Why is abuse so formulaic?
June 28, 2016 5:02 AM   Subscribe

After reading around forums on parental abuse, I'm struck by how often my mother has a behaviour/opinion/specific threat or saying that is so common it could've come from an official handbook. My parents didn't have a parenting 'philosophy', they just did what they liked and didn't give it much thought. How is it possible that these isolated, fairly unaware people could be reproducing the exact same abusive behaviour I've read over and over, committed thousands of miles away?

Some things are literally verbatim -"I'll give you something to cry about!", threatening homelessness, telling us we'd be raped in foster care, etc etc etc. I grew up in the UK at a time before the internet was widely used. How does this sort of behaviour cross national boundaries into so many different cultures, and end up exactly the same - how did my parents end up saying the exact same sentences and drilling the exact same abuse into us as someone 10,000 miles away?
I've noticed intimate partner abuse also tends to follow a generic format, although I'd say most abusers don't consciously learn and apply tactics, but seem to do it instinctually. Can anyone shed any light on how/why these patterns exist?
posted by everydayanewday to Human Relations (19 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
What are the things that make you feel loved? What do you do when you're feeling nervous or scared? Our systems are mostly very much alike. Adrenaline, anger, disgust all affect our minds and bodies in similar ways. Words are an effective way to express our emotions and alter someone else's sense of wellbeing. It is kind of strange that certain phrases seem to come up again and again. However, as a kid, I think you will always remember the time someone said "I'll give you something to cry about." It's a threat of violence during emotional vulnerability and as a parent now I see the kernel there is a combination of frustration and shame which manifests in anger. It's not a good place to be but we all go there. Managing that is our human challenge.
posted by amanda at 5:19 AM on June 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

Best answer: A lot of the examples you're citing are what I'd call "base overreactions to common situations." I have a three-year-old, and man, kids will lose it over ANYTHING. Most times, it's faintly exasperating (but also secretly hilarious) when she starts crying because her milk is in a plastic cup instead of a glass cup. On really tough days, though, when this is the 33rd time it's happened and you're exhausted and it's only 4:30 and sweet christ I have to soldier through 4 more hours of tired cranky kid... sure, the emotion that leaps into the back of your throat is "Goddamnit, you're crying over THIS?"

The important distinction here is, of course, that functional adults have a strong filter about expressing feelings like this. I would never voice that frustration, much less couch it as "I'll give you something to cry about," but I absolutely recognize where it's coming from. As far as I know, the feeling is pretty close to universal, and if your parents threatened you with a specific phrase, (and if you're abusing your kids, I'd say the chances are overwhelmingly high that your parents did the same to you) the chances are pretty good you're going to use that same wording, because it's the only parenting technique you know.
posted by Mayor West at 5:35 AM on June 28, 2016 [13 favorites]

I think it's formulaic because any individual act of abusive generally fits into a few categories of types control or coercion. The Power & Equality Wheels were developed around domestic violence, but it looks like there's an Abuse of Children (PDF) one, too.
posted by lazuli at 5:48 AM on June 28, 2016 [9 favorites]

I've noticed intimate partner abuse also tends to follow a generic format, although I'd say most abusers don't consciously learn and apply tactics, but seem to do it instinctually.

That you don't learn something consciously doesn't mean it's instinctive. We learn very little of our behaviors and thought patterns through the conscious application of tactics. For the most part, we apply what we experience/witness as children to our adult relationships without thinking about it. If our formative years were spent in healthy environments, we learn healthy behaviors and skills; if they were abusive, we learn that.
posted by headnsouth at 6:14 AM on June 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

The world wasn't completely without communication before the Internet. TV shows, movies, and books are international.

As a specific example, Bill Cosby comedy albums were hugely popular, and I seem to recall that in one, he specifically says "I'll give you something to cry about!".
posted by MexicanYenta at 6:49 AM on June 28, 2016 [7 favorites]

> The world wasn't completely without communication before the Internet. TV shows, movies, and books are international.

As a specific example, Bill Cosby comedy albums were hugely popular, and I seem to recall that in one, he specifically says "I'll give you something to cry about!".

This is probably irrelevant; parents have been saying these things for centuries, probably millennia. It's a matter of natural ways to express natural (and common) emotions.
posted by languagehat at 7:00 AM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Think of it like a fucked-up kind of folklore or oral culture. Threats to use on your kids probably spread the same way as any other turn of phrase: you hear someone else use it, it sticks in your mind, and later you use it yourself.

