It had been a wonderful 9 months for Jane and her husband.  Their youngest child went off to college and they had the house and their lives to themselves.  No more picking up after the kids, waiting on them, cleaning up the bathrooms after them, helping them through their emergencies.  They got over the initial shock of having an empty nest.  They felt free and spontaneous again.  Their chores were light. Then their son moved back in for the summer.  And it was like having a 200-pound-baby thrashing about in their nest.  He was a good kid, had done well his freshman year and they did love him.  But it was a royal pain taking care of him again.

What could they do?

They tried the usual ways of asking, lecturing, berating and arguing, but he continued acting the way he had before he’d left.  He seemed to think he was an entitled prince.  This was his vacation and he wanted to do only what he wanted to do.  When they wanted him to do more, he tried to beat them into submission with angry temper tantrums or to manipulate them to back off by using blame and guilt.

Jane and her husband realized they were making no progress.  They had training him to expect to do nothing and get away with being surly.  Asking without consequences was just begging.  Appeasing him didn’t buy them the civil, polite behavior they wanted.

They didn’t want to throw him out; how could he support himself?  Or would he start hanging out with bad company?

They finally told him that since he was no longer a little baby and since he wanted all the rights and privileges of a responsible adult, he was now a guest in their home.

  1. As a guest he had certain responsibilities, like treating their stuff the way they wanted (not the way he felt like), picking up after himself and asking permission to use their things.  They knew that he would act like a good guest if he was staying at a friend's or even an aunt or uncle’s house.  They loved him and he was doing well at school and seemed to be on his way to making an independent life for himself and they expected him to act like a good guest.
  2. They said they wouldn’t accept being treated like victims, servants or slaves, cleaning up after their master.  They wanted an adult relationship with an adult they might like being with.  If he wanted something from them like room and board, loan of a car or college tuition, he had to pay for what he got by being fun, polite and civil.  He also had to get a job so he wouldn’t be hanging around all day.  That’s what adults do.
  3. They said that in his absence, they had created an “Isle of Song” for themselves.  No toxic polluters allowed.  Anyone who wanted to get on that isle had to add to the music and dance.  Was he willing?  They knew he could because he acted great around everyone else.

Of course be blew up and tried anger (how could they treat him that way) and guilt (didn’t they love him any more?) to continue to get his lazy, selfish, narcissistic, self-indulgent way.

Even though they suddenly saw him as a bully, they laughed good-naturedly and applauded his efforts to get what he wanted from them.  Literally applauded.  And then they graded his tantrums: was that a 9.2 or a 6.5?

They told him that he had ‘til Friday to find a place with a friend.  They were converting his room into the exercise room they’d always wanted.  They told him they were going to buy boxes to pack up all his stuff stored in the garage.  And then they went out for coffee and left him alone.

When they returned, their son apologized.  He could see they were serious and he’d be a great guest.  They had previously agreed to act sad if he said this, and to pretend hat they’d really wanted the exercise room.

They’d also agreed with each other previously to take him back provisionally on a weekly basis.  They’d provide a list of chores and met weekly to review performance.  But cheerful, gracious and polite behavior was graded at every interaction.  Harassment, bullying or verbal abuse were not tolerated.

Summer with him became fun; except when his older sister came home for two weeks.  But that’s a different story.

Some variants:

  1. A grown child who is independent but has to move back suddenly because he lost his job or just got divorced.  It’s only for a short time while he gets back on his feet and moves out again.
  2. A grown child who’s life is a mess and needs to move home because she can’t make it on her own.  She hates you and blames all her problems on you.  And you’re afraid she’ll move in permanently.

The principal and teachers at Sheila’s school were proud of their efforts to stop bullies.  They had a team, including a psychologist, to deal fairly with students accused of bullying. They were certain that:

  1. Students became bullies because they’d been bullied at home.
  2. Bullies had low self-esteem and weren’t aware of other ways of making friends.
  3. Bullying was in retaliation for bad treatment and that if provocation decreased, so would bullying.
  4. If other students stopped hurting the feelings of bullies, bullying would eventually stop.
  5. Since bullying was not the fault of one person, negotiation and mediation, would eventually stop bullying.
  6. The best way to stop bullying was through forgiveness, sympathy, compassion, understanding, education and compromise.

These educators were not going to let those poor, damaged kids who’d turned to bullying be harassed, taunted or abused, verbally or emotionally, or through unjust accusations.

What’s wrong with this picture?

