Nowadays, even young children talk back, roll their eyes, are sassy and snarky, and demand to know why before doing what parents want. These kids act as if they can set all the standards, know everything and are entitled to express their thoughts and feelings in any way they want about anything.
Many parents think this is their toughest disciplinary problem. Many parents want to know why this behavior has trickled down from teenagers through tweens to children. Is this behavior the result of the bad influence of the media – television, movies, internet – or their peers? If so, these parents think, how can we control what children are exposed to?
What if you showed up for work to find a new sign posted by the owners: “Keep the best, churn the rest”—and you knew the best, and the rest meant you and your colleagues at all levels?
Chances are, it’d get your attention. And that’s exactly what business owners Dick and Harry (made up names for a true illustration) had in mind when they posted that sign at their medium-sized company.
Dick and Harry had allowed their company to drift into unprofitability. Though they brought in more business, profits never increased. And the more jobs they took on, the crazier their lives became. They were so exhausted trying to stay afloat, they didn’t have time to plan how to get out of the mess—until a stress-induced fight finally forced them to stop and think. It was change or lose the business.
To let their staff know that there would be a new culture of high performance and accountability, they started an internal campaign: “Keep the best, churn the rest.” To show that wasn’t a punitive exercise or mass downsizing, the slogan meant four things:
They began at the top. If they didn’t perform, they’d leave because they weren’t worthy of leading the company.
Fixing managerial problems was urgent because problems at the top cost more. One problem manager caused more damage than one problem employee.
“Keep” meant increasing rewards because each quality worker is worth more than two jerks.
“The best” meant competent, productive employees, not just shooting stars.
You want the people on your team to get along with one another and to work well together.
But beware of self-appointed middle-men or peace makers. They actually promote whining and complaining, and lead your team to wallow in emotional turmoil and dissention.
Being judgmental has gotten a bad name and for good reasons.
Our whole world has experienced the horror wrought by people who felt superior and righteous in destroying other people they thought were inferior or even non-human. Also, in our personal lives, we’ve experienced the damage done by arrogant, righteous spouses, parents, relatives and others who always knew best and felt entitled to taunt, tease, harass, bully and abuse us or to cast us out.
However, it’s a mistake to use these examples of righteous people with poor judgment as proof that:
The process of making judgments is bad. It’s not. It’s necessary.
We should accept all perspectives and ways of living in the world as equal or as equally valid. They’re not.
But that’s all abstract. The real questions are whether we need to be more or less judgmental and which of our judgments are worth keeping and how. Take the quick quiz.
Before you take the quick quiz, see “Being Judgmental” as having four parts:
Discerning; making judgments, estimating what the consequences of some action will be, deciding what we like and what we don’t like.
Deciding which ways of behaving are acceptable in our personal space.
Making these boundaries in our personal lives stick.
Do people ignore, laugh, argue or avoid what you want when you insist that they act in certain ways in your personal space? ?
Do people trample over your boundaries? Do they get away with not changing? Do you let them stay in your life? Do they wear you down? Is life an endless struggle?
If you answered “yes” to most of these questions – if you feel bossed and controlled, if you get taken advantage of, if you’re the one who almost always gives in or tries to make peace, if you rarely get your way, if you have to justify everything you do or ask permission before you can do anything – then you’re not protecting yourself enough, you’re not being judgmental enough and you’re not acting based on what you know in your heart-of-hearts to be true.
That way of thinking leads us no where. That way of thinking puts us under the control of someone else who thinks they know better than we do. There’s no chance for happiness down that path – only submission.
The path that has a chance of yielding happiness and joy and fulfillment is the path of being discerning, of having more and better judgments, and of making our judgments stick in our lives.
Getting angry, righteous and indignant are motivation strategies. We typically generate those feelings to get ourselves angry enough to act. The problem with that method of motivation is contained in “The Emotional Motivation Cycle” (See “Bullies Below the Radar: How to Wise Up, Stand Up and Stay Up). This method usually isn’t effective long-term.
That doesn’t tell us how to accomplish what we need; that doesn’t tell us how to get free from oppression we’ve previously accepted, but that tells us that we must. All plans and tactics must be designed to fit us and our specific situation. That’s why we need expert coaching and, maybe, legal advice. But now we know the direction we must set in our lives.
A typical tactic of sneaky, manipulative bullies is to convince their well-meaning targets to try to make the bullies happy. Although covert bullies and control-freaks aren’t usually so clear, straightforward and blunt about it, what they say is, “You’ve made me unhappy. It’s your fault that I’m upset, angry, violent and abusive. If you only acted the way I want, I’d be happy and nice. It’s your responsibility to make me happy.”
Common examples of this tactic are:
A covert bully in the workplace will get hysterical and claim to have low morale until you give her everything she wants in order to calm her down and raise her morale. You’ll have to keep the goodies coming because she’ll never trust you; every day you’ll have to convince her anew by doing what she wants. An overt bully at work will use the same approach as an abusive spouse for outrageous acts of bullying, abuse and violence.
