Nikki Rutter is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, who completed her PhD in October 2022 (and you can read her thesis in Durham’s theses repository). One of her main areas of research focuses on child-parent violence, and with the second CPA (Child to Parent Abuse) Awareness Day being held on October 14th, it seemed like an apt time to shine a light on her research in this area. Nikki met up with Repository Officer, Kelly Hetherington, to share her thoughts…
How would you describe your research?
I am really interested in researching how families, particularly mothers and children, respond to, understand and makes sense of the harm in their lives. That can mean harm from external things and how that impacts on family dynamics, or it can be the harm within the family which impacts how they’re able to engage in the wider world. It is about people’s everyday lives and how that connects to child to parent violence.
What does your research involve?
It involves working directly with families in a collaborative, participatory way. The research is quite time sensitive because we are talking about people’s everyday lived experiences with their children. There is nothing more intimate. I really value people’s time and the energy they put into the research, and I want to get that out into the public sphere as quickly and seamlessly as possible in a way that recognises and values their contribution. Publishing this work is a long process, but for me, it’s a priority.
In your recent paper, “My[Search Strategies] Keep Missing You”: A Scoping Review to Map Child-to-Parent Violence in Childhood Aggression Literature, the abstract states “Child-to-parent violence is often referred to as one of the most ‘under-researched’ forms of family violence.” Why do you think this is?
When you look at children and young people who instigate harm more broadly: Young people’s mental health, young people’s offending, challenging behaviour, learning disabilities – they are all hugely explored areas. It is the experience of parents – that’s the bit that’s not so researched.
It’s becoming much more popular as a topic to explore, partly because of activists and campaigns and people willing to have these conversations. Funding bodies are willing to fund these types of projects and the Home Office are changing bills to incorporate this phenomenon.
I recently attended the European Conference of Domestic Violence and was part of a panel talking about child to parent violence. The room was full. People are much more interested in acknowledging this issue now, and I think more importantly is recognising that this isn’t about children being perpetrators of harm and parents being victims.
What’s really coming through in the field now is that children are harmed by this behaviour too. It’s harmful to them. They aren’t to blame.
Some parents might feel judged that their children are behaving in a way that society perceives to be wrong. How would you respond to this?
There’s such an element of parental judgement around child to parent violence – that it must be something that the parent has done or is doing. I don’t think it’s helpful. That energy should be put into understanding the child and what their underpinning needs are. This idea that parents have the responsibility for moulding children into whatever they want to be completely neglects children’s individualised experiences and what they experience in schools, in their community, with their siblings. It’s not this wholly bidirectional relationship between, say, a mother and a child. A child is existent in the wider world, with complicated feelings and complicated relationships – from the very beginning. So, I find it really challenging that people make it so the only relationship that ever matters to a child is the one with the primary caregiver at home. That completely neglects all those other rich and important relationships.
I also feel that society’s expectations on children are so far beyond what we would ever expect of an adult. We expect a level of relationship building, self-control and emotional regulation that we wouldn’t expect of an adult.
A lot of your research is published via the ‘gold’ open access route but you are also very good at ensuring your outputs are deposited in our institutional repository, Durham Research Online. What do you think is important about research being made open access?
My background is social work so I’m really interested in making sure that my research is as relevant to practise as possible. I receive emails from people with lived experience of this issue emailing me saying, I’ve just read your article and it speaks to my experience – it’s made me feel seen. [This wouldn’t be possible if the research was behind a paywall]. To me, this is more important than any REF score – that I’m writing work about people’s lives and other people can access it and think “it’s not just me”.
Also, as a social worker – I want other practitioners and professionals to be easily able to read the work. There are organisations, such as a couple across Wales and the Thames Valley who have used the methodology from my research in their practice which involves using arts and narratives to really unpack and understand the everyday lived experiences of families (“I’m meant to be his comfort blanket, not a punching bag” – Ethnomimesis as an exploration of maternal child to parent violence in pre-adolescents – Nikki Rutter, 2021 (sagepub.com)). They would never have been able to do that if this wasn’t Open Access work.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am currently engaged in an ESRC funded participatory action research piece of work, which is funded through the Vulnerability and Policing Futures Research Centre. I’m working with children who are instigating and experiencing this form of harm and parents to look at what has worked for them? What hasn’t worked for them? What support systems and pathways are available? Could support pathways have been more helpful? If they worked as families needed them to, what would that look like? This will run until April 2024. There are twelve parents and eight children – so it’s very much a pilot study.
To read Nikki’s research publications, visit her page on Worktribe: https://durham-repository.worktribe.com/person/507657/nikki-rutter/outputs
For more information about CPA Awareness Day, visit the Parent Education Growth Support (PEGS) webpage: https://www.pegsupport.co.uk/
Thank you so much to Nikki for spending the time talking about her research!