For example, when Sheila finally had enough and complained that a clique of mean girls made disparaging remarks about her weight, hair, pimples and un-cool clothes, her teacher asked for proof.  Sheila could only offer her word against the girls who denied being mean to her.

Since there was no proof, and the accused clique was composed of popular girls, Sheila’s teacher told her that she didn’t believe those girls would act so mean and Sheila better watch her false accusations.  The teacher said that Sheila was probably jealous and maybe she should dress better, lose weight, make friends and avoid antagonizing the popular girls.

Sheila’s mother met with the teacher, principal and school psychologist.  They assured her that there was no evidence for Sheila’s accusations.  Then they asked many questions about Sheila’s home life and psychological state.  Maybe Sheila was going through something difficult at home.  Or maybe she was simply jealous and suffering from some teenage turmoil because she didn’t fit in.

They suggested that Sheila try to make friends with the popular girls – be nice to them, ask them what upset them and try to change that, give them friendship offerings, open her heart to them or turn the other cheek if she was misunderstanding what they said to her.  Maybe Sheila was simply too sensitive to the way high school girls naturally were.

They told accused clique of girls that Sheila had complained about them and encouraged them to be nice to her, despite her complaint.

Having been forewarned and directed at Sheila, but having no consequences to make them stop bullying, the accused girls escalated their attacks and got sneakier.  Sheila was subjected to daily barrages of hostility, venom and meanness.  When nothing happened to the clique, they got bolder and eventually beat Sheila up in the bathroom.

Unfortunately for them, a teacher happened to be in one of the stalls and heard the whole scene.

The school officials now initiated their program to stop bullies.

  • They investigated to find out what Sheila had done to provoke the attack.
  • They told Sheila’s parents to trust them.  They were working on the problem, but because of confidentiality issues, they couldn’t share what they were doing.
  • They encouraged Sheila’s parents not to talk with the parents of the clique girls.
  • They encouraged Sheila’s parents not to go to the media or to a lawyer.
  • They assured Sheila’s parents that the quieter the issue was kept, the more likely there would be a rapid resolution to the situation.

The principal and therapist had Sheila meet with the girls to mediate the situation by themselves.  They told the girls that they thought the students could solve the hostility on their own and that Sheila was willing to compromise with them.

At that meeting, the girls pinched Sheila, punched her, pulled her hair and threatened her with worse after school.  Then they told the principal and therapist that they’d apologized and promised not to do anything if Sheila would treat them nicer, but that Sheila had called them names, insulted them and refused to compromise.

Over the next six months, the attacks on Sheila increased, and the principal and his staff kept trying to educate the bullies.  Subjected to repeated teasing, taunting, harassment and physical abuse during this time, Sheila’s inner demons emerged, she gained more weight, became morose and depressed, and often had suicidal thoughts.  Her confidence, self-esteem and grades plummeted.  She even went through a period of guilt, thinking that the way the girls treated her was, indeed, her fault.

It took a lot to overcome her sense of despair and defeat, activate her fighting spirit and help her recover a sense of purpose, determination and hope.

By the way, the truth of Sheila’s accusations was later verified because one of her narcissistic persecutors had proudly used her phone to record most of the attacks.

There were many early warning signs that could have alerted Sheila’s parents that school officials would do nothing to stop the bullying. There were:

I could say a lot about specific steps that the principal, teachers and therapist could and should have taken to protect Sheila.  But they were the kind of do-nothing administrators who eventually make the headlines.

However, for this article let’s focus on the assumptions these educators had that assured that they wouldn’t consider protecting Sheila effectively.

  1. There are the ones listed at the beginning of this article.
  2. These supposedly responsible authorities cared more about understanding, educating and forgiving the bullies than about protecting their target or about creating a safe environment at their school.
  3. They thought that the feelings and confidentiality of the bullies were more important than Sheila’s pain.
  4. They were willing to sacrifice Sheila for the sake of education and therapy on the bullies.

Almost every student at the school knew what was happening and recognized the accepted culture of bullying.  That’s why there were no witnesses; the students knew better than to risk their necks when they wouldn’t be protected by the adults.

As is usually the case, in a school in which bullies are not stopped, Sheila’s treatment was not an isolated case.  When Sheila’s parents made her situation public, many other parents came forward with reports of how their children had been bullied by other students and how the administrators had not protected them.  Even after many other cases surfaced, the principal and his staff maintained the same approach.