Facing the temper tantrums of two year-olds, you’re teaching them how to get what they want from you; by being nice or by being nasty. You’re also training them how to feel when they don’t get what they want. They learn whether it’s okay to fight you as if not getting what they want is the end of the world or if they have to develop more self-discipline and control. Once you’re defeated by a two year-olds’ temper tantrums, you’ll have to do what they want forever, or else. The best way to create a spoiled brat is to accept the task of providing for their happiness. The worst consequence of your giving in is that they’ll grow up convinced that they can’t be happy unless they’re catered to.
Using surly, grumpy, demanding, entitled behavior, teenagers can manipulate or browbeat their parents. Teens will claim that if they fail in life, it’ll be your fault because you didn’t give them enough. Or they’ll threaten to hurt themselves or damage the house if you upset them. However, your job is to turn the responsibility around. You might give them things if they make you like it, not if they try to beat you into giving them what they want. See the case study of Paula in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks.”
In all these situations, sneaky, manipulative, covert, stealthy bullies try to get what they want by using emotional blackmail and name-calling. For example, if you don’t give them what they want, “You’re insensitive, selfish and uncaring” or “You’re not a nice person” or “You don’t understand how I feel, what I’ve lived through or how hard it is for me” or “You wouldn’t want me to repress what I feel. I don’t have any control over what I feel.”
Their hidden assumption is that other people (you) are responsible for their attitudes, moods and happiness. They have no control over how they feel about getting or not getting what they want. Also, they have no control over how they act when they’re upset. And, therefore, your job is to make them happy.
Their bullying and abuse will continue and escalate. If you accept the responsibility to please them in order to get them to treat you decently, you’ll give them what they want and all they have to do to keep you giving is never to be satisfied. Since you’re responsible for their feelings and actions, there will always be more things you have to do to please them.
For example, you can say, “I’m not responsible for how you feel and act. You are. I don’t have to make you happy. You can choose how you feel and what you do, no matter what’s happening. I’m going to focus only on behavior and decide whether to keep you around based only on your actions. Your reasons, excuses and justifications won’t count.”
And then you have to make the consequences count.
If a stealthy, manipulative bully says, “You’re being selfish,” you can respond with, “Thanks for noticing.” And you keep doing what you were doing.
The tactics they use tell you how close you want people to be; how close you want to let them come to your wonderful, peaceful, joyous island.
George Will reported in his Newsweek column, “More Stimulating that the Stimulus,” that “In Ottawa, the sensitivity police in a children’s soccer league announced that any team attaining a five-goal lead would be declared to have lost, thereby sparing the feelings of those who were, if you will pardon the expression, losing.”
This was confirmed by many other articles including, “Win a soccer game by more than five pints and you lose, Ottawa league says.” Although the title says enough, here are some quotes from the article, “In yet another nod to the protection of fledgling self-esteem, an Ottawa children’s soccer league has introduced a rule that says any team that wins a game by more than five points will lose by default… Club director Sean Cale… said the league’s 12-person board of directors is not trying to take the fun out of the game, they are simply trying to make it fair. The new rule, suggested by ‘involved parents,’ is a temporary measure that will be replaced by a pre-season skill assessment to make fair teams.”
The Club fields teams between the ages of 4 and 17.
It’s hard to keep calm when we hear this kind of idiocy. I suppose next they’ll want the Ottawa Senators to stop shooting if the ever get a two goal lead.
The bullies here are not good soccer players who score many goals, although they might be if they go overboard into vicious fouling and nasty taunting against overmatched opponents. The bullies here are the members of the Club Board who act like self-appointed “Self-Esteem Police.”
The rules of soccer, when followed, already make the game fair.
Professional Victims assume that their children’s psyches and self-esteem are weak and fragile
The slightest problem will damage them forever. As if kids can’t maintain their self-esteem when they’re beaten badly by a better team.
I assume, on the contrary, that children begin strong and have to be taught to see themselves as weak and fragile
Children are not damaged by failing or learning their present location in the hierarchy of inborn gifts and hard work. I assume that when children fail it’s because they haven’t worked hard enough. The solution to not succeeding is to work harder to fulfill your potential. Children survive intense pressure, challenge and struggle. When they improve, their self-confidence and sense of competence increases.
Also, we all have much more choice about how we feel
You have to be taught to have low self-esteem after you lose at something you know you’re not very good at. You have to be taught to have stress, anxiety and depression after you lose. You have to be taught to wallow in negative self-talk and self-bullying. You have to be taught to give up.
People who succeed in life respond by directing their energy into a vow to do better and a determination to work harder, get better and win at life
We’ve all been beaten down at times. We’ve all found out where we stand in the hierarchy of who’s faster, stronger, smarter, prettier. And our position in that hierarchy has nothing to do with happiness or self-esteem. Ask any great athlete how they motivate themselves after having been beaten. Ask any great mother or father how they motivate themselves to do better after they’re done something really dumb in their family.
The general rule is never to give the Self-Esteem Police or the Professional Victims credence or power. Treat them as bullies and learn to stop them. Tell them to suck it up; stop creating and wallowing in hurt feelings. The lesson for these kids is to have more inner strength, courage and perseverance and to get more skillful so you can succeed in the real-world.
We need to learn how to win. Winning is critical for our survival as individuals and societies.
The general rule in winning big is to not be a jerk about it. Grownups are supposed to learn not to thrash their kids when they’re young, The big kids in any extended family are supposed to learn how to make it fun for the little kids to play ball with them. We’re supposed to learn how to be gracious winners when someone isn’t in our league in any game.
