Single mom Joan didn’t know what to do. Her teenage daughter, Mindy, was often so nasty to her that Joan would shake with rage, and cry with pain and frustration. Sometimes, Mindy would call Joan names, tell her how much she hated her, tell her that she was ruining her life, tell her to get out of her room and leave her alone, and demand that she never ask about school. Even when Joan cooked Mindy’s favorite meals, Mindy would grab and gulp, and never say “Please” or “Thank you.” Over the phone, Mindy would vent and yell at her mother.
Joan admitted that Mindy had always been that way and she’d always let her get away with it. Sometimes Mindy was sweet, but then, for no apparent reason, she’d blow up and verbally attack her mother.
Joan could never bring herself to do anything “nasty” to her daughter no matter how negative she was.
What could Joan do to stop her daughter’s bullying?
First, we established that there was nothing really wrong or crazy about Mindy. She had good self-control with everyone else and was always polite. Next, we established that Joan wasn’t doing anything bad to Mindy. Joan was simply Mindy’s punching bag.
Joan had told Mindy how much her behavior hurt. Joan had tried to bribe Mindy and she pleaded with her daughter to stop, but she never took effective action. She never punished her or imposed serious consequences. Joan might threaten, but then she’d always relent. Mindy might apologize, but then she’d soon repeat her behavior. Joan thought she might be letting Mindy get away with being abusive because she felt guilty that Mindy didn’t have a father.
Joan’s reasons for letting Mindy bully her were typical. Joan:
- Wanted her daughter to love her and be a best friend. She wanted Mindy to approve of her.
- Didn’t want to hurt Mindy’s feelings. Also, she was afraid that Mindy would be pushed over some edge into depression and suicide if she didn’t have Joan’s unconditional love.
- Was afraid that if she punished Mindy, her daughter wouldn’t like her or trust her or open up to her. She believed that her love for her daughter was more important that any behavioral standards.
- Believed that if she could understand Mindy’s reasons completely, she could say something to change Mindy’s attitude toward her.
- Didn’t believe nastiness ever worked. And she considered “nasty” as anything that wasn’t kind, sweet or forgiving, or that Mindy didn’t like.
- Didn’t want to stoop to Mindy’s level. She believed that if she was kind enough, eventually Mindy would see the light and change. She believed in the Golden Rule.
When Mindy went to college, Joan thought her daughter’s behavior would finally change. But she was wrong. On the phone, Mindy berated Joan even more. When Mindy came home for Thanksgiving, she treated her mother even worse. When Joan suggested that Mindy seek help just in case Mindy was feeling more pressure and stress, and taking it out on her mother, Mindy exploded.
By the time we talked before Mindy’s Christmas break, Joan was desperate. She felt beaten beyond endurance and she didn’t think she could take much more. She realized that her own daughter was toxic to her.
By then, Joan was willing to try a new approach:
- Open a previously unassailable belief system to new data. Joan removed her old definition of “nasty” and replaced it with one that labeled her as being nasty to herself and to the person she hoped Mindy would become, if she continued to let Mindy act nasty to her.
- Describe the new tactics. Joan would demand the “magic words” again, just like we do when little kids ask for anything. Mindy would have to say, “Please,” and “Thank you” or she wouldn’t get anything. Demanding and bullying would no longer be rewarded.
- Demand high standards of behavior from everyone, especially, from our beloved children. Joan would not let her daughter harass, bully or abuse her; that behavior was no longer acceptable. She wanted Mindy to learn that we must treat best, the people we’re closest to and depend on most.
- Don’t debate, argue or try to reason extensively about what’s fair or right. She’d simply state how she saw it, what she’d do and then do it cheerfully.
- Have effective consequences for nasty behavior. Joan would let Mindy show her what consequences were enough, by how much it took for Mindy to change. The first time Mindy yelled at her over the phone, Joan calmly said, I won’t allow anyone to talk to me that way,” and she hung up. Despite her fears, she didn’t call back. Mindy called a few hours later and said, “Don’t you love me?” Then she started yelling at Joan for not calling back. Joan said, “I love you so much, I won’t let you talk to me like that.” And she calmly hung up again.
- Be sweet, firm and cheerful as we apply consequences.
- Read “cue cards.” Stay firm and calm by pulling out cue cards we’ve prepared and simply read them as we apply consequences.
- “If you want something from me, make it enjoyable for me.” When Mindy was nasty, demanding her mother take her to the mall, Joan said, “I won’t be bullied, but I might drive you if you make me like going with you.” Mindy said, “I won’t suck up to you.” Joan sweetly responded, “Then I won’t take you,” and she turned cheerfully and left the room.
- Be open to bribery. When Mindy was nasty at Christmas, Joan read a cue card she’d made, “Be nice to me, you may want something from me, like a Christmas present.” Mindy said, “That’s bribery!” Joan sweetly replied, “Yes. I’m glad you understand. I work hard for my money and I spend it only on people who are nice to me.”
- Have them act like a guest in our home. Before spring break, Joan told Mindy that she’d packed up all of Mindy’s things into boxes she put in the garage. She was converting Mindy’s room into a guest bedroom. Mindy was welcome to come back as long as she behaved like a nice guest in Joan’s home. Mindy was furious and began to yell, but Joan hung up. Mindy later called back and said she’d act like a guest. Joan was delighted and cheerfully said, “I’m so happy. I hoped you would. That’s the kind of relationship I want to have with you. But you should also have a back-up plan just in case you forget, because I’ll only allow good guests to stay. Three weeks is a long time and you may forget what the standards are and need to have somewhere else to go.”
Pushing the boundaries.
- Joan expected Mindy to resist because Mindy had always been able to beat her mother into submission. She’d still think she could do the same.
- Joan was prepared and steadfast; she expected Mindy to be nice for a while, then to push the boundaries again. She was right. But this time, when Mindy pushed back a little, Joan immediately and sweetly imposed a consequence.
By the next summer, Mindy was treating Joan well. She was polite, civil and sweet. Joan was glad to have Mindy stay as a guest that summer, as long as Mindy had a job. Joan didn’t collect any money, but she knew that if Mindy got lonely and bored, she’d probably slide back to her old, nasty habits.
When should we start requiring good behavior? How about, as soon as we can? Of course we respond kindly to angry babies. Of course, the process of teaching them new ways of getting what they want is initially very slow and speeds up the older they get. So it’s really our good sense and close observation of each individual child’s growth and development that must guide us.
But the goal is always clear. “We ask for what we want. But we’ll get what we’re willing to put up with.”