Only the results of extensive media publicity, a court case and the intervention of a district administrator changed the situation.  Actually, more publicity resulted in a faster resolution of the situation.

Obviously, I don’t think that education, compassion and therapy are the best methods of stopping bullying.  The best method is to stop the behavior:

  1. Create an atmosphere in which bullying is not tolerated.
  2. Remove bullies.
  3. Protect targets; don’t convert them into victims.
  4. Encourage witness to come forward, not to become bystanders.

Then we’ll see which bullies respond to education, compassion and therapy.

I won’t sacrifice the targets for the sake of the bullies.

For some examples, see the case studies in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” and “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids,” available fastest from this web site.

Since all tactics depend on the situation, expert coaching by phone or Skype helps.  We can design a plan that fits you and your situation.  And build your will and skill to carry it out effectively.

Sometimes toxic parents think they have us over a barrel even after we’ve grown up, gotten physically and financially independent, and started our own family.  They count on our loyalty to some ideal of “family” no matter how badly they treated and still treat us.  They count on our self-bullying and guilt.  They count on us still trying to jump through their hoops to win their love and approval...  They count on our fear that they’ll manipulate the rest of the family into thinking we’re ungrateful and bad.  And they often count on our enduring the verbal and emotional abuse so we can inherit our share of their fortune. Of course, I’m talking about those toxic parents who are still blaming everything on us and abusing us because “It’s your fault” or “You are selfish, ungrateful and don’t deserve any better” or “It’s your duty to do what they want in their old age.”  They’re the toxic parents who know our every weakness and sensitivity, and still poke them hard when they want too; still find fault with every little thing we do; still compare us unfavorably to someone else or to their standards; still criticize, belittle and harass us and our spouse and our children in public or they’re the sneaky ones who criticize, demean and denigrate us in private but pretend they love us in public so everyone thinks they’re wonderful, loving parents.

Of course, we’ve tried everything we can think of, but the negativity, harassment, criticism, blame, shame, bullying and abuse haven’t stopped.  We’ve tried to do exactly what they want, but it’s never enough.  We’ve apologized and pleaded with them to stop, but that just makes them act nastier.  We’ve gotten angry and threatened not to see them, but they broke down in such tears of distress we felt guilty or they blamed on us even more or they acted nice for a few minutes but, when we relaxed, they attacked us more about something different they didn’t like.

So what can we do now?

  1. For the sake of peace and quiet in the whole family, we could keep trying to endure the abuse while begging them to stop.  After all, we never know; if we only kept trying, if we only did enough, they might change.  Also, they might leave us in the will.  And it’d be our fault if we quit too soon.  Many people fly low until they have children and see their toxic parents either criticizing and emotionally abusing their children or belittling and criticizing them while being sweet to the grandchildren.
  2. We might continue objecting and arguing; enduring our frustration and anger.  Usually this tactic repeats endlessly and often spirals out of control.  Relentlessly toxic parents won’t admit they’re wrong and give up.  Eventually they’ll escalate and cut us out of the will.
  3. We might try withdrawing for a while; not seeing them, telling them we won’t return emails and calls, and then carrying through.  People usually shift from the first two tactics to this one when they see the effect of their toxic parents on their own children.  This tactic sometimes convinces nasty, mean, bullying parents that they’d better change their ways or they’ll lose contact with their grandchildren.  But the relentlessly toxic parents don’t care.  They’re sure they’re fine and they’re sure they’ll win if they push hard enough, like they’ve always won in the past.  So they don’t change and we go back to arguing or we give up or we finally respond more firmly.
  4. The next step is to withdraw for a long time, maybe forever – no contact.  It’s sad but we have to protect the family we’re creating from our own predatory parents.  It’s usually both scary and very exciting.  Most people, despite any guilt they feel, also feel a huge surge of relief, as if a giant weight or a fire-breathing dragon has been removed from their shoulders.  Our spouse and children may celebrate.  Get out of town, go on a vacation, turn the phones and email off.

What to expect and how to respond?

