ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Victims of domestic violence are told to seek help, but what do you do if the abuse is coming from your own child? Christine Herman of member station WILL brings us the story of a family in central Illinois wrestling with how to handle their son's aggression.
CHRISTINE HERMAN, BYLINE: Jenn and Jason's kids have just gotten home from school. Their 15-year-old son ruffles through a stack of papers on the dining room table. He wants to show me some of his latest drawings.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is a robot with a cape holding a lightsaber. This is just some random goth kid I drew. Some of my pictures are gory. Sorry.
HERMAN: The teenager and his sister, who's 12, talk through their weekend plans - maybe play outside or go see a movie. We're not using the kids names because of the sensitive nature of their family's situation. On the surface, the four of them seem like just a typical, happy family. While the kids play upstairs, I sit with Jenn and Jason, who tell me their blond-haired, blue-eyed son is smart, funny and usually pretty kind. But from a very young age, even the littlest things would completely set him off.
JENN: We were getting calls from, like, the preschool with him having meltdowns that included, like, hitting and kicking and biting.
JASON: His dresser would be pushed across to the other side of the room. His bed would be flipped up on the side - you know, so, I mean, very violent.
HERMAN: Jenn and Jason began fostering the siblings when they were very little and eventually adopted both children. Jenn says the kids had been living in an unstable situation involving drugs and domestic violence. Jenn says her son remembers being beaten by men in his first home and watching as his biological mom would cut herself.
That early life trauma could explain why he has always struggled with impulse control and regulating his own emotions. Jenn and Jason started their son in therapy at a young age. His diagnoses include reactive attachment disorder, PTSD and autism. But his anger remained unpredictable. Earlier this year, he was using vulgar language at home, and Jason told him it was offensive.
JASON: For some reason, that just amped him up real fast.
JENN: He was hitting the basement door like he was trying to break it. He was kicking the wall. He then at that time took the C.D. and was going to break it and - to try to stab us.
HERMAN: Jenn says she's especially worried since her son is now six feet tall and directs much of his anger toward her.
JENN: The way he will look at me is just - evil is all I can describe it as. And he's threatened to slap me in the face. He's called me all sorts of horrible names. After an incident like that, it's hard to go to sleep thinking that - is he going to come in and attack us while we're sleeping?
HERMAN: To cope with the threats, yelling and almost daily standoffs, Jenn sees a therapist.
JENN: It's exhausting. I think we say to each other all the time, like, this is insanity. How can we live like this?
HERMAN: It's hard to know exactly how common Jenn and Jason's experience is since research is sparse. One study found about one in 10 U.S. families experienced at least one incident of a child acting violently toward a parent in the past year. About a third of those were severe, ranging from punching, kicking or biting to using a knife or gun. Lily Anderson is a social worker who's worked with hundreds of families in the Seattle area dealing with a violent child.
LILY ANDERSON: Parents will often say that they just feel ashamed about it, and they don't want to tell their friends or their family members. They do feel a lot of self-blame around it. I should be able to handle my child. I should be able to control this behavior.
HERMAN: Anderson says because many of the incidents take place at home, it's hidden, and that makes it even harder for parents to find support. Keri Williams manages a Facebook page for parents living with a violent child. Her son became so violent, they had to place him in a residential facility at age 10.
KERI WILLIAMS: I actually thought I was the only person going through it. I had no idea that this was actually a larger issue than myself.
HERMAN: Williams says people can't imagine a young child can be so violent and dangerous, and she says many parents struggle to accept that they're dealing with a serious domestic violence issue.
WILLIAMS: Because you just don't want to think like that, and that denial actually is what keeps parents from getting their kids help.
HERMAN: Back in Illinois, Jenn says parenting her son, who's now 15, sometimes feels like being stuck in an abusive relationship. But despite all the challenges, she and Jason don't regret adopting their son.
JENN: I think it's brought us a ton of joy, and a lot of great things have come from it. It's made me a better, stronger person.
HERMAN: She says she just wishes there were more effective treatments.
JENN: I feel like we're doing everything that we can for him, but it just seems like it's not enough.
HERMAN: Jenn says they've been wrestling with whether to send their son to live at a facility for children with severe behavioral health issues. It's a tough call. They want to keep their family together, but they're also worried about their 12-year-old daughter, who has witnessed a lot of violence. She joins us on the couch, scrunched between her parents, and she tells me she has mixed feelings about sending her brother away.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Well, it makes me feel happy and sad because, well, I love my brother, and I know he'll be getting the help he needs.
HERMAN: But she'll also miss him.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Because I just love him and I don't want to see him go through that.
HERMAN: Jenn says there needs to be more research on how to really help kids like her son and more places where traumatized parents can turn to find help. For NPR News, I'm Christine Herman in Illinois.
SHAPIRO: And after Christine reported this story, Jenn and Jason did decide to send their son to a residential facility. This story comes from NPR's reporting partnership with Side Effects Public Media and Kaiser Health News.
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