The general rule in dealing with defeat is to gather yourself, get more skillful and do better next time. And if you’re not good enough to be a champion, decide to be happy enjoying playing at any game in life, whether it’s sport, dance, music, art or any other area of endeavor where there are only a few “work class” players.
By the way, so much scorn was heaped on the Ottawa soccer club that they did get rid of that rule. They now have a new mercy rule “under which a game will be called once one team has a lead of eight goals. Whichever team is ahead at that time will be credited with the win,”
‘Tis the holiday season and kids’ expectations are high. They want what they want and they want it now!
We may want to draw new lines, cutting back because of the economy or because we’re just tired of their whining and complaining or because we think they’re on the path to become spoiled brats. But if we don’t please them, many kids will throw temper tantrums in public, as well as at home. They’ll scream that you’re unfair, that all the other kids get what they want, that their lives will be ruined if they don’t get what they want right now, that they won’t have a social life, that they’ll be picked on because they’re poor and that they hate you. Or if they’re very young, they’ll just scream.
They’ve made a list and they’ve checked it twice. They’ve kept score and know you’re embarrassed by the fuss and more likely to give in when they meltdown or get out of control or go ballistic in public.
They’re just like we were, if our parents let us be. If we’re distracted now, embarrassed or lack confidence, we’ll make exceptions when other people are around and we’ll give in. Of course, the kids will smell blood and up the ante.
The key is not to be embarrassed, distracted or self-judgmental. Be clear; if they don’t get what they want it really is not the end of the world. Don’t let their self-confidence and self-esteem depend on external stuff or other people’s opinions of them. Don’t take personally what they say. Do not care about or look at other people (including your parents) to see if they’re disturbed or disapproving. If you care what other people think, your children will know that they’ll eventually win. If you lose it; kids know that they will win eventually.
The rules don’t change in public, although your actions will be different in each different situation. Explain in private beforehand what you can afford and can’t afford, and what you think is appropriate and not appropriate. Be clear about the areas in which they have no choice and where their vote counts and where they have total control.
Normal children are supposed to learn how to manipulate you to get what they want; their job is to see if bullying works on you – where and when. Their job is to test you by pushing your boundaries to find out where they can get their way. Your task is to look at them lovingly when they’re throwing a stubborn fit because you can see how that determination, strength and perseverance will help them when they grow up. That doesn’t mean you give in to them. Your job is to stay calm and to assert your will to educate and socialize them whether they agree or not. You can give them your reasons in a way that makes it a statement of fact, not a matter for debate, not a matter they get to vote on.
Children just want to know the rules and boundaries. You help them feel secure when you’re consistent, calm, smiling, loving and firm.
Have a get-away plan before you go anywhere. You and your partner-spouse will have to agree beforehand. That may mean taking the kid for a walk or leaving early. If they lose it, you will have to get them away and do your best to calm them down. Don’t put them in situations where they get too hungry, tired or “wired” by too much input, sugar or caffeine. For some kids, a big lesson is that they’ll be removed while everyone else is having a fabulous time. Show them that their upset is definitely not contagious.
When the children are very young (pre-schoolers), long before you think they can understand language, you can calmly and firmly state, “If you behave like that, I won’t take you any more.” And then remove them. You’d be surprised: they understand your calm firmness long before you think they can. Often, you can distract them with whatever is around and interesting in the environment. If you train them now, you might be able to enjoy their polite and civil company when they’re teenagers.
Sometimes, with older kids, you can break them out of a fit by grading their performance. Just like you see in the Olympics, line everyone else up and give grades for the performance – a 6.9, an 8.7, a 9.2. With a loving smile and laugh, encourage them to do better, to shoot for a hissy-fit that’s worth a 9.9. Give them a big round of applause or a wave. Then go about your previous business. The more you’re enjoying yourself, the less they’ll push the tactic of throwing hissy-fits; the less they’ll think that negativity, anger, rage and explosions will get them what they want. By the way, boys will often stop any behavior you call a “hissy-fit.”
If you lose it once in a while, there will be no permanent damage. Of course there are a small percent of children who make the fight with you a matter of life-or-death for them. Calmly convince them that’s not a good use of their energy and they won’t win that fight until they’re 18 and leave home. If they continue that fight, they’re telling you they need serious help.
Parents who bully children, and parents who bully and abuse each other are all too common, but an often unrecognized bullying situation is teenagers who bully their parents, especially their single parents.
Of course, teenage girls can be manipulative bullies, but for a typical example, let’s focus on a 19 year-old boy who is mentally and physically capable of being independent but who’d rather sponge off his mother and lead an easy life at home. He’s not working enough to support himself, he’s not succeeding in full-time school and he’s not struggling sixteen hours a day to become an Olympic champion. He’s merely hanging out trying to have a good time every moment.
They’re good at arguing. They want to convince you that “love” and “support” mean that you give them money. You have to love and give to them, but they don’t have to give anything in return. Their hidden assumption is that if you can’t make them agree with any changes, they don’t have to change. They’re masters of whining, complaining and blaming others, especially you, for their problems.
