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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The holidays may be over for a while but family harassment, bullying and abuse because of a favorite child still needs to be stopped.  Typical situations are where the parents:

  • Praise, defend and give the best presents or position in the Will to their favorite child.
  • Put down the rest of the children or designate one as the scapegoat.
  • Ignore the faults of one child while continually criticizing the other children.
  • Cater to the whims of the favorite child and blame other children who resist.

Of course, I’m not talking about the situation where one child has an illness or disability that requires lifetime care, although even in this case, parents can use the rest of the children to serve the needs of the most needy.  Some parents even decide to have a second child as an organ donor.  I’m talking about the situations in which the children are basically okay, but one is selected as the favorite.

In some cultures the favored child is the son who will inherit everything while the daughters are raised to serve the ruling male.  You can hear them say, “If only you did what your brother wants, we’d have peace and be a loving family.”

Other families label one sister as the “good child” who is held up as a paragon of virtue or success impossible for the other daughters to reach.  You know who the “bad” or “failures” daughters are.  You can hear the parents say, “Ah, if only you were as loving, kind and good as your sisters.”

Sometimes, one child is favored because mom and/or dad think that child is the sensitive one.  His feelings count more than everyone else’s.  Therefore, they say, we must organize our schedules and plans around the wishes of that child.  “After all,” they say, “We wouldn’t want to disappoint your brother or hurt his feelings.”

The situation is even worse when the favorite children know they can get away with anything and use the power to bully and torment the other children.  You recognize all those sarcastic remarks that have hidden meanings and can drive you crazy.

But no matter how hard you’ve tried, no matter what good deeds you’ve performed or sacrifices you’ve made, eventually you realize that nothing you do will ever be good enough.  The favorite daughter’s wish that they could do more or slightest effort will be counted and praised more than yours.

So what can you do?

These situations are tough because they’re based on hidden feelings and attitudes, and because they’ve been going on for decades.  It feels natural by now; “It’s just the way we do it.”

Some typical steps people use to get free from the domination of the family by one sibling are:

  1. Inner commitment to break the pattern even if that means going your own way.  Stop your negative self-talk; it’ll create self-doubt and destroy your confidence and self-esteem.  It’s not your fault.  It’s about them and their decision to favor one child over the others.  Your goal can’t be to change their behavior; that’s often impossible.  Your goal is to stand your ground so you can create your own island of good cheer if you have to.
  2. Give people a chance by telling them, in private, what you plan to do.  Line up allies if there are any to be had.  Plan specific actions so you can support each other effectively.
  3. Plan tactics carefully.  Pick your fights selectively; don’t fight about everything.  You know what’s likely to happen.  What will you say or do in response?
  4. Stay calm.  Ignore the little snide comments and put downs that used to drive you crazy.  Don’t argue about the details or the old family history.  Don’t debate who is more worthy or who has suffered the most.  Simply state your needs, standards and decisions.
  5. Expect the bullies to spin the story their way, lie and go behind your back to create alliances and pressure groups.  Prepared to be blamed, labeled and shunned.  Prepare to be cut out of the Will.
  6. Be persistent.  Have real consequences, like not attending or like leaving early.  Words, arguments and logic don’t count; only actions count.  Stand your ground.
  7. Prepare to be surprised.  Often, families will accommodate the most stubborn and difficult person, whether they’re right and fair or not.  You may have to be more stubborn than anyone else.

Get a good coach to help you rally your spirit and plan effective tactics.

Your task is to create a family that honors, respects and appreciates you, a family in which your great efforts are worthy of being honored, a family of your heart and spirit.  That may or may not be the family you were born into.