How Children Learn the Cycle of Violence

The Cycle of Violence is a pattern of behavior that occurs in many relationships. It is insidious, refuses to use clear communication, and relies on people reacting through behaviors rather than clearly identifying and calmly stating their case. Why are so many adults sucked into the Cycle of Violence? Because they have learnt it as children. This is how it goes…

Mum awoke this morning with conviction anew. During the night she had slept badly, worried that she was yelling at the kids too much. Leaping out of bed, eager to start a new day, she said aloud to her mirror, “I’m not going to yell at the kids today. Today will be a fantastic day.”

Big kids off to school, Mum tackles the housework. Out comes the vacuum machine to begin its assault on a floor you could eat off (scrambled egg, peas under the table). Jenny is at the table, coloring in, and wants a drink before Mum starts the noisy machine. Slightly annoyed that her vacuuming is delayed Mum gets little Jenni a drink of milk, puts it down in front of her, and Mums wiggling finger and stern voice very clearly tells Jenni, “Don’t spill the milk!”

I don’t know why Mums continue to give little ones the plastic cups of near same circumference top and bottom. They are a disaster waiting to happen. Little ones need beakers with large bottoms, narrower top openings, to stop the clumsy knock overs.

Just about to pick up the vacuum hose, Mum hears a steady trickle of liquid cascading from the table to carpet below. Looking upside down through her arm, Mum sees Jenni, fingers in her mouth, watching the last dribble of milk leaving the safety of the cup.

The explosion begins. Down, Mum throws the vacuum cleaner. Muttering under her breath, she runs to the table to pick the cup up. Too late. The milk has nicely soaked into the carpet. She yells at Jenni, “I’m sick of telling you. Don’t spill the milk. This place smells like baby vomit. For once Jenni, can’t you just do as you’re told.”

Jenni cries and Mum angrily tires to soak up the milk-engorged carpet. “Stop that crying Jenni. Now!” Jenni cries more. She hates it when Mummy yells at her. Jenni runs to her bedroom and sobs into her pillow.

Mum feels horrible. She gets all remorseful and wishes she hadn’t broken this morning’s promise not to yell at the kids. “Why do I yell,” she silently asks herself. “Why do I throw a tantrum when the kids do something age appropriate?”

Remorse: Going to the heart broken Jenni, Mum strokes her hair and whispers soothing words of love and care into her little ear. “I’m sorry baby,” she cries herself. “Mummy is so naughty sometimes. I’m sorry I yelled at you. How about we leave the vacuuming and we’ll read a story together?”

Buyback: Jenni chooses a story and enjoys having Mum all to herself. After three stories, Mum announces, “It’s such a beautiful day, why don’t we walk down to the park for a play on the swings.

Honeymoon: Holding hands they set off together. A beautiful day, they chat together about the dogs they meet, the people they see, and the critters Jenni tries to catch. Jenni is on cloud nine. She really likes Mummy when she’s like this. Mummy is fun.

Normal: Passing by Mrs. Smith’s house, Jenni stops to admire the pretty flowers growing along the front fence. Mrs. Smith is a bit of an old witch. She watches her precious flowers and flies out when she sees sweet little children who may want to steal her prize wining blooms. While Jenni bends forward to smell the big red rose, Mum spies cranky Mrs. Smith peering through her front screen. Rather than tell Mrs. Smith that its okay, Jenni is only going to smell the flower, Mum instead directs the conversation to her three-year-old daughter. In a cross tone, she directs Jenni, “DON’T PICK THE FLOWER!” Satisfied that Mrs. Smith now knows that this is a good mother who won’t allow willful acts of destruction, Mum stands with her hands on her hips waiting for Jenni to finish her smell. Jenni didn’t like the tone in Mum’s voice; it was a cranky tone, so she decides to punish Mum by not holding hands.

Tension Build Up: Running ahead of Mum, Jenni is keen to get to the park. She ignores Mum’s pleas to slow down. If Mum can’t keep up, too bad, Mum will have less time at the park. A road ahead, Mum yells for Jenni to “STOP. NOW”. Jenni stops. She was never going to cross the road anyway. No need for Mum to be so horrible. By the time Mum reaches for Jenni’s hand, Mum is worn to a frazzle. She snatches the little hand too hardly and pulls Jenni into line. “Stop it Jenni or we won’t go to the Park. Do as you’re told or do nothing at home.”

Stand Over: Jenni and Mum are both walking on eggshells. Mum is waiting for Jenni to throw a tantrum and Jenni is waiting for Mum to spoil the day. Safely in the park, Jenni runs straight for the sandpit. There’s another child happily playing alone but is willing to share the sand toys with Jenni. Holding out a scoop to give Jenni, the child is greeted with a solemn Jenni who pokes her tongue and grabs the scoop without saying thank you. Mum growls at Jenni, “Use-your-manners-young-lady!” Fed up with everyone who just can’t understand her, Jenni picks up a scoop full of sand and skillfully tips it onto the head of the other child.

Explosion: Mortified, and worried about what the other child’s parent will say, Mum explodes. “How dare you do that Jenni. You are a very naughty little girl. Just you wait until your father hears about this disgraceful behavior. Get up! Get up NOW. No park for bad little girls.”

…and so the cycle of violence is learned. If something is learned, it can also be unlearned. Over the next few days, we’ll look at a formula for clear communication and the development of emotional language in children so that they have words, rather than behaviors, to use in breaking the sneaky Cycle of Violence.

Related piece of bibliotherapy from Megan’s journal:

My Dandelion Wish.