They’re great emotional blackmailers: “A good, loving mother would take care of me while I’m getting it together. A caring mom would help me.” They’re also master manipulators of your fear that, if you don’t cater to them, they’ll fail in life and it’ll be your fault, not theirs: “I need your love to keep me away from bad company. If you kick me out, I’ll be emotionally damaged.” They’ll subtly hint that they’ll commit suicide if you don’t coddle them. They always have a friend who has a “good mother” taking care of him.
Your caring and fear make their arguments seductive. No matter how much you had to struggle on your own to be successful, it’s easy to think that if you only give them one more chance, they’ll finally wake up and get it. So you give him one more chance – over and over and over.
In my experience, one path in dealing with healthy, intelligent teenage boys almost guarantees failure. That’s the path of giving them what they want. The more you let them leech off your energy, wallet and good will, the softer they’ll become, the harder it will be for them to become strong and independent, the greater the chances that they’ll fall in with other lazy losers. The more you give them, the more lazy, entitled and spoiled they’ll become.
In my experience, the path that has the greatest probability of success is to kick those little birds out of the nest before they grow too big for their fledgling wings. They’ve already grown too big for the nest. In order to fly, they need to strengthen their wings by use under pressure and stress.
Of course there’s a risk. They might fail and turn to drugs, booze or burglary to support themselves. They might give in to depression. But, in my experience, staying home wouldn’t prevent that. Leeching off you will only make them weaker.
Confidence and self-esteem are developed by succeeding at real and difficult challenges in which there’s a chance of failing. Staying at home avoids important, meaningful challenges.
Some of the things to say to them when you tell them they’re moving out, depending on the circumstances, are:
“I know that inside you, you have this great one of you struggling to take charge of your life. Now’s your chance for that ‘you’ to take over. Struggle and succeed. I’d rather you struggle and prove me wrong while hating me, than that you love me and stay here as a whining, complaining loser.” Use the word “loser” a lot. Challenge them to prove you wrong.
“This is not a discussion or a debate; you don’t get to vote. This is definitely not fair according to you. I know you think I don’t understand your side of it or how hard it is in today’s economy, but that’s the way it is. I’m protecting myself from my own flesh and blood, who’d suck me dry if I let him. You can try to argue but it won’t change anything. It’ll just waste your time. If you threaten me or damage the house, I’ll call the police and there’ll be no going back.” Don’t engage in debate. Walk away.
“I love you and this is scary for me, but that fear won’t stop me. If you become a loser, just like (fill in the blank), I’ll be sad and cry that you wasted your life, but I won’t feel guilty. I won’t regret what I’m doing.” Then walk away.
“I’m going to have a joyous, good time in my life. After you move out, if you make it fun for me, I’ll take you out to a restaurant sometimes or have you over for a good meal. But if you nag at me and make it a rotten time, I won’t want to waste my time with you. Your job is to make it fun for me to be with you. Yes, that’s blackmail. You pay for my attention, kindness and money. Be the nicest to people who are closest. Be nicer and sweeter to me than you would be to a stranger. Suck up to me as if you want something from me. You do. Even if you can prove to me logically that it’s not fair, that’s the way it is.”
“You, my beloved son, are now facing the choice we all face in life at this age. Will you settle for being a loser with a good excuse – your mother didn’t love or suckle you enough – or will you be a winner despite your mother? Every one of your ancestors faced this. Your ancestors lived through plague, famine, flood, war and slavery. They lived through worse than you. I know you have the stuff of a hero in you. Your choice is whether you bring that out and succeed, or to be a whining, petulant, blaming loser.”
You have the body and mind of an adult. You want to make adult choices in living the life you want. Now you’re being tested. Being an adult means taking care of yourself financially and physically. You probably didn’t prepare yourself. That’s your problem. I could never teach you anything because you never listened to me when I gave you good advice. We both know that. You think you know everything. You think you know what’s best for you. Now prove it. The less you learned useful skills, the more you’ll have to struggle now. So what? That’s just struggle. I hope you’ll grow strong by struggling.”
Mom, make a specific plan. For example, “You must be out by (date). If not, I’ll throw your stuff out the window and call the police if I have to. No negotiation. No promises. We allow little children to get by on promises and potential. When they’re 13 or so, we start demanding performance. Now that you’re 19, I demand performance. Your performance earns what you get.” Mom, don’t give in to satisfy one more promise. Think through what you’ll give, if anything, and under what conditions. My bottom line is, “Make me enjoy it and I’ll consider it. Beat me up, physically or verbally, and you get nothing.” The more calm you are, the better. If he can get you upset, he’ll think he can win again…as usual.
Stepchildren can jerk your chain more. A couple that disagrees strongly (one stern and one permissive) can be the worst case scenario.
This is a start. Because all solutions depend on the specifics of the situation, you will need coaching. Some circumstances that might alter your plans are if your teenager is not physically or mentally competent or needs extensive mental health counseling or is 13-16 or is a girl or there are drugs or alcohol involved or there are younger children at home?
Stay strong and firm. Don’t let him move back in even for a just week or month. It’ll reinforce the laziest in them and it’ll become permanent.
“Fighting for Girls: New Perspectives on Gender and Violence,” edited by Meda Chesney-Lind and Nikki Jones, cites recent studies to show that violence by girls has decreased. In a New York Times article, “The Myth of Mean Girls,” Mike Males and Meda Chesney-Lind also state that our common perception that there are mean girls and that girls can be violent, “is a hoax.”