  1. They’ll attack when we withdraw.  Expect them to make angry calls and send hostile emails.  Save these on an external drive or a cheap recorder before deleting them.  They want to engage us, so do not engage endlessly and fruitlessly; no return calls or emails, no hateful or vindictive responses.  We’ve only gotten to this point because they haven’t changed after many approaches and warnings.  We might have to change our phone numbers to unlisted ones and change our email addresses.
  2. They’ll rally the extended family.  Prepare by making cue cards of what to say; no excuses or justifications.  Just tell the family what you said and did, and what you plan.  Ask them not to intervene.  Tell them we’d like to see them but only if our toxic parents are not present.  We’re sorry they’re caught in the middle but that’s life.  They do have to choose who to believe and what behavior to support.  Be prepared to withdraw from anyone who attacks or interferes.
  3. They’ll disinherit us.  When they can’t manipulate us through love, blame, shame and guilt, they’ll try greed.  If we don’t do what our toxic parents want right now, they’ll cut us out of the will.  Don’t be a slave to greed; it’s a deadly sin.  If we want to have a bully-free family life, we’ll have to make it on our own.  The real benefit is not merely ending the brutality, it’s the strength of character and the skills we gain when we make decisions for ourselves and chart our own course in the world.  We’ll end the negativity, stress, anxiety and depression usually caused by toxic parents.  We’ll develop the strength, courage, determination, perseverance and resilience we all need to make wonderful lives.  We’ll be able to express our passion and joy without cringing, waiting for the next blow to fall.
  4. We’ll have an empty space in our lives.  Even more than the empty physical space we’ll now have at the times when we used to get together with our toxic parents, we’ll have a huge mental and emotional space.  How many hours have we wasted thinking about our parents, worrying about the next episode, dreading what might happen next, agonizing over what to do.  We don’t have to do that any more.  Of course, being weaned from an old habit takes a little time.  We must be gentle with ourselves.  Focus on the freedom we now have.  Now we can think about the things we want to think about; not about pain and suffering, not about past failures.  Now we have space to bring into our lives people who will be part of the tribe of our heart and spirit.
  5. Our children will wonder why.  Tell the kids in a way that’s age appropriate.  Are we protecting them from the verbal abuse of their toxic grandparents or from lies that paint us as bad people?  They’ll want to know what’s going to stay the same.  Will they have fun, celebrate holidays, get presents, have extended family?

The most important lessons we offer our children are not through books and lectures.  Those are important, but the most important ones are the ones they see in our behavior when we’re models of behavior we want them to learn.

Be a model for them of someone who protects himself and them from anyone who would target them, even someone who’s close by blood.  Being close by behavior counts more than blood.  Show them not to be victimized even by blood relations.

Show them to how to be the hero of their lives.

With expert coaching and consulting, we can look at individual situations and plan tactics that are appropriate to us and to the situation.  We can overcome the voices of our fears and self-bullying.  We can overcome childhood rules to endure whatever bullying and abuse our toxic parents dish out simply because they’re our parents.  We can become strong and skilled enough to stop bullies in their tracks – even if those bullies are blood relatives. “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” has many examples of children and adults getting over their early training and freeing themselves from toxic relationships.  For more personalized coaching call me at 877-8Bullies (877-828-5543).

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AuthorBen Leichtling
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Many types of family bullying are obvious, whether it’s physical or verbal harassment, nastiness or abuse, and targets or witnesses usually jump in to stop it.  The typical perpetrators are mothers and fathers bullying each other or the kids, sibling bullies, bullying step-parents or kids sneakily bullying a step-parent in order to drive a wedge between a biological parent and their new partner. But many people allow extended family members to abuse their children or their spouses, especially at the holidays, because they’re afraid that protest will split the family into warring factions that will never be healed.  They’re afraid they’ll be blamed for destroying family unity or they accept a social code that proclaims some image of “family” as the most important value.

Except in a few, rare situations, that’s a big mistake.

A rare exception might be an aged, senile and demented, or a dying family member whose behavior is tolerated temporarily while the children are protected from the abuse.

But a more typical example of what shouldn’t be tolerated was a grandpa who had a vicious tongue, especially when he drank.  He angrily told the grandchildren they were weak, selfish and dumb.  He ripped them down for every fault – too smart, too stupid; too fat, too skinny; too short, too tall; too pretty, too ugly; too demanding, too shy.  He also focused on fatal character flaws; born lazy, born failure, born evil, born unwanted.

For good measure, he verbally assaulted his own children and their spouses – except for the favorite ones.  He even did this around the Thanksgiving and Christmas tables when the parents and their spouses were present.  He was always righteous and right.

Imagine that you see the fear, stress, anxiety and pain on your children’s faces and on your spouse’s face; you feel the pain and anger in your own heart.  You hate being there; you hate exposing your family to the negativity and abuse.  The rest of the adults try to shrug it off saying, “It’s only dad.  He really does love us.  His life has been hard.”  Or they insist, “Don’t upset the family, don’t force us to choose sides, family comes first.”

