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'He's my son. I love him. But he beats me up'

'It's too humiliating to admit that your child thinks he hates you. For a while, as things got worse, the only thing I could see was to end up dead'
Sometimes the break-up of a violent marriage is not the end of the abuse. Anna Moore looks at how sons learn brutal behaviour from their fathers

Laura Rae lives in London with Amit, who beats her up on a regular basis. He calls her a prostitute, bruises and bumps her, holds her at knife-point and smashes the furniture. As a hairdresser, Laura passes off most of her injuries as accidents at work, and she constantly avoids letting friends and family into her broken home. Nobody would ever suspect that Laura may be suffering domestic violence. Why not? Because she's a 34-year-old divorcee - Amit is her teenage son.

In some ways, it's a hellish replica of Laura's violent marriage, which ended nine years ago, when Amit was just five. "I've taken on the same role again," says Laura, "gauging his mood, trying not to antagonise him before the frenzy. Afterwards, there will always be tears, and he'll say, 'I'm sorry, Mum. I love you. I don't know why I do it - it won't happen again.' At the time, he really means it, just like my husband meant it when he said he would never hit me again. Until the next time."

But there are crucial differences. As a battered wife, Laura felt able to seek help from friends, family and, sometimes, the police. As a battered mother, it's much harder. "It's too humiliating to admit that your child thinks he hates you, that he can wreck the house and there's nothing you can do about it. And he's my son. I love him. I'd never leave him. For a while, as things got worse, the only thing I could see was to end up dead."

The growing awareness of offspring violence is reflected in the Family Homes And Domestic Violence Bill, which extends statutory protection beyond those who live as man and wife to cover anyone who shares a household. With all-party support, the Bill is expected to go through in October, following research by the Law Commission which says that the law's present definition of domestic violence is too narrow and fails to recognise that violence and molestation can be committed by "anyone with a family connection".

Despite such progress, Dianne Zaccheo, a counsellor at London's First Step Centre for women suffering abuse, still finds it the most hidden, least discussed form of domestic violence. Of the 30 women she sees a week, about 70 per cent have violent children (all of them sons). Each woman arrives believing herself the only one in the world.

"The sense of failure and shame is overwhelming," says Zaccheo. "As mothers, they feel they must be to blame for their child's behaviour - and the whole world hates a bad mother. It's also more complicated than a marriage because in the eyes of the law, the mother is responsible for the child until he's 18 - she can't up and leave. Instead, these women continue to function in nightmarish misery - paying the mortgage, making the dinners and treading on eggshells. They get help only when they know their lives are in danger."

Laura, who contacted First Step four months ago, is typical in that the abuse began with her husband, and was seen by her son. According to an NCH Action For Children survey, one in three children exposed to domestic violence become aggressive.

"These are not demonic children crawling out of the woodwork," says Ms Zaccheo. "With all my clients, the power imbalance has been set by the father. The child has learnt that his mother can be blamed for everything, and this is the way to express anger. As he grows, the relationship gradually falls into the same old pattern, with him abusing and her weathering the storm. It's an exact flip-flop."

In counselling, Ms Zaccheo first tackles the mother's self-blame by drawing out deeper reasons for the child's anger. In Laura's case, Amit is struggling with his father's second marriage, this time an arranged marriage, by which he now has several children. When Amit visits, he is confronted with a vision of the "perfect" family unit he has never had. He has also faced rejection from Laura's side of the family, as her parents disapproved of her marrying a Muslim and now avoid being seen in public with their mixed-race grandson. Although on the outside Amit appears happy and well adjusted - he is academically gifted and popular - he releases his rage at home.

The next, most crucial stage is for Amit to discuss his feelings with Ms Zaccheo. He knows Laura has at last gone for help, and though he has refused to join her, he's clearly interested. "He asks me what I tell Dianne, and what she says about it all," says Laura. "I'm hopeful that he'll change his mind." If Amit accepts the confidence of an outside mediator, then his home life is no longer a secret world where he's free to break all the limits.

Perhaps the most positive difference between offspring and adult violence is that children are more receptive to change. They are usually extraordinarily flexible, says Ms Zaccheo. "Deep down, they want to please. The earlier it's addressed, the better."

This is illustrated by another of her recent cases, in which Tom, an eight-year-old boy, had suddenly begun to abuse his mother as his father had years before. In family therapy with his sisters, his mother and her new partner, they traced the start of Tom's behaviour to the time when his biological father had stopped visiting.

"As soon as the contact ceased, Tom had taken on his dad's persona, calling his mum a fat cow, throwing things at her and attacking her," Ms Zaccheo remembers. "It was as if the only way he could make up for his missing dad was by becoming dad around the house."

Tom's father was approached but insisted that he no longer wanted a relationship with his son, so the news was gently broken in the next therapy session. Tom cried and was encouraged to vent his anger on his father.

"By that point, Tom trusted me and the trips here had become important to him," says Ms Zaccheo. "I'd established myself as a point of leverage, so I started to say that I disapproved of the way he was treating his mother. I'd say that it made me very sad, and that the therapy would have to stop if his behaviour didn't improve." Slowly, Tom started courting Ms Zaccheo's approval by cuddling his mum in front of her, or sitting on the partner's lap. "The hurt and grief bubbled under, and after a while, the abuse stopped. He began making new friends, and suddenly got very interested in football," says Ms Zaccheo. "I don't see that family any more." She laughs. "They're cured!"

The older the children, however, the harder they are to help. With adolescents, the urge to please inevitably diminishes, and the behaviour may end only when they leave, often to form abusive relationships elsewhere. Alternatively, they don't leave at all, and instead step permanently into their father's shoes.

These cases can be the worst of all. Two months ago, Ms Zaccheo was contacted by a 60-year-old woman, a university secretary who travelled from the north of England after hearing Ms Zaccheo on the radio. Through tears, she told how she was being terrorised by her 23-year-old son.

"It had snowballed out of control," remembers Ms Zaccheo. The son, also a professional and seen as a role model in the neighbourhood, had threatened to kill his mother. He had chased her around the house with handcuffs, and sprayed her meals with chemicals and forced her to eat them. He had regularly exposed himself to her in the house. He had taunted and infanticised her, asking if she'd been a "good girl" at the end of each day and threatening her with "spankings".

Having been freed of an abusive marriage six years before, the woman was now facing worse treatment from her son. She was desperate. "Her son ruled the household," says Ms Zaccheo. "I urged her to get an injunction, but she wouldn't consider it. She felt unable to call the police, partly for fear of not being believed. She thought that her only option was to disappear." The meeting finished with the woman promising to call again, but weeks passed and Ms Zaccheo heard nothing.

"I've tried contacting her so many times, but there's never been any answer. I fear that as soon as the summer term ended, she packed up and ran. Imagine - a 60-year-old professional willing to give up her job and everything else to get as far away as possible from her son." Ms Zaccheo pauses, sighs and repeats: "The earlier the problem is addressed, the easier it is to control. Perhaps in that case, it was just too late."

The First Step Centre runs an emergency 24-hour helpline on 0171-267 1917. Names of Dianne Zaccheo's clients have been changed.