Another thing that's probably relevant: until recently, threatening your kids with violence wasn't taboo. It was done, and discussed, openly. So you'd have lots of opportunities to hear how other people did it. You'd be on the receiving end of threats like this as a kid, and you'd hear your friends' parents threatening them, and you'd hear your own friends and relatives and neighbors threaten their own kids, and you'd hear threats like this on TV or the radio, and so on. I suspect that openness made it even easier for this sort of abusive oral culture to spread and crystallize.

But so basically this is no weirder than the fact that a lot of songs and games and nursery rhymes show up on both sides of the Atlantic (and did even before radio). Folklore in general can spread really widely and stick around in recognizable form for a really long time.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:44 AM on June 28, 2016 [14 favorites]

I too would blame Bill Cosby. My dad had a bunch of his records and used that phrase a lot.
posted by sexyrobot at 7:49 AM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you to everyone who replied! It certainly does help to see it as a kind of set of socially transmitted phrases and attitudes. Do you think this is the same for more general tactics like isolating a person from their friends, gaslighting, hysterical overreactions, scapegoating, etc?
posted by everydayanewday at 7:55 AM on June 28, 2016

It's human psychology. Everyone's psychological makeup is basically the same on some level, as well as their nervous systems/"blind spots" in the brain, etc. You will learn this if you do enough tests on large enough populations. Google undergrad psych experiments. Everyone will fall for the same brain teaser, will react the same way to a contrived experiment, etc.

What abusive people are doing is using knowledge of human psychology for ill gain. Child psychology, in particular, is very predictable because there are stages that are basically 100% universal in the growth and development of the brain. Abusive caretakers know this and know how to exploit it. To them it may be "manipulation" or even "necessary evil to control unruly children" - they probably don't label it "abuse."

Same thing like, the police or army do in interrogation.
posted by quincunx at 8:34 AM on June 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

I also think it's just human psychology. In my experience abuse is often about power -- the threat of taking away love while making someone crave it and depend on it. People do that by undermining emotions, using threats, cutting off a person's social ties, and limiting their freedom. I have seen abusers as people who need to be in control and are deeply insecure when they lose it -- resulting in anger, indignation, shame and violence. Many people who are abused want to please or placate. My father had explosive anger and I would often do what he said simply because his anger was so terrifying. An effective abuser conditions people around them to view their imposed rules as not only the path of least resistance, but what they deserve and need to keep them safe. As people know what they need to be happy, abusers learn to manipulate that. And don't forget, many people who are abused begin to take on those behaviors themselves. It is a toxic cycle.
posted by mmmleaf at 8:50 AM on June 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: You might find Down the Rabbit Hole: The world of estranged parents' forums an interesting read (I think I may have found the site via MeFi?). There is quite a lot of behaviour in common on the parents' part.

Since I am a creep I lurk on a forum for parents in trouble with child protection societies. These people almost always fall in to one of a very few categories:

-- has serious untreated mental illness, is unwilling/unable to recognise this

-- chooses (repeatedly!) abusive law-breaking partners (almost always the mother's boyfriend, in heterosexual relationships) over the children; warnings from social workers are viewed as cruel attempts to "break up the family" rather than protect the children

-- very low IQ -- these are very sad -- the person barely has the skills needed to live independently in the community by themself, does not have the skills to raise a child

-- serious untreated substance abuse issues, in denial about same

...seeing that the root causes of problems were, over and over, identical, gave me pause about how often the abuse is identical.

One fascinating thing about all of these people is the extent to which they are generally convinced that their lives our normal. Apropos of the police being repeatedly called to one couple's residence because of their fights and the children being removed or at threat of removal after too much of this, comments included "But all couples fight!" as though trying to hash out whose turn it is to mow the lawn or where to spend Xmas would reasonably be expected to result in the police arriving at the door.

When the men are abusive brawlers: "Name me one adult male who hasn't been in a fistfight!" If we exclude early schooldays I think that's almost every man I know, but in these circles, settling disputes with physical fights has been normalized. So smacking your kid about is not just "discipline," but also teaching them how to get on in the world as adults. Very few if any of these people participate much in the wider world outside of their marginalized and impoverished communities. They lack agency, they lack an understanding of a world where people do not say terrible things to their children. Their parents did it, their neighbours and friends do it.

