“The cycle of abuse repeats”. How many times have we all heard that? It’s like a death sentence for some of us; those of us who suffered abuse as a child at the hands of our parents hear that phrase and think we are doomed. How in the world can an abused child grow up to be a decent parent to their children? If all we knew was abuse as a child; doesn’t it make sense that abuse and violence is what we ourselves would turn to when we needed to discipline our children?
It makes sense in theory; but I think for many of us – it’s not as black and white as that. I can’t even remember how many nights I would sit in my room in the corner of my bed after Mom had one of her moments, gritting my teeth and holding onto my knees, swearing 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 my children would know that I loved them no matter what. I didn’t know how I was going to parent, but I knew from years of experience living with Mom, what not to do.
I put off having children for a while and waited until I was in my late 20’s until I had my first son. I was 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. I didn’t want to put any of my future children through the violence and mental abuse I suffered, and I was still struggling with the memories 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 so much on what could have been, instead of focusing on the here and now. I had to acknowledge what Mom did to me was wrong and 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.
Look, I’m far from a perfect parent. I have an 8 year old son and a 2.5 year old son who fight from dawn till dusk. 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 worse. But I recognize that I don’t want to repeat that pattern; instead of punching my eight year old, I simply remove the Kindle from the room. Instead of smacking my 2.5 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. I would love to hear about them in the comments and start that discussion. We can all learn from each other, but most importantly, we all have the ability to stop the cycle of abuse. It’s not a death sentence; but an opportunity for growth and change.