Well, that just gives new research studies a bad name, or at least those conclusions. As Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
In the real world, not the world inhabited by academics and researchers, mean girls thrive and their violence toward other girls is no only verbal and physical, it’s now also done in cyberspace. If you track only physical violence on police blotters, you miss the other damage done by stealth bullying mean girls.
Every woman who’s interviewed me on radio and television describes the mean girls they encountered when they were young … and also some they see in their adult personal lives as well as at work. A lot of my coaching is to teach women how to defend themselves against mean girls who now masquerade as adult friends or who are still mean in parent groups at schools, boards of housing associations, book clubs, neighborhood associations, church groups and as mothers protecting their mean daughters.
Get active as a citizen. Organize a core group of active parents to pressure legislators to pass laws requiring schools to have policies and programs to stop bullying. Media pressure will help.
Get active in your school and school district. Form a core group of active parents to make sure your district administrators and school principal actively enforce policies and a school-wide program to stop bullies. Involve all teachers, staff and students in recognizing and stopping the first signs of bullying. Immediate and firm action is necessary. If principals and teachers turn a blind eye, saying “that’s just the way some girls are,” they’re colluding by creating a safe space for mean girls and boundary pushers. The end of school and summer are great times to get these programs started so you’re ready at the start of school in September.
Prepare your daughters. Well-meaning parents are the number one risk factor for creating helpless girls whose confidence and self-esteem will be destroyed by mean girls. Don’t tell your daughters to feel sorry for their abusers and to “rise above” whatever these vicious predators say or do. Don’t expect pious sentiments to prevent stress, anxiety, negative self-talk or depression. Don’t let your daughters be whipping girls or scapegoats. Teach your daughters how to stop the mean girls. If you don’t know how, you need coaching.
Prepare your sons. Tell them about the real-world. Remind them that 10 years from now they probably won’t see any of the kids from high school. Teach them not to take the mean, nasty, vicious comments personally or as a prediction of the future. Their job is to grow up and find a woman who values and appreciates them. Mean girls don’t represent everyone.
Don’t believe studies that supposedly prove that mean girls are an insignificant factor. Don’t believe that if your daughter ignores their meanness or treats them with caring and friendship, they’ll stop being abusive. Real bullies, mean girls and mean women, take offerings of sweetness and friendship as weakness and an invitation to prey on you more.
As Azar Nafisi, author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and “Things I’ve Been Silent About” said, “My parents did not bring me happiness. They armed me for the battle of life.”
Sometimes we need to replay the horrible things that people did to us – whether it was once or repeatedly, whether they were the perpetrators or they stood by or even colluded and ignored the abuse and our pain. Sometime we need to get angry and vent and imagine all the ways we could retaliate and extract vengeance and justice. Sometimes we blame ourselves, wishing we could finally win their love and undo the hurt. During those times we typically say, “It’s not fair. Why me? Why don’t they understand and appreciate me? What did I do wrong?”
But in the end, whatever the specifics of our situations, we all know where we have to get to if we’re going to make the rest of our lives worth living.
By whatever process we use successfully, through whatever pain we have to endure, after we stop the harassment, bullying, abuse and torment inflicted upon us, we have two choices – to let our lives be destroyed by the rotten people who abused us or to move on somehow, to create families and lives worth living.
I’m not minimizing the damage and the pain or the time it may take, but throughout history, we see the same pattern in response to individual and cultural or societal horrors. Some people’s spirits are destroyed by what was done to them. Other people stay alive and vital.
Examples are all around of famous individuals who turned their backs on the perpetrators and moved on – Maya Angelou and Winston Churchill easily come to mind. There are also inspiring examples known only to our families. We must keep our eyes focused on the light at the end of the tunnel of pain – the light that reminds us to keep moving ahead despite the temporary discouragement, depression and despair.
What keeps most people stuck in the abyss of pain for years; long after they’re physically and fiscally capable of separating? Mostly, it’s a combination of:
Wanting the perpetrators to acknowledge what they did and to apologize or beg for our forgiveness. Or wanting vindication and revenge.
Championing their pain as different and greater than anyone else’s or saying that their hurt and pain was so bad that they’ve been damaged for the rest of their lives.
Wallowing in negative self-talk and self-abuse.
The results of this self-bullying victim talk are clear – stress, anxiety, self-doubt, guilt, shame, panic, low self-confidence and self-esteem; huge overreactions as if everything is a matter of life or death; a life ruled by the past, time wasted circling around the carcass of the past, chewing over the gristle of every past and present episode of abuse.
The light at the end of the tunnel is when our spirits rise and make us indomitable and invulnerable, determined and indefatigable; when:
We won’t be weighed down by the baggage of the past. We don’t have to please the perpetrators or excuse or justify our behavior to our abusers and we also don’t have to rebel any more just to prove that we’re independent. We stop sacrificing ourselves for further flagellation and spurning.
The voices of the past become irrelevant; we now make decisions directed by our own spirits.
We won’t be at the mercy of external events, especially the past. Instead we’ll create our own futures, no matter what.
This is the goal of all the talk, catharsis, coaching. We become our original, fiery selves – strong, brave and determined – and now skilled adults.
