Should you tell your children about your toxic parents, their toxic grandparents? What should you tell them and how? Imagine that your parents no longer abuse you physically or sexually, but they still demean you, scapegoat you, ignore or scorn you, make nasty, hostile, sarcastic remarks and put-downs, and let you know that you’re not good enough. No matter what you do or don’t do, you’re wrong. They take charge of your life when you see them and break appointments whenever they feel like it. Their wants and feelings are the center of the world and you don’t count.
Imagine also that you used to think that if you told them, in just the right way and at the right time, how hurtful their treatment was and is, they’d stop. Or that you used to think your job was to rise above that treatment because they’re your parents, they’re getting old, they’re suffering, they deserve a little peace and happiness, and you owe them.
When can you stop trying to build bridges? When can you cut off communication? When can you tell your children why?
Harassment, bullying and verbal, physical and sexual abuse is usually multi-generational. Families help perpetuate the abusive behavior by keeping secrets and telling lies. If you give them a chance, your parents will likely do to your children what they did to you. The old wounds still throb even if your parents are nice sometimes. They still bleed when your parents repeat the same old treatment even now.
When you grow up, you may vow to break the cycle and treat your children better, but how can you protect them from the example they see of their grandparents still bullying you or them now? And how can you stop obsessing on your childhood trauma or yesterday’s verbal battering?
Once you’ve tried everything you can think of, every approach, every sweet way of suggesting or speaking truthfully (say, a thousand times) and your parents (or step-parents) still protect each other, perpetuate the lies and tell you that you’re nasty and crazy, I think that’s enough.
Protect yourself and your children, turn your back to them, and create a safe and wonderful island of life for your family. That means that your parents don’t get on it.
See the case studies of Carrie, Jake and Doug in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” for some tactics that were successful.
- Always remember the effects on your life and how they tried to crush your spirit. Don’t let a running, internal debate about them suck all your energy down a black hole. Stop negative self-talk; it’ll only discourage and depress you, increase self-doubt, destroy self-confidence and self-esteem, keep you fixated and stuck, and take your eyes off the great future you want for yourself and your family.
- You don’t need more understanding of them. You don’t need to save them from themselves or each other. Don’t be their therapist. Let them fix themselves on their own time and their own bodies; not yours.
- Spirit counts more than biology. Start calling them by their first names. Don’t give them titles they don’t deserve, like “Grandma” or “Grandpa.”
- Don’t argue or debate with your parents. You’ll never convince them that you’re doing the right thing. Bullies always want what they want – to feast on your feelings and flesh. Simply tell them that they’re off your island. Take steps to cut off communication. Change your phone numbers and e-mails. Move if you have to.
- Tell your children what’s age appropriate. They don’t need the gory details when they’re six, but they do when they’re sixteen. Gather them together and make it a serious occasion. The framework is that they need to know how to protect themselves and to set standards for their own behavior. Don’t go into psychoanalytical reasons why your parents did it or why they, and maybe the rest of the family, collude to protect them. That’s obvious. You’ll probably have to re-visit the conversation.
- Be invulnerable. That’s the term coined by Victor and Mildred Goertzel in their study of the lives of more than 300 famous 20th-century men and women (“Cradles of Eminence,” 1962). Instead of finding that these highly successful people had wonderful parents, they found that many had agonizing childhoods spent in bleak, troubled homes, including domineering, alcoholic, rage-aholic or neglectful parents. They described the children who succeeded, despite a psychologically damaging childhood, as resilient or invulnerable.
- Be a model for your children. Show them that abusive behavior drives people away. Show them how to stand up to abuse, which sometimes means creating distance instead of being sucked into a battle that ties up your life.
- Create a new family including new elders; a family of your heart and spirit. Have so much fun, bring so much joy that there’s not a hole anymore that would be filled with thoughts of biological grandparents.
- Get an expert coach to increase your determination, perseverance, courage and resilience, and to create tactics for your individual situation.
Your task is to create a fabulous life. Don’t let toxic parents or grandparents – or siblings or friends – ruin it. Shine a light on bullies. Your children need you to show them how to thrive in the face of abuse, cover-ups and lies.