Parenting advice is virtually never given. The pervasive belief is that children are inherently "bad" and require harsh disciplineabuse to become "good." Many of the parents, despite having reached the point where they are visiting their children in supervised access centres, still very much believe that they are good, caring parents. Metrics for this include: I may spank but I never left a mark. There is always food in my house. I do not use drugs (maybe occasionally grass). My children have always had clean clothing and toys. In other words, trying to meet bare legal minimums for child 'care' is something to boast about. This is more than adequate and the children are expected to be very thankful for food, a home, and clothing. This is, of course, miles and miles away from the parenting standards one is expected to uphold in the middle classes -- but these people's lives are miles away from that, too.

Since, as mentioned, I am a creep, I am not above lurking on these people's social media pages if they link them. I have yet to find somebody in serious trouble who appears to come from a healthy family. Grandma's FB page shows a big pile of empty two-fours in the kitchen and Grandma rarely appears with the same boyfriend twice...if I hit the skids and started staying up all night smoking meth and throwing down a sack of bread for lunch by way of child care, I'm sure my parents would be disgusted beyond belief with me but would not hesitate to provide a safe home for my child. The abusive parents do not have safe places -- the friends are also dealing with various pressures from authorities, the parents and other relatives are also isolated to the point of thinking nothing of being a grandmother whose most substantial kitchen decor is beer bottle empties. I don't think a lot of these people have much if any interaction with healthy families, and I think a lot of the nastiness comes down through the generations.

I had a very lovely grandmother. When I was quite young she sent regular letters that were part collages -- she would go through magazines and neatly clip out pictures of my favourite toys and glue them in amongst her writings. She was always a source of excellent advice, and love. I tear up thinking of her and all the good she brought to my life. This meant that when I had a child, I did not for a moment question whether or not she could be happily -- never mind safely -- left with my parents for an afternoon. They had seen good grandparenting in action; it had been normalized in our family. But the people on the forum for parents in trouble with child welfare authorities do not seem to have anything like that. Sometimes a grandparent shows up on the forum -- usually, because the children are being put in to foster care, and the grandparent has tried to apply to be the one to provide care for them, and been turned down. "I don't understand," they say. "I had my own troubles with [child welfare] but that was years ago." Nothing has changed, and the child welfare authorities know it. They are irate, angry, disgusted that another generation "is being torn apart." At no point do they pause to wonder what parts they have played in this happening -- it is the fault of social workers, who presumably have no kids of their own and do not understand how "bad" kids can be and how much work parenting is, etc. There are a lot of delusional beliefs like: social workers receive a $2k bonus for each child they remove from a home. Child welfare agencies are structured so that there are multiple incentives to "steal" children and "lie to the courts." Doctors, police, psychologists, judges, and most lawyers are all "in the pockets of" the agency.

They simply have no idea what goes on in the rest of the world. "Name me one adult man who hasn't been in a fistfight"... Violence is normalized and systemic.
posted by kmennie at 11:17 AM on June 28, 2016 [59 favorites]

Multiple discovery is a known phenomenon in science. You might be interested in reading up on the concept of Emergence as well. In essence, given the same circumstances, people often independently draw the same conclusions.

So it might help to wonder what commonalities underlie abuse.
posted by Spanish Ash at 11:31 AM on June 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Best answer: kmennie, your comment was wonderful and beautiful and insightful and full of compassion and everything good despite trudging heavily in badness.

I suggest anyone who wants more into the insight of abuse and family dynamics check out this Twitter thread about "white trash" that I recently ran into.

Yes that's a loaded racially complex term that tends to insinuate that white people think of all other races as "trash" and I try to avoid it for that reason. The closer you are too it, the harder it is to put it down.

"Poorness" is "poorness" no matter how you slice it but each racial group seems to have their own neuroses and tendencies about it, with shit-loads of commonality between them all but also a vast chasm of separation because it gives all marginalized and misguided people a feeling of superiority or at least some feeling of control in their own lives if they can look at the "other" in disgust and find fault.

It's something I struggle with in my everyday life but I try not to let it define me; it tends to crop up more when I deal with my sister, because I do feel she chose a poor partner over her children, and chose to enter another sub-optimal partner after divorcing without getting any comfort level with being by herself.