What can you do?

I assume you’ve asked him to stop or given him dirty looks, but that only seemed to encourage him to attack you and your children more.  Or he apologized, but didn’t stop for even minute.  When you arrived late and tried to leave early, he attacked your family even more.  He blamed you for disrupting the family.  The rest of the adults also said that it’s your fault you aren’t kind and family oriented enough to put up with him.

What else can you do?

I think you have to step back and look at the big picture – a view of culture, society and what’s important in life.  Only then can you decide what fights are important enough to fight and only then will you have the strength, courage and perseverance to act effectively.

Compare two views: one in which blood family is all important. We are supposed to do anything for family and put up with anything from family because we need family in order to survive or because family is the greatest good.  This view says that if you put anything above family, especially your individual conscience or needs, you’ll destroy the foundations of civilized life and expose yourself in times of need.  In this view, we are supposed to sacrifice ourselves and our children to our biological family – by blood or by marriage.

We can see the benefits of this view.  When you’re old and sick, who else will take care of you but kith and kin?  In this view, the moral basis of civilization is the bond of blood and marriage.  Violate that relationship, bring disunity into the family by standing up for your individual views and you jeopardize everything important and traditional.

In my experience, this view is usually linked to the view that men and inherited traditions should rule.  Boys are supposed to torment girls because that teaches them how to become men.  Girls are supposed to submit because that’s their appointed role – sanctioned by religion and culture.  If men are vicious to women and children, if old people are vicious to the young, that’s tolerated.

Contrast this view with an alternative in which behavior is more important than blood. Your individual conscience and rules of acceptable behavior are more important than traditions that enable brutality and pain generation after generation.  What’s most important in this view is that you strive to create an environment with people who fill your heart with joy – a family of your heart and spirit.

If you choose the first view, you’ll never be able to stop bullying and abuse.  Your children will see who has the power and who bears the pain.  They’ll model the family dynamics they saw during the holidays.   You’ve abdicated the very individual conscience and power that you need to protect yourself and your children.  You’ll wallow in ineffective whining and complaining, hoping that someone else will solve your problem.

The best you can hope for outside the family, when your children face bullies who have practiced being bullies or being bullied at home, is that school authorities will do what’s right and protect your children from bullies.  But how can you expect more courage from them than you have?  Or why shouldn’t they accept the culture which tolerates bullying and abuse, just like you have?

Once you’ve decided that you will stop accepting intolerable behavior, your action plan will have to be adjusted to the circumstances, for example:

  • Are you the biological child in the family or merely a spouse?
  • Is your spouse willing to be as strong as you?
  • Who’s the perpetrator – a grandparent, another adult or spouse, a cousin, a more distant relative?
  • Do you see the perpetrator every year or once a decade?
  • Do other adults acknowledge the abuse also?

Expert coaching and good books and CDs like “Bullies Below the Radar: How to Wise Up, Stand Up and Stay Up” and “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” will help you make the necessary inner shifts and also develop a stepwise action plan that fits your family situation and newly developed comfort zone.  For example, see the case studies of Kathy, Jake and Ralph.

Keep in mind that while you hope the perpetrator will change his or her behavior, your goal is really to have an island with people who make every occasion joyous.  You must be prepared to go all the way to withdrawing from family events or to starting a fight that will split the family into two camps.  But at least you’ll be in a camp in which you feel comfortable spending the holidays.

Be prepared to be pleasantly surprised.  Sometimes when one person speaks up, many others join in and the combined weight of opinion forces an acceptable change.  Sometimes if you say you’ll withdraw, you’ll be seen as the most difficult person in the room and the rest of the family will make the abuser change or ostracize him or her.

James Jones, the Florida father who boarded a school bus to protect his 13 year-old daughter from school bullies, has been raked through the media for his over-reaction.  He’s apologized profusely that he threatened the bullies and the bus driver who hadn’t stopped the bullying. The episode was captured by the bus surveillance camera.  No doubt about what he did.  The case will wind its way through the courts.  No doubt he should have been more active in contacting the school instead of boarding the bus.  He admits it.

But I think the discussion has focused on the wrong aspect of the situation; on his over-reaction.

