Overcoming a child’s or young person’s violent, aggressive, harmful or self-destructive behaviour … with NVR
NVR is a new approach, which has been specifically developed for responding effectively to aggressive, violent, self-destructive and controlling behaviour in children, adolescents and young adults.
NVR is now being successfully used with anxious young people, whose obsessive-compulsive behaviour controls the family, or who isolate themselves socially, have become addicted to the internet, or refuse to go to school. A further area in which the approach is proving very helpful, is working with families in which young adults show ‘entitled dependency’, and young adults with ongoing serious mental health problems.
This website gives you some basic information about NVR, and explains how it can help the family.
Why is my son/my daughter aggressive? Why does he truant and run away from home? Why does she hang out in bad company, put herself at risk of sexual exploitation and take drugs? Why…
You may have been given a variety of different explanations for your child’s behaviour. Professionals in child health or child- and adolescent mental health services, education or social services may have spoken of ‘ADHD’, an ‘autistic spectrum disorder’, an ‘attachment disorder’, or you may have been told that your child has been traumatised. He or she may have been given a diagnosis of ‘conduct disorder’. Your child may have witnessed violence, and you or others may believe that they are modelling their behaviour upon this.
None of this alone explains why a young person acts in aggressive and unmanageable ways. What’s more, many young people become violent, without any of these ‘conditions’ ever being present. It may be tempting to believe that the aggression could be dealt with by tackling an ‘underlying problem’. However, clinical experience and research show that it is important to directly address the aggression or self-destructive behaviour – and to this in very specific ways, with careful, supportive planning.
With very few exceptions, young people who act in defiant, aggressive or violent ways control others around them. Their dismissiveness towards adults, and their rejection of the adults’ attempts to look after their well-being, can make it very difficult for parents, carers or teachers to uphold a caring responsiveness. When the child’s needs are hidden behind an angry face, they are much more difficult to detect. In Non Violent Resistance, parents or carers learn to acquire a position of strength, not giving in to unreasonable or harmful demands by the child, protecting themselves from aggression and violence, yet avoiding the unnecessary, unhelpful and painful battles of the past. “Raising parental presence” becomes the alternative to trying to control an uncontrollable and often out of control child. Feeling empowered and stronger, parents can then use ‘reconciliation work’ to develop a stronger focus on the young person’s needs, and show that they continue to love and care about their child.
There are constitutional differences between individuals. Many young people are not prone to becoming aggressive, no matter what the circumstances may be, while others will become aggressive very easily. Outside circumstances, or a certain developmental phase such as entering puberty, may then lead to a surge in aggression. The bad news is: we cannot change someone’s constitution. The good news is: a young person’s temperament alone does not maintain aggressive and violent behaviour. Even if a child has a temperament that makes them prone to outbursts of anger, this does not mean that he or she will necessarily remain aggressive, controlling and unmanageable.
Lowered parental presence
Parental presence does not mean being around the young person all the time. It means that your child is aware of you as a parent at home, in school, and when she or he is with their peers. It also means that you are aware of your child’s activities. If e.g. you do not know who your daughter’s friends are, and what they are up to, and she does not feel she needs to let you know when she will be home at night, your parental presence has been lowered. If you have no control over how loud your son plays his music in your house, you have lost some of the ‘territory’ of your own home. If your child ‘blanks you out’ whenever you try to speak to them, your presence is low. If you feel exhausted, low, or without support from other adults in dealing with your child, you have lost parental presence.
When the child ‘gets better’ at controlling the adult
Sometimes, parents try to make a stand and insist on controlling an uncontrollable child. However, attempts to control often lead to escalating arguments. After arguments, in the course of which your daughter or son breaks things, screams abuse at you, or even assaults you, you will feel helpless. At other times, you won’t even bother to insist on good behaviour, and just let her or him have their way for the sake of a little bit of peace in the family. Of course, when family members are intimidated again and again, and the treat of aggression influences what parents do or avoid, there really is no peace in the family. The threat of aggression, violence or disruption to the family, or other threats such as the threat of self-harm, will often make parents give in to their child’s demands. A child or young person will become more effective at controlling parents and siblings – and often teachers or other adults. You as parent in turn have become accustomed to observing many ‘taboos’ without even being aware of it. Many parents say they ‘walk on eggshells’, except of course when they go into a confrontation – which doesn’t work either.
Much of this results from the violent behaviour itself. NVR works by removing the opportunity to practice control, and by raising parental presence.
I feel helpless, I’ve tried everything, I can’t take this any longer. Can’t someone just take him and treat him?
Parents almost inevitably feel helpless in this situation. Of course you would like a professional to ‘take over’ when you believe that all avenues have been exhausted. However, this wish can further disempower you: trying to get her to come along to family therapy, to individual therapy, or to take his medication, may put a parent into yet another emotionally and physically exhausting, and often fruitless struggle. Or a young person may enjoy their individual therapy, and insist that their therapist maintains confidentiality, while the behaviour at home does not change. NVR does not require the aggressive young person to participate. As a matter of fact, it is often much more productive to plan new steps in challenging the controlling behaviour, without being disrupted by the young person who may try to control the therapy session as well, or making the fruitless effort of trying to ‘get through’ to your son or daughter – you have already tried that countless times yourself.
You have probably made the same attempts to improve things over and over again. You will often find yourself in a situation that is utterly predictable – e.g. when you are trying to reason with your child, part of you already knows that this will merely lead to a heated argument, with smashed objects in the house, shouting, and maybe even physical violence. You have become locked in a repetitive, unhelpful pattern. Using NVR, you will carefully develop ‘strategies’ to respond to the controlling behaviour, that at first may appear strange and counterintuitive, but that are very different from the reactions you have shown before. However, this is not “behaviour management” – these are strategies for making peace in the family and changing relationships. Making peace requires constructively challenging harmful behaviour, refusing to be controlled by harmful behaviour, and reaching out and reconciling with the young person – to again become the parent who can look after their child’s needs.
