Child-to-parent violence most common issue among parents ringing helpline

Changing nature of parenting is reflected in 40 years of calls to Parentline

In the early days of the confidential listening service Parentline, it wasn't uncommon for volunteers to hear from worried parents who didn't know where their teenagers were and who had been out searching the parks and streets for them.

Forty years and one pandemic later, parents of teenagers are ringing because they know exactly where they are – in their bedrooms, on their devices. Their problem now is how to get them out of there, rather than back in there.

Challenges of parenthood are coloured by the times we live in, but the one constant is worry about offspring's wellbeing. Raising children may be a natural cycle of life, but that doesn't mean it's easy, which is where the proverbial "village" comes into play. "Most of us get by because our parents get by," says Sylda Langford, a co-founder in 1982 of Parentline, which this Thursday (May 19th) is celebrating its 40th anniversary. If parents run into trouble, it's more likely their children will too.

She was one of the first generation of social workers employed by the State for child protection in the 1970s. Before that, it would be an ISPCC inspector, colloquially known as "the cruelty man", who made representations to the court for a child to be taken from their parents.


As we saw it, parents had no advocates and they had nobody to help them

Working for the then Eastern Health Board, “our job basically was trying to provide a service for children at risk, which very often involved taking children into care”, says Langford. But she and colleagues firmly believed the child’s best advocates in life were parents, yet there were no services to support people in their parenting.

It was also a time of great economic and social change in Ireland. New parents were isolated in rapidly developing city suburbs, cut off from their support network and extended family. “As we saw it, parents had no advocates and they had nobody to help them.”

Yes, social workers were available to offer support, but, because they were also the people who might take a child away, parents often regarded them as a threat. “Social workers don’t rear children, they just pick up the pieces. So helping parents is the best way to help the children.”

They had the idea of setting up a service where a parent could seek help anonymously. Knowing it had to be independent of State involvement, Langford and her colleagues looked for volunteers they could train, all in their spare time.

Public health nurses also joined forces to establish peer support groups, which were the forerunner of a telephone helpline that was initially called Parents Under Stress. “It took us ages and ages to work out criteria, standards and safeguarding and, eventually, when we did start, the only phones we had were our own phones at home,” Langford recalls. “I can remember screaming at home, ‘nobody is to go near that phone for the next few hours because I’m on duty’.”

Talking about a problem makes you strong because you are getting it out and taking control over it, rather than it controlling you

When Sr Catherine of the Pro-Cathedral parish offered a room in Marlborough Street, it became the organisation’s first address with its own office phone. In April 1990, the volunteers moved to a newly established charities centre in Carmichael House, Dublin 7, and the organisation was rebranded as Parentline three years later.

The ethos right from the beginning, which continues to this day, was that volunteers were at the other end of the line as listeners not fixers. “It was a bit like the Samaritans, but focused on parenthood under stress,” says Langford. Just talking about a problem makes you strong “because you are getting it out and taking control over it, rather than it controlling you. If you put it out there, you can look at it. It’s talking therapy really.”

Calls from distressed parents in fear of their own children were a revelation, as that “would not have been something that was on our radar. If my memory serves me correct, it was quite a serious problem,” she says.

Decades later, child-to-parent violence is the most common issue among parents ringing the helpline. Some 42 per cent of the 6,000-plus calls handled by volunteers last year related to anger and aggression from children directed at their parents.

“Child to parent violence covers a multitude of behaviour including anger, aggression, physical abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, damage to property, school refusal, and manipulation and controlling behaviours,” says Aileen Hickie, who became chief executive in January 2020. “But at its essence it leaves parents fearful of their own child.

“It is the unspoken side of domestic violence and most parents dealing with this behaviour hide it from their wider family, both in an effort to protect their child from scrutiny and because of a sense of shame that this is happening in their own home and being perpetrated by their child who they love unconditionally.”

The NVR programme aims to help parents stop recurring patterns of behaviour escalating into violence

Hickie’s predecessor, Rita O’Reilly, who retired in 2019, introduced training for volunteers in the evidence-based Non Violent Resistance (NVR) programme to support parents. To meet increasing demand, 29 of Parentline’s 50 volunteers are now trained to deliver NVR programmes.

