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Family Violence - An Intergenerational Problem

Jul 1, 2009

You would think that anyone who grew up in a home with family violence, the last thing they would want in their adult relationships would be more family violence. Unfortunately, the truth is that if you grew up with family violence you are much more likely to be either a victim or perpetrator of domestic violence in your adult life. And of those that have domestic violence in their adult life, most have domestic violence or some form of abuse in their past.

The behavior of domestic violence is passed on to new generations by two things.

1. The emotional trigger - The first element present in intergenerational domestic violence is the emotional trigger. Ask yourself what you are really feeling (i.e. your primary emotion such as afraid, helpless, disrespected. Not anger which is a secondary emotion) when you have an emotional overreaction (negative) to an event. It is not the event that causes your overreaction. Instead it is how the event makes you feel that is the trigger. When you have a stronger than normal reaction due to a feeling, this is an emotional trigger. This is about you, not the event or other people causing the event. It is an unresolved emotional issue for you, often a residual left over from childhood.

I mentioned earlier that most people with domestic violence in their adult familes experienced physical or emotional abuse in their childhood. Imagine how a child in an abusive environment would feel. Some common feelings are afraid, helpless, distrustful, violated, ashamed, guilty, responsible or abandoned (violence is a form of emotional abandonment). If these feelings are not resolved as children (i.e., the child is able to emotionally differentiate themselves from the parental relationship), then as an adult they will still feel emotionally like children and in particular when one of the above emotions gets triggered in an adult relationship, they will have an overreaction to it. Once we understand that these emotional sensitivities began as a result of early life experiences, we do not feel so controlled by them. We understand that as children we had no other choice but to feel that way, but as adults we have more power and can learn to not be so sensitive to the feelings. We can learn to nurture ourselves as our parents did not do.

2. The Learned behavior - The second element in intergenerational domestic violence is the learned behavior. Most people think this is the only element, but the emotional trigger must be there as well and is the catalyst for the behavior. Once the emotional trigger has happened and we are under stress, we will revert to our most strongly learned behavior. If we grew up around violence, (either witness or victim of it), we are likely to revert to that behavior. We may never use violence until we become an adult and get into an adult relationship, but we are always vulnerable to using it if we grew up witnessing or experiencing it. Instead of acting out as a child we may have withdrawn when witnessing violence, but as an adult or older child we are still vulnerable to ultimately using it because that is what our primary caregivers taught us to do. They taught us through their actions that when angry you hit, or yell, or punch holes in walls. Or if we grew up in a household where no one talked when upset with each other, without violence, then that is what we are likely to do. Of course, friends can be powerful role models for learned behaviors as well, but most powerful is our primary caregiver.

So it is the stress caused by the emotional trigger (not the event) that propels us into our most strongly learned behavior. We must know that even if we have learned more adaptive responses to our feelings, that until these new responses have been used long enough by us to become our new most strongly learned behavior, that when under stress, we are always vulnerable to reverting back to our most strongly learned behavior (i.e. violence).

How to undo the problem?

1. Start practicing new behaviors, i.e. time outs, expressing our feelings assertively. Behaviors can be changed before emotional triggers can be changed. Emotional work is deeper work.

2. Take responsibility for our emotional triggers. Stop blaming events and other people for our feelings and behaviors. Identify our emotional triggers.

3. Deal with our shame and anger. Learn to validate ourselves for our feelings. Don't shame ourselves for our mistakes. Learn, grow and move on.

Lorraine Watson (The Anger Master)

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