This process will take much of your time. NVR is not an easy way out, and it requires intensive involvement by parents, in order to be effective. You may not feel up to it at this point, having been worn down by such a degree of trouble. However, many parents that their confidence grows in the process of resistance. As they begin to feel less helpless, parents –and other adults dealing with a difficult young person- feel energized.
How long does NVR last? How involved do I need to be?
Resisting violent and controlling behaviour is a hard struggle. Each parent needs to invest many hours each week in resisting their child’s violence. The intervention should be planned for up to 3 months, and then reviewed. Parents will, at least initially, attend one therapy session per week, and there may be an arrangement for 1-2 additional telephone support calls per week, or contact by email or Skype. The additional support helps parents find encouragement when things are very difficult, get advice, and express their frustration – they are an aid to staying on track. In therapy sessions, you will discuss and plan each new step, reflect on the steps you have taken in the previous week, and have conversations about your feelings and thoughts. Therapy sessions are an opportunity to gain an understanding of your strengths and abilities in the process of resisting the violence. You will also learn more about yourself, e.g. come to understand how feeling ashamed and blaming yourself for the problems may have been an obstacle for obtaining support from other adults, discover a manner in which you can regulate yourself so that you are no longer prone to angry responses, or learn ways of overcoming the fear that has controlled you for so long. As you go along, you learn more and more about effective resistance to the violence, and you will be able to discuss what you have learned in therapy sessions. There may also be helpers meetings, at which parents and other adults from outside of the family form a support network. Most of your time in NVR however will be spent planning, preparing and carrying out concrete action against the violence in life outside the session, and making gestures of reconciliation in order to re-connect with your child.
Is the approach effective?
A number of recent outcome studies have shown that NVR is very effective in improving the behaviour of a large percentage of young people, reducing parents’ feelings of helplessness and raising their confidence, as well as bringing about a more peaceful atmosphere all round in the family. The retention rate, i.e. the percentage of families that remain in therapy, is over 90%.
Do I have to involve my other children in this?
Other children in the family are likely to have become victimized, and often parents do not know the full extent of what is going on. Siblings may believe that their parents are powerless, they may think their parents don’t care if they get hurt, they may not want to burden or upset their parents, or they may feel that what is happening to them is normal, because it has been going on for so long. Usually, other children are affected by the way ‘everything revolves around (the violent child)’. The NVR therapist may suggest speaking to a violent young person’s siblings, in order to help them understand what the parents are doing to resist the violence, and to find ways in which they can communicate with their parents about any abuse they may be experiencing. This then becomes the siblings’ own form of resistance and empowerment.
How does NVR work?
Resistance against the violence is developed step by step, building on what parents experience in the process, the support they are able to receive, and their growing confidence. We do not engage a son or daughter with aggressive or harmful behaviour in any conversations about why they may feel angry, or lose self-control. Action replaces talking. Talking is kept to a minimum, and consists mainly of brief announcements or declarations, which are used to communicate what kind of action parents are taking and why. Parents do not try to ‘get through’ to their child – this has been attempted without success many times before. However, there may be a time and place for taking – once the child is no longer acting out and controlling their environment in harmful ways, no longer being self-destructive. Frequently, unmet psychological needs then become apparent, and direct work with the young person, who is now a “customer” to the therapy, can be fruitful.
There are four areas in which parents – with support – become active:
Parents develop strategies to manage risk, without getting involved in fruitless power struggles. They learn how to regulate themselves, and no longer get motivated by their own unhelpful beliefs (I must immediately take control of my daughter; He must see what it is really like…), driven to act in hot anger.
After months or years of ‘walking on eggshells’ and feeling they have to give in to their child’s demands, if they wish to maintain peace in the family, parents learn to strategically break the rules their child has set up for the family. Parents are supported in overcoming their tendency to avoid necessary action because of fear or shame.
Taking non-violent action
Consequences and punishment no longer work. Parents raise their presence by carefully planned, delayed action within the home, and in the outside environment. This is especially important, when parents must act in response to aggressive incidents, in order to protect themselves and their other children by developing a deterrent against further harmful acts.
Certain gestures show young people, that their families care about them. They help parents and children or young people relate to one another beyond the aggression. In child-focused reconciliation work, we look ‘behind the veil of anger’, to bring back a dialogue between parent and child, in which the parent can look after the young person’s needs.
Can this be done with other problems, as well?
There are a number of other difficulties, for which a modified form of NVR can be helpful – especially if your child is unwilling to cooperate in the therapy, and the family is controlled by the difficulties. Nonviolently challenging destructive or self-destructive behaviour is suited to any situation in which someone acts in harmful ways –whether harmful to others, or to themselves. NVR is now being used when young people or adults misuse drugs, socially isolate themselves, become addictied to the internet, or control the family with compulsive behaviour. It can be helpful in responding to eating disorders, and currently, new methods in lowering the risk of self-harm or suicidal behaviour are being developed. NVR therapy can also be used very effectively as support in resisting domestic violence.
Can NVR only be used within the family?
No, NVR has been helpful for looked after children, and for young people in residential care. Often, aggressive behaviour arises in school as well as at home, and NVR therapists can involve teachers with carers or parents in working together to overcome the behavioural difficulties.
Where is NVR therapy available?
NVR can be provided by family therapists, clinical psychologists and other mental health professionals who have been trained in the use of this approach. If you are interested in receiving NVR therapy, and cannot obtain it locally, please contact us.