In this new state, the fear of failure or success is gone. We no longer view the world through the lens of “deserve, justify, punish or forgive.” The emotional motivation cycle – endless self-criticism and self analysis, and then criticism of the criticism, and then criticism of the criticism of the criticism – of the old victim side of us is gone.
We no longer have overwhelming emotional reactions to whatever happens. Mistakes are no longer life threatening. Failing at something is no longer a portent of a bleak future. Doing something wrong no longer consigns us to hell forever.
We ride through these ups and downs, buoyed by certain knowledge that we’ll keep plugging along, doing what we can, following our Heart’s Desire.
From here we can easily recognize other people who are still in the old place – underneath their franticness and self-flagellation, they look and sound like victims, not willing to do whatever it takes to protect themselves; attracting old and new predators. Predators also recognize easy targets.
From here we can see how boring the victim personality is. It’s all about their pain and problems, as if that’s really who they are. They’re still trying to squeeze love or justification from a stone. They still want to interact with scavengers.
In our new space, we’re interested and interesting, excited and exciting. We focus on what feeds our spirits; not on endless cud-chewing and psychoanalysis. We leave the predators behind and seek the families of our hearts and spirits.
The process of leaving the old, victim place usually includes many instantaneous epiphanies, as well as the time necessary to develop new habits through many ups and downs. But that’s merely a process to leave the old and to be completely comfortable in the new.
When we live in a state of inner freedom, we don’t forget the pain. We remember that abuse all our lives. We hold that memory sacred – but we don’t use the pain to motivate ourselves, we convert it to a source of strength and courage to create a new life, a life that’s built on the ashes of childhood dreams destroyed.
Just as the predatory stepfather has become a cliché, the wicked, greedy stepmother and the colluding father have also become an archetype because so many times the characterization is accurate. So what can you do when your father marries a grasping, bullying, uncaring woman when you’re young? How can you stop such a bully when your father marries one late in life and she wants to get her hands on the family fortune and your most cherished sentimental items?
Of course there are many situations in which a stepmother has loved and enriched the life of her stepdaughter. See “Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations,” by Georgina Howell for one famous example.
But when you’re young and an evil stepmom moves in, with our without her own children, and treats you like Cinderella, you have only one court of appeal, your father. If he won’t see the truth and rectify his mistake, you have only a few options:
Keep resisting, fighting and rebelling; keep trying to make him see the light.
Fly low; be devious, learn to dissemble, lie and hide in order to minimize the damage.
The first strategy usually has disastrous consequences for children. Typically, fathers never get it. Sometimes relatives might defend you, but they can rarely open your blinded father’s eyes. For many reasons, none important for your later life, your father typically won’t accept or value that you’re being mistreated and he won’t get rid of the witch.
Kids who use this strategy usually end up ruining their lives because they’ve only prepared themselves to resist, fight and rebel. All their energy goes into trying to get justice from a stone. They don’t prepare themselves to have wonderful careers and lives.
Kids who use the second strategy often succeed in later life. Don’t waste your youth fighting an unwinnable battle. Use your time and effort to develop skills that prepare you for a good career and a great life.
Of course, a bullying stepmom will harass and abuse you whenever she can. She’ll also try to align your father against you. And if she brings her own children into the marriage, she’ll try to shove you out so hers can inherit the love and money. So what? History is full of kids who succeeded despite the unfairness and injustice of such situations.
Since your father is besotted and blinded, there’s little you can do to obtain justice. When you’re young, you can’t understand how a person can do what he’s doing. When you become older and can see the reasons, there’s still little comfort in that understanding.
In this situation, the key to success is an inner one: keep your spirit alive and burning fiercely until you can get away and make your own life. Of course you won’t have the head start you would have if your father had done better for you. So what? That’s not the end of the world.
Of course you’ll get blamed for everything. Your wicked stepmom will heap shame and guilt on you. Don’t accept it. It’s not your fault. Of course, you did some things wrong, but even if you’d been perfect, it wouldn’t have been good enough for her. You were in her way or she needed a scapegoat or she simply liked to inflict pain. The way she treated you was her fault, not yours.
Stay invulnerable to outrageous fortune; verbal, emotional and physical. You aren’t at the mercy of events. Don’t let them crush your spirit. Your spirit can endure and soar. You can create a great life for yourself.
The other typical situation occurs when your father marries late in life and forces a selfish, greedy, narcissistic new wife into your family. Encourage your father to make a prenuptial agreement to protect the family fortune he had before he met her and specify in his will who gets each sentimental treasure from your childhood.
If there’s no written assignment, after your father dies she’ll keep your biological mother’s things and even your most cherished toys. She’ll make you grovel to get any of your father’s items.
Of course she’ll blame you for why she’s mean and keeps things from you. She’ll say that you didn’t communicate lovingly enough with her, you hurt her feelings or she needs and deserves what ever she wants. And she’ll say that she has a right to it all. She needs it to comfort her for her great loss.
She’ll try to divide your siblings into warring camps; if you’re not on her side you’re her enemy for life. She’ll make you crawl in order to get anything, and then she’ll jerk it away just as you think you’re about to get it. It’s as if she enjoys raising your hopes and causing you pain.