My dad was so angry all of the time when I was little that I wrote a story called "The Mad Man" with pictures of a "mad man" who looked like my dad, mustache and all, washing his car, lifting weights, etc, while angry. I didn't know I was expressing trauma at the time, I literally couldn't see that this was about my dad and up until recently my parents fondly trotted the story out like it was a cute story of a precocious kid rather than a sad narrative of a kid processing abuse.

"Poor" parents push the lines of appropriateness all of the time, it seems to give them some feeling of power that they are exposing children to the horrors of life at an early age -- I saw The Terminator when I was just early enough to form long-term memories (think 4 years old) and still can visualize the more grotesque scenes in my mind's eye far more quickly than I can recall childhood dreams of being a fighter pilot or owning my own farm.

The abusive speech patterns all stem from frustration with their own powerlessness. This is in all walks of life, whether poor, middle-class, or billionaire, parents are nonetheless always faced with situations where they don't have the power to stop their children from overloading them with emotions and intensity, and if they lack the self-discipline and self-control to mitigate their reaction, they will unleash their futile powerlessness upon the child in a way that is proportionate to how they feel powerless in other walks of life (bad encounter with the boss, lost a major client, stock price dropped down, whatever). The more traumatized the parent, the more they will struggle with emotional dysregulation and pass this down to their children.

The big key is to be aware of when this is happening, to learn what dysregulation looks like in your own children (it's normal for them! it's what they grow out of!) and what it looks like in you (it's normal for traumatized people to struggle! it's not normal to avoid help and correction for it!).

And don't spend too much time trying to find it in your heart to forgive your parents or hope they will apologize. They most likely had it much worse, and they will struggle to have any insight into what harm they've caused at this point in their lives. The most they can typically say is "we tried our best" and we have to leave it at that, and seek comfort in knowing that we will do our best too, and it will be significantly better, because we have things like the internet to share and penetrate meaningful information, like what a well-adjusted family dynamic really should look like.
posted by aydeejones at 12:31 PM on June 28, 2016 [12 favorites]

> I too would blame Bill Cosby. My dad had a bunch of his records and used that phrase a lot.

This way predates Bill Cosby. Please, everyone, just forget about Bill Cosby.
posted by languagehat at 12:59 PM on June 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

You might find Down the Rabbit Hole: The world of estranged parents' forums an interesting read (I think I may have found the site via MeFi?).

This got a decently robust FPP, and the comments are likely worth reading in this context.
posted by emptythought at 1:53 PM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is a really great question.

Everyone has had fantastic input.

I think it is important to look at the generational and socio economic patterns in abusive families in order to get towards the answer. For instance, with inter generational child abuse, this is what makes the most sense to me: a mother sees her baby or young child demanding the care that babies and young children need to demand. Yet, she never felt beloved or cared for in these ways, so her reaction is a jealous anger. Etc.

With spousal abuse, as mentioned above with child abuse, there are cultural patterns that are acted out and not seen as out of the norm. Abusers don't believe what they do is abuse; it's just their belief in power structures and doing what they have to do to win the relationship.

But the specific words and specific behaviors goes well beyond an etiological root for abusive behavior. It's a whole different ball game. Bill Cosby said that on that record because it had always been a, not a dog whistle, but like just a regular whistle, for many, many years before that recording.

But abusers don't whistle to each other this way. They may say "well, then I told her X" to a fellow abuser, but those sporadic conversations are not enough to engender a culture. Racism and sexism happen in the public sphere; abuse happens mostly when the family is shielded from the world.

It's a REALLY good sociological, as well as psychological question.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 2:05 PM on June 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

One fascinating thing about all of these people is the extent to which they are generally convinced that their lives our normal.

I grew up in a screaming (and hitting) household. give you something to cry about, yeah, like child protection would deal with kids like you, you've got it easy! etc etc The police were called a few times. I would have said that I was terrified by it but really at some level I wasn't - it became normal.

One night a few years ago I heard my next door neighbours screaming at each other. I remember snuggling deeper into my bed thinking 'ahhh' and drifting blissfully off to sleep as at some level the sound of screaming in another room was a weirdly comforting & nostalgic childhood memory.

I chose not to have kids because I don't have the time or money for all the therapy it would take to eradicate this kind of dysfunctional thinking. I would totally be a screamer and a smacker and I don't want to be that person.
posted by kitten magic at 9:55 PM on June 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

Because the causes are few and pretty much universal.
posted by dancing leaves at 4:16 AM on June 29, 2016

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