led by Dr. Lyle Becourtney, licensed psychologist: (917) 968-0965

Breaking the Anger Abuse Cycle

Breaking the Anger/Abuse Cycle
by Ron Huxley
The anger/abuse cycle is a common pattern of interaction between family members. Although it is traditionally used to describe domestic violence it can take place in everyday parenting routines, through verbal and emotional abuse. For example, a parent may explode in frustration at his child for his irresponsible behavior. Words and actions are said by the parent that are hurtful. And even when the parent knows he is verbally abusing his son, he may be unable to stop himself or find himself caught back up in anger after he promised himself, and his son, that he would not vent at him in frustration. Understanding the anger/abuse cycle is the first step toward breaking the cycle.

The anger/abuse cycle has three main phases: The problem, tension building, and honeymoon phase. The following ten steps break these phases into more detail:

1. Problems occur in life and tension begins to develop. What stressors are at work in your life, job, or family? How do you perceive the actions of others towards you? Are those perceptions accurate or unrealistic?

2. Opportunity to ESCAPE or ESCALATE!

3. If escalating, tension builds/ineffective coping strategies start.

4. Ineffective coping strategies fail/Tension continues to build.

5. Trigger thoughts set off anger and violence.

6. Explosion: Destructive release of tension.

7. Feelings of guilt and remorse over angry words/actions. Promises are made to "never do it again."

8. Honeymoon Period. Low tension, happy moods, and false hope.

9. Denial of anger problem.

10. Problems and stressors reoccur or new ones develop. The cycle continues.

The first phase brings problems in the life of the parent or in the relationship between parent and child. Problems are a normal part of life but if they add up too high or occur too frequently, they can lead to expressions of anger. The expression can be constructive if the parent has coping mechanisms that allow him to cope with the problem by finding a solution to it. This is the escape choice listed in item 2 above.

If the parent is unable to cope then he is left with the choice of escalating or moving into the tension building phase. Ineffective coping mechanisms may increase feelings of frustration and helplessness if parents feel they are "failures" because their coping mechanisms did not work. This and other trigger thoughts become the spark that sets off an explosion or release of tension. This would include items 3 through 6 listed above.

Items 7 and 8 occur after the tension has been released. This is characterized by guilt, remorse, and false promises. This is the third or honeymoon phase. It is called the honeymoon phase because parent and child experience low tension, happy moods, and false hope that the anger/abuse is gone. All that has really happened is that the tension has been released and the feelings of frustration over the parents problems and their inability to cope with it are no longer present. Unfortunately, this denial of an anger management problem and the inevitable recurrence of more problems causes the anger/abuse cycle to start all over again.

The obvious means of breaking this cycle is to find more effective coping mechanisms. This does two things for the parent. The first is that it relieves the parent from personalizing their failure. This means that the parent reframes themselves as needing new tools to find a solution to their parenting problem rather than as being failures for not finding the solution. In other words, it is the tool that is ineffective not the parent. At this point, the parent needs to find the right tool for the job.

The second benefit is that it empowers the parent to take responsibility for changing the parent/child relationship. The parent enjoys the feeling of being in control of their thoughts and actions which affects the child's thoughts and actions. This is the opposite direction taken in item 5 and 6 above where blame and shame typically occur. Instead of blaming the other person, as wrong as he might be, the parent can take responsibility for their part in the problem, or at least their reaction to it, which breaks the cycle of anger and abuse.


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