The more important aspect is whether there was indeed bullying and, if there was,

  • How come the school principal was unaware?
  • How come the driver didn’t report it?
  • How come the videotapes weren’t scoured to see if there was evidence for the alleged bullying?
  • How come the principal didn’t talk to kids on the school bus about acceptable behavior at the beginning of the year?
  • How come none of the witnesses were willing to come forward, knowing that the principal and teachers would protect them?

A possible answer to these questions might be that there was never any bad behavior on the school bus.  But that would be surprising.  What was your experience on the school bus?  Ask your friends.

Jones, of Lake Mary, Florida, and his wife claim that their daughter, who has cerebral palsy, had been called names and pushed around.  They also claim that they had complained to Seminole County school administrators in the past, but nothing had been done to help their daughter.  Jones told deputies that boys placed an open condom on his daughter's head, smacked her on the back of her head, twisted her ear and shouted rude comments at her.

The response of the school administrators is the usual, “We didn’t know; they never contacted us.”  They focused on Mr. Jones’s over-reaction instead of on the alleged bullying on the bus.  “Changing the focus” is a typical tactic of bullies and people trying to gloss over their failure to respond effectively.

We don’t know the facts.  School bus tapes haven’t been scanned.  Complaints to the school officials by the Joneses haven’t been documented. However, I’m suggesting that in too many cases, school administrators are not proactive in creating an environment in which:

  • Every kid knows that bullying is wrong and won’t be tolerated.
  • Adults are monitoring areas in which most bullying occurs.
  • Every child (every potential witness) knows what to do and that their reports will be confidential and they’ll be protected.

The huge outcry in support of Mr. Jones demonstrates the lurking fear that all parents have: principals, teachers and staff too often look the other way and don’t actively protect our children.  There’s the lurking fear that our child will be the next bullying-caused suicide.  We empathize with Mr. Jones’ frustration and anger.

I’d be more likely to believe the school principal if he or she stood next to Mr. Jones on nationwide television and said things like, “Yes, Mr. Jones over-reacted, but we won’t tolerate bullying anywhere at school, we’re reviewing tapes to see if there was bullying, we’re questioning the driver, we’re instituting a strong program to educate all teachers, staff and kids that we won’t tolerate bullying.  We’ll get the facts in this specific case.”

I disagree with the supposed experts who say that parents shouldn’t intervene, even if the targeted children can’t protect themselves, for example, because the number of bullies is overwhelming or because the child has cerebral palsy and can’t protect herself, like Mr. Jones’ daughter.

I think we simply have to know how to intervene more skillfully so that, when necessary, we know how to force inactive, lazy or reluctant principals to act.  For example, if the Joneses had been more skillful in documenting their complaints to the school, if they really did, there would be a clear paper trail of every interaction with the school administrators, including administrators’ signatures on minutes of every conversation and the Joneses would have copies.  Individualized coaching is crucial to developing this skill.

More important than psychologists’ claims that “when [parents] jump in and [intervene], it helps the kids actually feel worse because they feel less control, they feel like they can't handle themselves and they feel defenseless without the bodyguard there,” is that when children actually are overwhelmed or helpless, they know that they’re protected by responsible adults.  They can learn to protect themselves better as they grow more independent.

Mr. Jones’ daughter was helpless to defend herself.  The stress, anxiety and fear are greater because she wasn’t protected. Let’s focus on the real problem; bullying on the bus, near the lockers, on the playgrounds, in the bathrooms, in the hallways, in the cafeteria and everywhere else bullies feel safe to attack their targets.

You can see or listen to “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” and “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids” for many examples of how to stop bullies.

Dana thought her new friend Tracy had a strong personality.  Tracy always knew what was right and knew how she deserved to be treated.  She could always justify why her standards were the right ones.  If anyone didn’t live up to Tracy’s rules and logic, she let them have it. She was even right when she told off Dana’s next door neighbor.  But Dana had to live with the consequences of Tracy’s tirade.

Do you know any quick-tongued people who are sure they’re right?  How do you deal with them?

Dana’s neighbor was having a pretty loud party the evening Tracy was visiting.  Dana would have let it go because the neighbor usually was quiet or she would have sweetly asked the neighbor to tone it down a little.  As part of their good relationship the neighbor would have apologized and made her guests quiet down.

But Tracy got livid at the noise and shifted into action.  She raced over to the neighbor with Dana following behind.  When the neighbor answered the door, Tracy lit into her.  The guests were looking on but that didn’t stop Tracy for a second.  She yelled that the neighbor was discourteous, arrogant, crude and trailer-trash.  When the neighbor reacted defensively and angrily, Tracy cut her off, called her a string of dirty names and said she was getting the police on her.

