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Teacher Lesson Return to "Changing the Pattern"
Changing the Pattern
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Lesson for “I Won't Abuse My Kids”

The room went silent when this story was read aloud in the FCYU writing workshop. Every child in foster care has been abused, and every teen in the room was moved by the writer's account of her own abuse, and her fears that she will repeat that pattern in her own life.

In this story the writer describes two incidents in which her violent reactions surprised and scared her. She reflects on her relationship with her mother, which did not seem abusive to either the writer or to her mom during the time they lived together. Basically, to the writer 's mom, "discipline" meant beating the living daylights out of her. Only now, several years later, does the writer realize and admit that she was abused by her mother.

The writer describes several important steps that she has taken on the long road toward controlling her emotions and preventing herself from repeating the treatment her mother inflicted on her.

First, she acknowledges the fact that she was abused. For many teens in care, facing squarely this obvious fact can be very difficult, in part, at least, because deep inside they believe they deserved the abuse they got.

Second, the writer recognizes that she is in danger of repeating the cycle of abuse in her own relationships.

Third, she is experimenting with methods to try to control her violent reactions to certain situations.

Finally, she recognizes that undoing the past, and her breaking free of her gut reactions to it, is not like flipping a switch. It's a process--a struggle--that she will have to engage for a long time.

(It is important to note that the writer 's explosive anger is only one of many ways that people respond to an abusive past. Her anger is a symptom of her abuse. For others, the symptoms may include drug abuse, promiscuity, depression, or all of the above.)

Discussing childhood abuse is extremely difficult. Here is one suggestion for talking about this story.

First, do several freewriting exercises. (In freewriting, each student writes for a very short time, such as 30 seconds or a minute, in response to questions you read aloud. The writing is designed to help focus a discussion. No one is required to read what they write, and they shouldn't worry about spelling, punctuation, etc. Just let the ideas flow.) Here are the questions to read aloud:

"In the past, it really made me angry when..."

"In my family, it really made me angry when..."

"Nowadays, it really makes me angry when..."

"Write one thing you wish you could change about how you were treated in your family."

"One thing I'll never do to my kids that my parents did to me is..."

Second, ask students to share their reactions to the questions. They can read a response they wrote. If they are reluctant to share (or even if they're not) ask them how it made them feel to write answers to these questions. Keep this discussion short (5 minutes, if they're unresponsive, 15 minutes if they really get into it).

Third, have them read the story. If there are volunteers, it often works well to read the story aloud. Or, you can read it aloud. (Many kids have very poor reading skills, and this insures that everyone is brought into the discussion.)

Fourth, ask them to think about the writing exercise again in light of the story. Do they feel any differently about it after reading the story? Ask them to look particularly at the last question. The writer is afraid that she'll repeat things her mother did, even though she is aware of them and has sworn to herself that she won't. Do they have suggestions for her? What are their fears?

A Related Exercise--What triggers our anger?

Like her mother, when the writer is pushed beyond the breaking point she gets violent.

When her 10-year-old cousin disobeys her, she wallops him with the back of her hand. When he fights back the writer smashes him with remote control. At another point in the story she smashes a bottle on a clothes dryer when her friend startles her in a laundry room.

Point out to your students that we all have "triggers"--the words or actions of other people which make us angry--which can make us revert to behavior that we have pledged to avoid. If we can learn to identify what those triggers are, and alternative ways of responding, we will be better able to avoid situations which are almost guaranteed to tee us off, or to respond more constructively when we find ourselves in those situations. For the writer, that means learning how to handle her anger, short of walloping someone. (For another person, it might mean learning how to resist the temptation to get drunk, or stay in bed for a week with the curtains drawn.)

What triggers make your clients angry? Here are prompts for a discussion:

What kinds of words make me angry?

What kinds of body language anger me?

Do certain "types" of people seem to make me angry?

How do I know when I'm angry?

What physical signs show that my anger has been triggered?

How do I react when I'm angry?

How long does it take me to show my anger? Do I have a long or short fuse? Do I always show my anger?

How long does my anger stay with me?

Do I get angry thinking about something that happened yesterday or last week?

Are there certain situations which always stress me out? For example, staying up late and then having to get up early the next day? Waiting until the last moment to study for a test? Hurrying to get to work on time?

In discussing these prompts in relation to the story, ask your students why they think the writer got so angry at the cousin she ended up hitting. Have they ever had similar urges? What could the writer had done instead of hitting her cousin? (Let him do what he wanted, hugged him, called her grandmother for help).

If you end up discussing the writer 's reaction and options, point out to your students that they should see her actions in the context of her abused childhood. Having been beaten herself, her gut reaction to her cousin's defiance was to get physical. Having so little control of her life as a child, her immediate reaction was not to let her cousin get away with anything, even something as seemingly trivial as watching TV for a few minutes.

Controlling Her Anger

Everyone gets angry. Not everyone learns how to control that anger.

The writer makes a sustained effort to control her temper--and to resist being drawn back into the "script" of her childhood. What steps does she take?

-- The writer talks to a counselor who helps relate her abuse of her cousin to her own abuse as a child.

--She sees a therapist on an ongoing basis.

--She realizes that her past does not relieve her of being responsible for her actions.

--She learns more about her situation by reading a book about the impact of abuse.

--She consciously, if not always successfully, tries to avoid high stress situations.

--She expresses her anger and frustrations by keeping a journal which helps her reflect on her "triggers."

--She learns breathing techniques to help relax her.

Have any of your students tried do any of the above? Can your students add to this list? Exercising? Punching a bag or other substitute object? Confiding in a friend? Having a special place to go to be alone? Talking to yourself? Fantasizing?

Realizing that Change Is Hard

The writer wants to change. Importantly, she realizes some important things about changing one's behavior and attitudes:

--Change does not happen overnight. She enlists the ongoing support of a therapist and doesn't give herself a deadline for transforming herself.

-- The writer does not delude herself; she knows there are no guarantees that she will not explode. She does not tell herself "I will never again lay hands on anyone in anger." This kind of resolution could easily result in self-recrimination if she lapses. Instead, she tells herself, "I will have a better chance of dealing with my anger if I do something about it." Results are important but effort is also important.

-- The writer realizes the difference between getting angry and dealing with it constructively. She doesn't expect not to get angry; she does expect to try to control it. Some people will always be tempted by what they know to be self-destructive activities: drinking, substance abuse, abusive relationships. They may never be able to eliminate these urges but they can try to resist them.
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[Other Teacher Resources]
(FCYU-1995-03-01)

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