The Cycle of Rage Ends With Me
By Erica Dziedzic
I remember the first time I really screamed at my daughter. She was a baby, maybe 8 or 9 months old, and she was standing in her crib crying. I was sleep-deprived, and all I wanted was a shower. My husband and I had recently moved across the country to Austin, Texas with our baby girl. He worked long hours teaching at a local university, and I stayed home to care for our baby. I didn’t know anyone in our new town, and any support network I could have had lived at least six hours away. I felt alone, unsure of myself, and exhausted.
That day, as my little daughter stood crying in her crib, I felt an overwhelming feeling rise in my body and build inside my head. I couldn’t override it — so I screamed at her to be quiet. She instantly stopped crying, and stared at me with fear. When I was finally in the shower alone, I sobbed. At that moment I realized my greatest personal fear was finally happening — I was allowing a familial cycle of rage to finally get the better of me.
I grew up in an environment where adults screaming at kids was considered the norm. As a child, the screaming had terrified me — but I had always thought that this was just what all parents did. So now that it was finally happening to me as a parent, it landed with a kind of perverse recognition, like: “Well, I guess I was bound to do this eventually. It is what I have always known.” It was as if I was silently accepting this as some kind of undeniable truth about myself; something unchangeable. I had never actually believed that I was strong enough to change this pattern of behavior, let alone control my feelings of anger.
But it wouldn’t be until several years after that day with my baby girl crying in her crib, that I would actively want to change this thing about myself. I was watching an incident between my toddler son and his cousin (around the same age). The two toddlers had been playing together, and had started arguing over a toy, as all kids do — but then my son grabbed the toy out of his cousin’s hands, and screamed at her, inches from her face. Both his face, and his voice were full of rage. But what terrified me most was how familiar that rage felt — this unbridled anger that fills the whole body until nothing else matters. Then the rage boils over and you feel like you have no choice but to release it.
I have been both the receiver and giver of such rage countless times. It is terrifying because when it happens, I feel so out of control — and it looks terrifying to anyone who witnesses it. This is what I saw in my son in that moment. And even more terrifying than his rage, I saw the culmination of generations of rage that had passed down from my relatives, to me, and now into my son’s little three-year-old body. I was witnessing history repeat itself, right there, right then. My son was so young to already be harnessing such anger, to already be turning into me. I didn’t want my son to share this history with me.
After the fight with his cousin, his rage continued to surface in this way again, and again. It could be directed at his sister, me, or my husband; but it was becoming more frequent. At first I didn’t know what to do. This was how I was raised, but to watch it play out in front of me through my young son’s actions was a rude awakening. Eventually, I realized that to work on my son’s behavior, I had to first work on myself. This meant coming to terms with a cycle of verbal abuse that had been passed down, and acquired from family member to family member. I had to learn how to break the cycle of excuses that my family elders had repeated to themselves (and each other) to justify this behavior — and that I, in turn, had been telling myself:
“Yes, we screamed, but you’re fine.”
“It’s just what parents did; we had it so much worse than you.”
“You have no idea. Why do we have to talk about this?”
“It’s the past. It’s time to move on.”
To accept any of these excuses and not work to change is bullshit.
I asked for help to understand and learn to heal from my own trauma. I now regularly see a trauma-informed therapist who specializes in treatment models specifically for individuals with PTSD.
My husband and I have frank, honest discussions about how we discipline our kids, and we keep these talks judgement-free. Sometimes I am triggered by my kids’ behaviors, or a flashback might flood my mind if I watch my husband issue consequences to our spunky children. We talk about what may have triggered me, and he reminds me that we are not our past, we are changing the way we parent. We also work as a team — if one notices that the other is reaching a high level of frustration, we calmly step in to help each other out.
Finally, there are several little behavioral changes that I work on everyday with my kids:
I changed my language. I am learning to say, “Mommy feels frustrated,” instead of, “Mommy is frustrated because of you.” I tell my kids when I need a break, or need space. Whether my nine-year-old and five-year-old actually listen is another story, but at least I am voicing my feelings. My kids are learning that it’s okay to say when you need a break.
I take a break (if possible). I walk away from the situation that is frustrating me. This can mean walking into another room, or even just a different part of the room. As long as I can put some distance between me and my kid, and then take deep breaths, it helps.
I use the 5-4-3-2-1 Coping Technique. This helps bring me back into the present if I am feeling triggered about a past memory.
I do something mindless, or just busy myself. I love mindless busy-ness like doing the dishes, or folding the clothes — because it helps me to clear my mind, and I still feel productive. I also found that reading, even for a few minutes, helps to alleviate anger and anxiety.
I apologize. If I do become angry with my kids, and it really does come from a place of my own issues, and nothing about them — I tell them I am sorry.
I have seen a noticeable difference among my entire little family — we laugh more, my husband and I are learning from each other, my kids take care of each other, and my kids are not afraid to be honest with me about their feelings. My son’s outward moments of anger towards others are also decreasing.
I am not perfect. I still get frustrated, and lose my temper. I yell from time to time, but the moments when I scream in rage at my kids are fewer and farther between. I am gaining awareness over my body and my feelings. I am no longer a passive recipient of my generational trauma. The cycle of abuse ends with me. I am the positive change that I desire, and that I deserve in my life — and with the love and support of my husband, I know that joy is possible.
Erica Dziedzic is an anthropologist, writer, mother, and everyday adventurer. She uses her writing to share stories, connect with people, and learn. She live in Michigan with her sweet husband, two lively kids, and two naughty cats. Link: https://www.ericadziedzic.com/.