Recognize as bullies these manipulative, hypercritical, distorting, demanding, lying toxic people who use their hurt feelings and anger to control everyone else. Notice who has all the responsibility for making her be just or generous; she never accepts any blame, never has to please you, never has to apologize. You always have to please her, accept all the blame for any problem and do all the apologizing.
If you try to negotiate with these bullies, you’ll always give up something in hopes that she’ll reciprocate. But you’ll be disappointed. After you give something up, the negotiations will immediately become about what you must give up next.
Accept that you’re in a war with a bitter, relentless and ruthless enemy who won’t compromise or negotiate in good faith. Fight to get what’s yours. Then turn your back and walk away. She wants to trap your energy for the rest of your life; either pleasing her or fighting her; it doesn’t matter which.
Toxic step-fathers and step-mothers are clichés because they’re all too common. But the ubiquity of harassment, bullying and verbal, sexual and physical abuse doesn’t diminish the pain and long-term damage inflicted on defenseless kids.
Of course, kids can also treat their step-parents cruelly, and step-mothers and biological parents can also be relentlessly cruel, but let’s focus here on step-fathers who abuse their size, control and power.
These step-fathers sexually abuse one or all of their step-daughters while the moms ignore the evil. The perpetrators are to blame and the daughters’ anger is rightly focused on these men.
But let’s also look at the moms who won’t see or hear anything bad about their new husbands even though the complaints and evidence are clear, and the damage to their children is striking.
Later, when the complaints and evidence are brought forth by the now-adult and articulate children, these mothers will usually still defend and excuse the predators they invited into their homes. Typically, the mothers whine and demand that their children should perpetuate the lies and secrets. “After all,” they complain, “they deserve a little happiness after all they’ve suffered. Their daughters should understand how hard it was for them.”
The daughters, who held the pain and trauma when they were young, are still left holding the emotional bag. There’s no way they can release their anger by simply beating the bullies to death or making them burn slowly, even though he deserves even worse.
Stop abusing yourself with negative self-talk and predictions of failure that increase self-doubt, stress and depression, and destroy self-confidence and self-esteem. Convert those inner, self-bullying voices into helpful coaches.
Don’t let your children near them. More important than their knowing their toxic grandparents is your protecting them from emotional and physical perpetrators. Be a model for them to keep a flame of strength, courage and determination burning in their hearts no matter what happens to them.
Forget about understanding and forgiveness; let these come in their own time, if they ever do. Understanding why that old man, who may or may not be truly sorry now, could torture you like he did does not excuse or justify the behavior. Understanding how your mother could allow you to be tortured does not excuse or justify the behavior. Understanding why they maintained a conspiracy of silence then and now does not excuse or justify the behavior.
Become internally invulnerable. Use the past pain to inspire your present life. I know that’s easy to say and hard to do. Find people to remind you of your fighting spirit when your energy flags. Get an expert coach to help you put the wounds behind you. Fill the mental space in front of you with your vision of the present and future you want.
An article by Hillary Stout in the New York Times, “For Some Parents, Shouting is the New Spanking,” focuses on the damage to children done by parents’ shouting and, therefore, the need for parents to control their tempers.
Although I agree that a steady diet of shouting and bullying isn’t a good way for well-meaning, devoted parents to act, the experts in the article miss the real source of the problem and, therefore, the real solution.
Those experts point out that the proper way to be a good parent is “never spank their children,” “friend our teenagers,” “spend hours teaching our elementary-school offspring how to understand their feelings,” “reminding, nagging, timeout, counting 1-2-3” and “have a good interaction based on reason.”
I disagree with their basic assumptions about good parenting and their solution that parents should control their tempers.
Of course, repeated sarcasm, criticism, beatings and abuse are bad parenting. I’m talking here to frustrated, well-meaning, devoted parents; not abusive bullies.
Good parenting sometimes involves spanking, has nothing to do with “friending,” is not focused on teaching children to merely understand their feelings and is not usually about good interactions based on reason. Reason is only a small part of being an effective parent, especially when the children are young.
Children are exquisitely adept at knowing your true limitations and which buttons to push. It’s a survival skill for them. They know exactly how many times you’ll yell before you act. They distinguish between yelling and threatening that won’t be followed up, and the “Mom” or “Dad” look and voice that means you will act. And they perform a precise calculus based on how much they’ll get the next time versus a punishment and your guilt this time. They know when they can get unreasonable and stubborn, and win. They also know that if you blow up and yell now, they’ll win later.
What leads to repeated shouting is frustration. Those parents have so limited their allowed responses that they’re no longer effective – the kids know that they don’t have to do what the parents want and nothing serious will happen. Those parents have taught their children to be stubborn and unreasonable in order to win. See the case study of Paula as she stops being bullied by her daughter Stacy in "How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks."
Those parents’ lack of creativity and effectiveness increases their frustration until they blow up and shout. Then those parents feel guilty, apologize, give the kids more power and set in motion the next cycle of not getting listened to leading to more frustration and further shouting.
The solution is for parents to take charge and be parents – speak and act straight. Decide – as age, stage and specific kid appropriate – what decisions you make and when the child simply must obey, and what decisions the kid gets to make and within what limits. In your areas, it’s nice if the child understands your needs and reasons, but you’ll never convince a two or sixteen year-old by reasoning that your way is best and they should be happy not getting what they want.
