In ‘Violent Child, Desperate Parents’ (Ch5, 9pm) child psychologist Laverne Antrobus met 9yr old Joseph from Stoke, who terrorises his Mum with physical violence and verbal abuse. Joe is diagnosed with ADHD and was excluded from mainstream school. He regularly swears, spits, punches and kicks his mother. We learn that he has threatened her with hammers and knives and, on one occasion, thrown a boot at her face with such force, it nearly broke her jaw. Footage is often hard to watch, particularly when we see Debbie crying after another confrontation. ‘You’ve broken me, Joe’ she sobs and it’s easy to see how.
After reviewing footage together, the adults decide that Joe needs more physical space to express his anger. As the child of an aggressive parent herself, Mum Debbie holds a fear of anger, terrified her son will turn into an ‘angry man’. This is where Antrobus’ measured approach really shines through. She encourages Debbie to examine her own behaviour, without ever being patronising or condescending. To Debbie’s credit, she engages fully with the process, always focused on supporting Joe. This is extraordinary given the pressure that she is under: not everyone would react so magnanimously to having their parenting skills examined in this way.
One of Joe’s greatest behaviour triggers is leaving the house. Even going to the park is a challenge, due to his ‘kicking off’. After a particularly difficult trip, we see his vulnerability. Antrobus identifies him as a ‘hyper-vigilant’ child, seeing fear and danger all around. Once this is identified, things begin to turn around for Joe. His family are taught to give him the explanations he needs to feel safe. He has emoji pictures to identify feelings and he learns to use these to express himself. The biggest learning curve of all, however, belongs to 13yr old brother Vinnie, who had suggested that Joe ‘needed a smack in the face’. We see him encouraging Joe as he scales a climbing wall. It’s really quite touching.
There are jarring aspects to the programme. The salacious language and shocking scene-setting are O.T.T. The formula is a bit ‘Supernanny’. What this series does have, however, is the considered approach of Antrobus, whose experience shines through as she strives to understand the reasons behind the behaviour. Rather than demonising them, this programme reminds us that violent children are still children, after all: not mad, but sad.