hours we sat in a discreet corner while she told me her story. Andy, the person responsible for her broken arms and badly damaged jaw, was her 28-year-old son.
When we met in 2018, Andy had recently been given a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to serious assault. He had returned to live with Lizzy following his conviction and “nothing had changed”. The abuse carried on. But despite this Lizzie, now in her late 60s, refused to give up on him.
I’m not giving up. And it’s not just because of Andy, it’s actually because I feel I’ve been let down. I really, really do.
Lizzy was the first interview participant in my doctoral research project, which started in September 2018. It was the first study of its kind in England and Wales which specifically investigated the abuse of parents – particularly mothers – by adult children. This is known as filial abuse.
I was interested in how mothers articulated the experiences of such abuse in its various forms and manifestations. I wanted to understand their journeys, how they sought help, and what barriers they faced in doing so.
Since my research started, there have been some high-profile cases in the media, drawing attention to the problem in its most extreme form: adult children (often sons) killing their parents (often mothers). This was the case in Plymouth in August 2021 when gunman Jake Davison shot and killed his mother and four other people before going on to take his own life. Had Davison not gone on to kill more people, his mother’s death would probably not have attracted the attention it did.
Away from these terrible headlines, the problem itself remains hidden and little-understood, with scant data to help us figure out just how bad it is.
I began my career in London as an Independent Domestic Violence Advisor in 2009. I supported victims of domestic abuse who were deemed to be at “high risk” of harm. Mary was one of the few people I talked to who had experienced abuse from their adult children – and was one of my longest running “cases” (I always disliked that word). I kept her file open for as long as I was able to, at times against advice from managers. The service I worked for focused on crisis intervention and risk reduction, aiming not to keep cases any longer than six months, unless there were ongoing criminal proceedings.
The domestic abuse and refuge movement was instrumental in spearheading change. Over time, different multi-agency structures and risk assessment tools have been developed in England and Wales to respond more effectively to domestic abuse. Yet, they all had their origins in an understanding of domestic abuse as something that is committed against a woman by their male partner.
And while, recently, there has been more attention on the problem of abuse against parents carried out by children – especially during lockdown – this focus has been on adolescents and younger children. As a result, the experiences of parents of adult children have remained largely unexplored. That’s why I decided to research the problem myself.
Mercy bleakly anticipated her future with some dark humour, saying, “Well, got elder abuse to look forward to, you know! I mean, I’m confidently expecting that one.”
Mercy’s stark statement highlighted a crucial fact: although my research project set out to focus on “adult children”, for most mothers the lines separating the child, the adolescent and the adult were blurred – as were the lines separating their care-giving and their suffering.
Indeed, quite often mothers’ stories embodied this overwhelming sense of weary endlessness. Clara, 53, is one such example. Our talk was marked by halting speech, long stretches of silence and conversational dead ends. Clara herself often remarked that she could not remember specific details and that “it all melts into one”. Her daughter, Frida, who was in her 20s, was regularly verbally abusive and physically aggressive. At times, this played out as “terrible meltdowns” and wanton destruction of the home. Clara said she would be “breaking stuff, slamming doors, pulling doors off hinges … just smashing mirrors, anything, anything at all … I’ve sort of given up because she smashes and breaks everything”.
And yet, while they were on the receiving end of these appalling acts of aggression, Clara and other mothers continued to be called on to care for their children due to their financial dependency, mental health difficulties or substance use issues. I was reminded of Mary’s experience of providing ongoing financial support to her son, who abused her support by stealing from her and even starving her.
‘Stuck in that impossible place’
These accounts of “everyday misery”, exacerbated by their maternal caring burden, were suffused with a strong sense of impasse.
When a point of no return is reached, some mothers are left with an intense experience of bereavement and loss. This was the case with a woman I met who I’m calling Joan. Following an incident during which she was seriously assaulted by her 39-year-old son, Michael, Joan made a statement to the police and obtained a non-molestation order against him.
When we met for the interview, Joan had been estranged from Michael for two years. Joan, now in her late 60s, told me when she last saw him by chance in the street a year later, she was “literally shaking” and “absolutely terrified”. She was barely able to contain her emotions as she described her coping process:
I can’t go into his bedroom. I can’t … it’s, it’s just too much for me. At the moment I’ve got to [voice breaking], I’ve got to think that he’s … dead rather than he’s alive. I know that he’s alive, but there’s nothing I can do about it [crying] … I said to my [youngest] just before Christmas … I have to think, um, Michael’s not with me anymore … like Michael’s dead … so that I won’t start worrying about him … It’s an awful thing to say … but it’s the only way I can do it, you know, to, to survive.
Joan expressed how the ambiguity of her loss had complicated her mourning. She avoided going into Michael’s room, like a mother keeping the room of her deceased child intact – except that Michael was, of course, still alive.
I remember feeling an intense sadness listening to Joan. Objectively, she was one of the few “success” stories: she had called the police, had gone to court, had obtained an order preventing her son from contacting her or coming back to the home. She was now safe and had not heard from him. She was doing nice things for herself, at last.
But her success had come at a tremendous cost. She had to consider her son dead. She had to resign herself to the fact that she could not see him again, at least not for the foreseeable future, and that by thinking of him as dead rather than alive she could stop worrying about him as his mother. It was the only way for her to survive.
I know it sounds awful to say that he’s dead but he can’t come near me because I … I’m too scared of him … absolutely terrified of him. I think if it was another person, I wouldn’t be as frightened.
Joan was my eighth interview participant. If Lizzy had helped trigger a key lightbulb moment of my research with her image of the mother-fighter who would never give up, Joan triggered another one. Like a puzzle coming together, the final picture that emerged was one of permanent loss, of a no-win situation: either the mother gets on with her “everyday misery” or she cuts the cord – that unique, physical, visceral bond between mother and child.
To make matters worse, Kate often felt dismissed as a “silly middle-aged woman” by health professionals from whom she sought help repeatedly in relation to Ivy. Once, when she tried calling children’s social care for advice, but was told by the person on the phone: “You’re a mother, do your job”.
Kate spoke passionately about the need for “society to deal with the root cause”. Indeed, the collective story of all these mothers is filled with echoes of male violence against women and other manifestations of male privilege, gendered inequalities and institutionalised sexism and misogyny.
In other words, although Kate’s story revolves around her daughter’s abusive behaviour towards her, this abuse did not take place in a vacuum, but within a wider context of male violence against women and children. The mothers’ burden is exacerbated by gendered expectations around caring and parenting and by a systemic response which treats them as a default safety net for their children.
Until this wider context is fully acknowledged, the response to the abuse will remain disconnected from the root cause and the abuse itself will continue to be hidden and poorly understood.
*All names have been changed to protect the anonymity of the participants.
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