You Aren’t Powerless: How To Stop The Cycle Of Abuse

Priscilla Du Preez

“The cycle of abuse repeats.” 

Those five little words are like a death sentence to those of us who have been abused or hurt during our lives. It’s hard to imagine how an abused child can grow up to be a decent parent to their children and not use physical or mental violence to raise them. It seems impossible to fathom that a person who knew nothing but violence as a child would not be drawn to a violent relationship as an adult.  If all we ever knew was abuse and violence as a child; doesn’t it make sense that abuse and violence is what we ourselves would turn to when we became adults?

It makes sense in theory; but I think for many of us; it’s not as black and white as people would like to make it out to be. For many of us, hurting our children or entering into any relationship that is violent is the furthest thing from our minds. Many of us made promises to ourselves as little children to never become the monsters we lived with on a daily basis.

I can’t even begin to count how many nights I sat in my room on the corner of my bed after Mom had one of her “moments.” I would sit and rock both and forth, gritting my teeth and holding onto my knees, swearing under my breath that if I ever had children I would never treat them the way Mom treated me. My children would never know the pain I felt physically and mentally and they would always know that I loved them with all of my heart and soul. And if I told you how many times I lay with my face buried in the floor, unable to move after one of Mom’s beatings, and swore I would never hit anyone when I was an adult, it would make you cry.

I heard the actual phrase “The cycle of abuse repeats” during my first psychology class in college and I would be lying if I said it didn’t scare the hell out of me. I went home that evening with a thousand thoughts racing through my head and I began to have absurd worries – Worries like it was in my DNA to be an abuser, or that maybe something in me would change the minute I had a child and I would turn into an abuser like my mom. I promised myself when I was a little girl that I would never be my mom; but according to this professor, it seemed quite inevitable that was going to happen.

I became terrified of having children and was so afraid of continuing the “cycle of abuse” that for a while I didn’t think I was ever going to have children or enter into a meaningful relationship. I didn’t want to put any of my future children or partners through the violence and mental abuse I suffered, and I was still struggling with the memories, flashbacks, and triggers of my own childhood abuse with no definitive answers as to “why” I was beaten.

And there was my problem –  I couldn’t let the past go.  I was spending more time making excuses for Mom as to why she was the way she was and focusing too much on what could have been, instead of focusing on the here and now. I was spending too much time focusing on “why me” and feeling sorry for myself that I couldn’t see a future beyond my abuse. I was stuck in the past and I knew that something had to change.

One of the most important things I had to do was to acknowledge what Mom did to me was wrong and immediately stop taking responsibility for her actions.  Parents are human too, all parents make mistakes. But parents who hit, abuse, and lash out at their children are not entering a fair fight; those parents are acting out because of their own unresolved issues and their own mental problems. Losing control on a two year old has nothing to do with the actions of the child but everything to do with the mindset of the parent.

I’m now the proud mother of two beautiful sons and I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m far from a perfect parent. But my problem with parenting hasn’t been struggling with not hitting my children; my problem with parenting has been the other extreme. I was so afraid of hurting my children that for a while, there was no discipline. I was so afraid of them feeling any of the pain that I felt as a child that I went the other way and just let them both walk all over me. That is abusive in itself now that I think about it because it’s my job to be the parent; it’s not my job to be their best friend. I’m not doing my children any favors by teaching them it’s OK to disrespect authority and walk all over people.  I’m not doing my children any favors by making their bed every day and cleaning their room for them.  Just because I’m not hitting them or abusing them the way I was abused didn’t mean I still couldn’t harm them long-term.

So what did I do and what can you do if you feel the same way I did? How can you find that happy medium between what we went through as kids and no discipline at all? How can we stop the cycle once and for all with us and our children? I’m not an expert, I’m not a psychologist, I’m just a survivor who through the years and through my writing have figured some things out about myself.  Maybe this will help you.

  • Face the pain of your past head on and see your abusers for who they were; flawed people who made terrible choices when it came to their children. For me, writing my first bestseller, “Why Me”, was my “aha” moment. Once I put my past on paper and really dug into how the abuse made me feel, it gave me a better understanding of what unresolved issues I had and what was holding me back to be the best parent I could be. Putting the past behind me allowed me to forgive – but never forget. It also allowed me to recognize exactly what patterns I did not want to repeat.
  • Take your own timeouts and lead by example. I’m not going to lie – parenting is tough work. There are days I just want to pull my hair out after the 50th fight over the Kindle or run away after the third food fight of the day. It’s exhausting; so rewarding, but so exhausting. It can be very easy to lose my temper, smack my kids, scream and yell and then banish them to their rooms. It’s what my Mom would have done…and much, much worse. But I recognize that I don’t want to repeat that pattern; instead of punching my 10 year old, I simply remove the Kindle from the room. Instead of smacking my 5 year old around because he likes to throw food at his brother, I sit with them and demonstrate good eating techniques. If it gets to be too much sometimes, I leave the room for a few minutes – go downstairs to do laundry or outside to pull weeds. Collecting my thoughts helps me deal with my boys in a much more rational way than flying off the handle and screaming and yelling.
  • Respect – not fear. I never respected my mother but I was certainly scared of her. I obeyed her and her commands not because she was my mother and I respected her, I obeyed her because if I didn’t I would be punished severely. I didn’t want that for my children; I wanted them to listen to me and do as I asked because they respected me and they felt safe with me. I didn’t want to use violence, force, and intimidation to get my children to make their beds. So we have a reward system in place and a chart on the wall with stars; some may find that wrong, but it works for me and my children. They respect me, they get excited when they have done all of their chores for the week, and I get to have ice cream as a reward with my sons every Friday. Not too bad for us I think.

I’m sure that there are a thousand more ways to stop the cycle and better ways than mine on how to raise two young boys, but that’s what works for me. There is a good balance of love and respect and that’s the way it should be. We all have the ability to stop the cycle of abuse and if you hear those words remember, it’s not a death sentence; but an opportunity for growth and change. TC mark

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