Tracy ran back to Dana’s house, called the police and complained loudly about the noise next door.  The police did come.

When Dana said that she thought that was overkill, Tracy got angry at her; no one was going to disrespect Tracy.  The neighbor was too loud and she had a lot of nerve to get angry when she was in the wrong.

When Tracy left, Dana was stuck.  She’d always had a nice relationship with the neighbor and she didn’t want to start a spite-fight with someone who lived next door.

So what would you do?

When Dana and I talked the next day, we began by separating the three people she had to deal with; the neighbor, Dana herself and Tracy.  We went through each one separately and then Dana took the action she’d decided upon.

That evening, she went to the neighbor’s house and apologized for Tracy.  The neighbor was furious and wouldn’t accept Dana’s apology.  She told Dana off and slammed the door in her face.

Dana waited and after about five minutes she knocked again.  The neighbor wouldn’t answer until Dana had knocked for what seemed like another five minutes.  Again Dana groveled.  She explained that she hadn’t known that Tracy had called the police, she would never have done that and she still wanted to be neighborly.  They’d always gotten along before and they could still talk to each other reasonably in the future.

Again the neighbor slammed the door.  But an hour later, the neighbor called and acknowledged that the party was a little loud.  She said she understood, but she never wanted to see Tracy again.  Dana was satisfied with that arrangement.  She and the neighbor actually got along better after that conversation and the neighbor didn’t have a loud party again.

The second person Dana had to look at was herself.  She was shocked and stunned when Tracy threw her fit.  Dana finally realized that she wasn’t a bad person for letting Tracy attack the neighbor; she didn’t have a character flaw.  She simply hadn’t trained herself.

When humans are surprised and shocked, we often revert to our childhood reactions or to one of the three primitive reactions we have – fight, flight or freeze.  Dana froze; she called it “brain freeze.”  Maybe Tracy reverted to “fight” mode.

Since Dana didn’t like brain freeze, all she had to do was to train herself to make a different response.  She had known that she’d wanted to stop Tracy.  Actually, she knew how Tracy was and that if she’d prepared herself, she wouldn’t have allowed Tracy to go to the neighbor’s house.  Or, she would have stopped Tracy in mid-tirade.

Now she had to make her boundaries clear and stand up to Tracy.

When Dana told Tracy how much trouble she’d caused with the neighbor, Tracy attacked Dana.  “I was right.  Your neighbor was way too loud.   I had a right to be angry.  Nobody’s going to bother me any more.  Someone needed to tell her off.”

When Dana told Tracy she didn’t want to deal angrily with a neighbor over one incident, especially when the woman had been a good neighbor for a long time, Tracy again attacked Dana.  “When I get angry I have to get it off my chest.  You’re trying to repress me and put me down.  I have a right to my feelings and I won’t be stifled.”

Dana she recognized that Tracy was bullying her.  Now, Dana was prepared.  She said, “You know, you seem to think that you’re entitled to throw a fit if you feel like it; if you feel righteous, right and justified.  Did you grow up getting your way when you threw fits?”

Tracy yelled that it was none of Dana’s business how she grew up.  “Anyway,” she spat out, “I feel better when I let people have it.  They deserve it.  And it helps me get what I want.  You’re just a coward if you don’t tell people off.  You’re asking them to take advantage of you.”

Dana repeated, “Usually, I don’t have the strong feelings you do.  And even when I do, I think of what will get me what I want, instead of just throwing a fit and spilling my guts.  I wanted to start off nice with the neighbor.  When I simply ask, she always takes care of things.”

Again, Dana challenged Tracy, “Is it more important for you to throw a fit than to get what you want?  I wanted to tone the party down and I wanted to keep a good relationship with my neighbor.  Whenever you feel right and righteous, do you beat people with your tongue or do you think of what else you might want?”

Tracy blew up again.  “I was right, your neighbor was wrong.  I can do whatever I feel like when people are treating me bad.  And if you don’t like it, I’m not your friend.”

After careful consideration, Dana decided that Tracy wasn’t interested in changing her reactions and that not being friends with her was a good idea.  She didn’t want to get drawn into fights because Tracy had the self-control of a child.  Rage, bullying and verbal abuse weren’t her usual style.

Coaching helped Dana clarify how she wanted to act and what she’d allow in her personal space.  Our talking and her learning from “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” helped Dana maintain her boundaries with the neighbor and her former friend Tracy.  They also helped Dana stand up for herself against other bullies in her personal life and at work.