One of those NVR volunteers is Terence, a father of four and retired primary school teacher, who joined Parentline nearly five years ago and is on the board. The NVR programme aims to help parents stop recurring patterns of behaviour escalating into violence. It involves a weekly, one-on-one, one-hour remote session over eight weeks.

In NVR nobody has answers, he says, “it is an approach rather than a recipe”. All the parents can do is influence the child and their behaviour; it’s not about control or punishment. “It is changing something, that changes something for the better, and rebuilding a relationship,” he says. While “there is hard work to do to”, the message of NVR is that it is not the parents’ fault.

An essential part is to build a support network around the family, “in a way that is not meant to gang up on the child, but [convey] the sense that we’re all part of a community and this is something that should not be happening and that there are people who care about us wanting to help. The ‘village’ again.”

Through doing NVR, “I think what most parents find is they get back a sense of authority within their home. That they don’t feel powerless to stop stuff happening.”

The conflict may be a symptom of a struggling child, for whom their parent is “the one relationship you can push to the limit and they don’t walk away”, he points out. “If you treat your friends like that or tell your football coach where to go, they say ‘don’t come back’.”

What has surprised him is the proportion of young teenage girls involved in the child-parent violence but it is a very difficult time of life for girls, he acknowledges. Sometimes it helps parents to realise they are not the victim and their teenager is going through a tough time.

Terence suggests that, apart from the comfort of anonymity, there are two distinct differences between using this listening service versus a friend as a sounding board.

“Nobody has to take away my problems because they give me their problems. You’re an ear and you’re a support. Whereas often time if you tell your friend your problems, you have to walk away with theirs.”

Friends also tend to offer “solutions”, with the implied criticism that you have been doing things wrong. “Whereas hopefully we don’t make any parent feel like that. It’s about looking at something they have control over, which they could change to positive effect,” he adds.

There is an expanding waiting list for NVR programmes as other organisations refer parents, says Parentline chairwoman Michele Ridgway. She believes child-parent aggression and violence is a long-standing problem but people are now more prepared to seek help.

“In fairness to most parents, they are doing the right thing but they have lost confidence along the way, so it’s a lot of reinforcement. Getting them back to parenting and not being bullied.”

NVR aside, Parentline’s other USP, she says, is that “we are a helpline that specialises in nothing except parents and families. If somebody has ADHD, they might look for the ADHD helpline, or dyspraxia, a dyspraxia helpline. But if somebody is having a particularly bad day, week, life, whatever, they can ring us and we can help.”

Covid played into what we do because parents were so stressed. Our calls were hugely increased, and more and more it was obvious that it was due to being stuck at home

At a board meeting, held coincidentally about a week before the first lockdown for Covid-19, she recalls how one member suggested to Hickie that she might check how the helplines could operate if they had to go remote, which she did right away. So after Leo Varadkar made the announcement in March 2020, "we were able to transfer immediately, we didn't even miss a day", says Ridgway and many volunteers continue to operate from home two years later.

“Covid played into what we do because parents were so stressed. Our calls were hugely increased, and more and more it was obvious that it was due to being stuck at home. It wasn’t good for anybody’s mental health.”

Ridgway has no doubt that Parentline provides a valuable service and “it’s a testament to the people who set it up that it’s still going after 40 years”.

Langford is delighted that the fledgling organisation she was involved in survived and evolved to meet changing needs, while continuing to attract volunteers and maintain a very high standard of training and quality. “It is great credit to the people who took the baton from us and kept it going.”

She left social work in 1985, to join the Ombudsman’s office as an investigator, “and by doing so became a civil servant without really realising it”. She went on to have a distinguished and influential career in public service, retiring in 2010 as director general of the office of the Minister for Children.

As a social worker, she was always astonished at the resilience of parents, especially of single parents. “I had four children myself and, with everything going for you, you just about survive. I was always amazed how people managed to cope when children were sick and with financial problems and housing problems.”

