Saturday, July 17, 2010


In the 1980's, Claudia Black wrote a very good book (now revised) called REPEAT AFTER ME. She was talking about alcoholism in families. In this posting, when I say, "Repeat After Me," I'm talking about domestic violence, which also can run in families.

The question is, why do some kids repeat their parents' lives when they grow up, becoming an abuser or falling in love with one, but others don't?
The domestic violence shelter where I volunteer always has 10 or more kids living there and 10 or more "outside" kids and their mothers who return for group one or two nights a week.
In  each children's group there are always a couple boys and sometimes an older girl who react to stress, anger, embarrassment, whatever--with violence. This violence may be in the form of hitting, bullying, teasing or insulting younger or weaker kids. Some of these kids respond well to structure in group or playtime. Others may need consequences, rewards, a distraction of some kind, or temporary removal from the group in order to comply. Still others withdraw, hide, seek help or behave appropriately.

What causes such a difference in these kids' reaction to stress?
Let's take a young teen, "Terry" who left the shelter almost 3 years ago. He was handsome, macho, and opinionated. He talked to adult women as if they were his servants (or in my case, he tried to). He didn't interact with other kids much and they didn't like him. When his sister threatened to tell his mother what he'd said or done,however, he promptly proceeded to behave. I've since met many "bullys" like him. Superficially tough, but easily intimidated or controlled.
More recently, we had a boy, "Ted" who was an angel in group but reacted to the stimulation of the play area outside or inside with yelling, threatening, punching, kicking, and defiance. Surprisingly, he usually responded  to a sibling's or my demand that he "Stop!" fairly well, especially if "time out" was mentioned. His mother handles him appropriately and seems to have had behavior management training.
So which of these kids, all of whom have domestic violence in their life, will grow up to repeat their parents' unhappy lives?
There's no easy answer. To become an abuser or to fall in love with one probably takes a combination of many factors: exposure to violence as a young child, innate personality traits like compulsivity or anxiety; behaviors learned or developed by identifying with an abuser out of fear; not having mentors or other mature adults they can admire and imitate; not having the opportunity to develop their interests and talents; having poor self-esteem from living in a violent home which must be kept a secret.

Add to these problems a person who is good at acting charming, caring, and concerned, but desperately needs to feel powerful by controlling another person by any means necessary. That person is most likely to be a girl or woman who has had a difficult life and especially needs love, admiration, and attention and may be naiive about the "real guy" behind the charm.
Some victims and abusers do not fit this profile, but most probably do. If we could predict which kids will "Repeat After Me" and which ones will have a more normal life, it would be great. We could provide more help to those who need it.

Instead, given the unrelenting violence of the media, we must teach all kids how to form and maintain loving, respectful relationships from early childhood on. If every child knew that LOVE IS RESPECT, there might be fewer teens and adults falling for abusers or dishing out violence.

So, REPEAT AFTER ME: Love is respect. Love doesn't mean conformity. Love doesn't mean perfection.

And spread the word.


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