I hope this case study and the techniques Dana used will alert you to areas in which you’re not taking charge of your personal ecology.

My advice was asked on this situation on condition that the author remains anonymous.  What would you do if you faced a two-faced coworker or teammate who treated you civilly in public but attacked you when you were alone?  And no one else in the office knew or would believe you. In public, Bart (fictitious name) smiled and seemed helpful to Fran (fictitious name).  Even though he didn’t know her specialty, he started offering polite, detailed suggestions in an authoritative and convincing way about how she could improve her performance.  Fran felt like she was being micro-managed in a way she couldn’t resist or argue back.  It would take too long to show why his suggestions wouldn’t work and she didn’t think everyone else was really interested.  Other members of the team started to think she was pretty incompetent since Bart knew so much more.

In private, Fran asked Bart to stop being so controlling and making her look bad.  He agreed to, but then he continued to subtly demean her in public.  In addition, he started ignoring her, leaving her out of the information loop, and putting her down subtly in front of others.  Fran again asked him to stop.  Bart said he wanted them to have a good working relationship and suggested a meeting to clear the air.  Fran was initially wary, but he persisted and she agreed.

At the private meeting, Bart told Fran she was the worst person he'd ever worked with.  She wasn’t completely bad professionally, but she had the worst personality he’d ever seen.  He wanted her to treat him with as much friendliness as she treated other people in public.  Fran was mystified because he didn't say who these other people were and she thought she already treated everyone politely and professionally.

He said Fran was bullying him, he couldn't sleep at night because of her, she was just as hostile and nasty as another girl he used to work with and his girlfriend agreed that Fran was bullying him, even though Fran had never met her.  He said he’d been verbally cruel to people in the past, but he didn't want to be with her.  He said Fran was the worst person he'd ever worked with and the worst thing about his otherwise perfect job.

Fran felt scared because nothing like this had ever happened to her before and because Bart said everything very quietly and calmly with a twisted look of pure hate on his face.  He seemed to be enjoying it.  Fran had never seen him look or act this particular way before, so she thought others wouldn't believe her.

He carried on this way for an hour and Fran felt like she was in the presence of a psycho.  She apologized profusely.  He kept twisting the knife.  She said she was sorry for “bullying” him.  He kept twisting the knife.  She asked how she could make things better between them.  He kept twisting the knife.

Since she had to work with him closely, Fran pretended to be his friend from that day on.  She followed up two weeks later to see if he was happier.  He said he no longer thought of her at night, but added that he hated her because of the way she treated him.  He didn’t stop correcting her in public and he continued to sabotage her work.

Don’t waste time psychoanalyzing Bart and Fran or thinking that some trust building exercises, communication techniques or skillful conflict resolution will bring them together.  Fran should realize that she and Bart live on different planets.  She thinks she’s okay and he’s a scary psycho.  He hates her guts, thinks she bullies him and that professional behavior allows him to vent his feelings and hatred.

In her world, she’s faced with a relentless, crazy person who blames everything on her and is out to get her.  In that office, she’ll always feel his hatred shooting into her back.  She’s also afraid he might blow and physically harm her.  She must be willing to skillfully fight a work war against a fanatic or have her credibility and reputation destroyed.  Or leave.  For example; see my article in the Denver Business Journal on winning a work-war.

Notice that every time she tried to please him by taking the blame or being nice, he only twisted the knife more.  Fran’s comment that she never met his girlfriend probably shows that she thinks she can prove her case with reasoning, logic and good will because everyone will listen and be objective.

There are many other variants of the two-faced, bullying colleague.  Some stealth bullies spread rumors and lies behind your back.  Some cut you down behind your back.  Some drive a wedge between you and other people by telling them that you said bad things about them.  These back-stabbers always work in the dark and can’t be pinned down

My books, CDs and coaching can help.

What did Fran do?  Fran secretly hated Bart for what he had put her through.  She didn’t want to become buddies with him.  Also, she didn’t want to waste her time proving to everyone how mean and crazy he was.  Three month's later, she secured another job and left.  Since then, she’s been happy at the new job.

That’s one effective solution to deal with people like Bart, but what will Fran do if she encounters another one.  For example, if she’s highly skilled and competent, she’ll make someone else jealous, scared and angry.  If she’s beautiful, she’ll arouse these same feelings in some other women.

What would you do if you were Fran?