Sometimes you must be firm about your sense of urgency, which is not matched by theirs. Sometimes, your needs and wishes must be taken into account. You’re not their slave or servant all the time. They don’t get what they want every time. More important than helping them understand their feelings is teaching them how to deal effectively when they’re feeling demanding or angry or frustrated or needy.
And some kids seem to want to be punished sometimes. Really, they do. And they feel much better afterward. When you’ve gone through the sequence of reminding and timeout without effect, a spank is sometimes the best thing to do.
Your frustration and shouting is a message to you that you’re not being effective. You need to do more than merely learn the latest technique; you need to change the limits you place on yourself. That will open up other ways to making them do what you need when you’re under pressure.
Good parenting means that you can say, “Here’s the way it is. I need to move fast and I insist that you do the same.” Or “You don’t vote on this decision and we’ll talk about it later.” Of course, you will talk about it later. Or “I’m not taking you there today. I need to unwind right now over a latte. I love you. Now go read and leave me alone for a while.” Of course, most of the time we devoted parents will take them to places they want to go.
Don’t reason more than once with a five year-old who doesn’t want to brush her teeth, “You’re making a bad decision,” as those experts suggest. Simply say, “In our family, we brush our teeth, so you will.”
It’s not, as those experts say, that “Yelling parents reflect a complete inability to express themselves in any meaningful, thoughtful, useful or constructive way.” It’s that yelling parents aren’t allowing themselves to express the right thought, which is that “I, the parent, am drawing the line here and you will do what I want. I have good reasons. I hope you understand now and I know you’ll understand later. But even if you don’t understand, you will do what I want now.”
In addition to what I learned professionally, we have six, now-grown children who taught me that well-meaning parents yell when they’re irritable, anxious, pressured, overwhelmed and frustrated because they don’t know how else to make things work for them
Recently, I’ve seen articles and heard parents saying that since words can hurt, we shouldn’t deny our children what they want or ever say, "No" to them. They think that if we deny them or say "No", we’ll damage their confidence and self esteem. But if we give them continual praise and approval, we’ll help them develop high self-esteem and a willingness to take risks. Some studies are even quoted about the harmful effects of the words parents use.
I disagree with that advice and parenting style.
Of course words matter; and even more important is how they’re delivered – frequency, voice tone, body language and with beating or caressing.
Of course, unrelenting yelling, insults, criticism, humiliation, shame, guilt, dismissing, ridicule and rejection are harmful. Personal insults hurt little children. Hostility and personal attacks tell children that they are bad people for wanting what they want or for doing something wrong or for not doing something right. It’s easy for children to think their identity is damaged, defective or blemished in ways that cannot be rectified.
A few days ago, I saw a chilling video made at a car wash. A mother was holding the arm of an approximately 3-4-year-old child while torturing her with the power washing hose. The child was screaming in pain and writhing to break free. The mother was screaming that the child had better respect her. Of course, we don’t need research to tell us that’s lousy parenting and abuse.
Don’t live a life fueled by such anger and viciousness. Weigh your life heavily toward approval, encouragement and praise. After all, children naturally want to learn, explore and imitate their loving parents. Maintain control of yourself during moments when your frustration might break out into emotional abuse and intimidation, or verbal and physical violence.
Create a background of loving physical and verbal caresses for all your interactions with your children. Against that background, it’s critically important that you correct, deny and say "No" sometimes. Don’t give children everything they want. Set age-appropriate limits on their behavior. Teach them how to get along socially.
Most important: Teach them that they can be denied and be told "No", and the world doesn’t end. Their lives go on just fine without getting everything. Maybe they’ll get what they want another day. Or maybe, they’ll have to grow up and earn the money to get what they want for themselves. Or maybe, as they grow older, they’ll become more aware of the consequences of what they want and they’ll learn to not want it. That’s called self-discipline, character and integrity.
If you never say "No", you end up with spoiled, selfish children like Veruka Salt from “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
Teach them to be resilient so a "No" doesn’t crush their spirits. Then, denial doesn’t stop them from ever wanting or asking again and a "No" isn’t emotional abuse and doesn’t cause emotional damage.
Teach your children what’s safe and unsafe, what’s right and wrong, what’s worthy and not good enough, what’s honorable and dishonorable. Without your guidance, TV will teach them.
Some people still have scars because of what their parents said and did repeatedly. And, of course, some have more and deeper scars. But let’s be clear. All of us ultimately have the same task: to get over our childhoods and create better lives for ourselves and our children. Whether the scars were caused by parents, siblings, relatives, neighbors, teachers, school bullies or rotten strangers, the task is the same.
How can we do that? I always look to the people who had it worst: The ones who survived genocidal wars, prison camps, slavery. How do they look at themselves and the world that they can still laugh and sing and dance and love? And it’s our job to become like them also.
In addition, we can now resist the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual attacks by spouses, co-workers and bosses. We can now resist putdowns and bullies; we can now reject their opinions or fight back.
We must now train our own memories and fears: The future does not have to be as bad as the past was. Otherwise we become adult victims to what they did to us when we were children.
Don’t let those ruin the rest of your life. Grow up. They might have been in charge of the past, but you’re in charge of the future.