After her own husband died suddenly 23 years ago, when their four children were still teenagers, she took strength from knowing that other widows had come through in much worse circumstances. “At least I was financially secure. It was the comfort I gave myself – how do people, when they are not financially secure, cope with all this? I thought so often, how do they survive?”

Today, as a happy-sounding, active grandmother of five, and living in Templeogue, she is once again observing the raising of another generation. “I am seeing all the same challenges,” she laughs. “Nothing changes.”

Neither, it seems, does the need for Parentline's listening service after 40 years. (Helplines at Parentline are open Monday-Thursday, 10am-9pm and Friday 10am-4pm, on 01 8733 500.)

Parenting difficulties go ‘right across the board, all social classes’

The essence of parenthood remains the same but economic and social change is reflected in the nature of calls to Parentline over the past 40 years.

At the outset, “the landscape was totally different and there was a lot more poverty”, says co-founder Sylda Langford. Although a heroin epidemic was gathering pace in Dublin, her memory is that drug use was not so widespread. “In that sense, it was less complicated.”

Nora, who has been a volunteer for the past 30 years, remembers drugs being a big issue in the 1990s. More men calling in recent years is a definite trend that she has noticed.

She welcomes how discussion around parenting has opened up and she believes society is more inclusive of family life now.

Parenting difficulties go “right across the board, all social classes”, she points out. “Everybody has their challenges and everybody just wants to do the best they can for their kids. Being wealthy and privileged doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.

“There are some people who take to it naturally and some who don’t. We are there for the people who just want to pick up the phone and talk.”

Nora has four adult children and it was after the birth of her second baby, who was premature, that she joined Parentline. Having experienced the struggles of new motherhood, she wanted to give back to others, she says, after seeing an advertisement for volunteers. “I have got an awful lot from being with Parentline,” she adds, as advice from fellow volunteers was invaluable while she was raising her own family.

When former chief executive Rita O’Reilly became the organisation’s first paid (part-time) employee in 2001, it was midway through the Celtic Tiger years.

Parents who had grown up in very different times were struggling with children who had a sense of entitlement from the culture of excess all around them.

There were a lot of calls about teenagers’ social lives, Leaving Cert holidays and how the social networking site Bebo was causing headaches in households, she recalls.

Parentline had become the national post-natal depression helpline at the beginning of the new millennium, so supporting new mothers was another focus of their work. As one volunteer observed to O’Reilly, there was a new generation of high-flying women who found that in motherhood they were dealing with something that didn’t work according to plans, strategies and diaries.

I don't know what it is about new parents now, but they have what seems like a spreadsheet of things they are supposed to be doing

As O'Reilly became aware of a spike in calls from parents suffering from the violent behaviour of teenagers and adult children, she collaborated with family therapist Declan Coogan to bring in the Non Violent Resistance (NVR) programme that he had developed, based on the work of psychologist Haim Omer in Israel.

Trends noted by Parentline chairwoman Michele Ridgway include “a lot of added stress if you’re trying to keep up with the latest parenting book or the latest ‘influencer’. I think that adds an awful lot of pressure, especially if you think you are doing it all wrong.”

She sometimes hears from new fathers, worried that their partner seems miserable at home with their new baby. “You draw out more on that and, I don’t know what it is about new parents now, but they have what seems like a spreadsheet of things they are supposed to be doing,” she remarks, from daily bathing of the baby onwards.

Ridgway is listening, thinking, “well, throw that to-do-list out for starters… and maybe let your wife have a bath herself while you hold the baby”. As the mother of a 28-year-old daughter, she, like most of the volunteers, has experienced all stages of child-rearing, so “it is nice to be able to go ‘you don’t actually have to keep to every rule…’,” she says.

Rows over limiting screen time is something she hears all the time. She has also noticed school refusal cropping up much more frequently, which she believes has a lot to do with school closures during Covid.

“If your 15 or 16 year old stands up to you and says no they’re not going, there’s not a lot you can do if persuasion doesn’t work. So it is a difficult situation for a lot of families.”