Today is officially, “Dump the Jerk Day.” Seriously. Clear out the debris and deadwood. Make space for someone who treats you good so you can have a wonderful Valentine’s Day. Worse than being alone is feeling alone when someone else is taking up all the space and breathing all the air. Then you’re not only feeling alone, there’s also no space for someone good to come into your life.
This is a good time to hold your dating choices under the microscope and, when appropriate, to recognize your bad choices for the jerks that they are. Then, jettison those persons from your life before Valentine’s Day comes around.
Even if you’re married with children, you can do it. In some ways, despite the difficulties, it’s more important because you need to set a good example for your sons and daughters. Teach them to stop abuse and bullying.
In her article in the New York Times, “The Playground Gets Even Tougher,” Pamela Paul points out that Mean Girls begin their nasty, vicious harassment, bullying and abuse on the playground and in pre-school. They don’t wait until fifth grade or junior high school.
In my experience, mean girls put down targeted kids for whatever reasons they can find – from poor, discounted, unfashionable clothes or the lack of the latest cell phones and bling, to race, religion, physical differences and hair color. Mean girls also form cliques that ostracize, exclude and cut-out their targets or scapegoats. Mean girl behavior cuts across all socio-economic categories – inner-city, rural, suburban and expensive, private schools. The movies, “Mean Girls” and “Camp Rock,” give some graphic examples.
Mean moms who ignore mean girl behavior at home, on the playground and in preschool. These moms have many opportunities to step in and teach their daughters how to do better in age-appropriate ways, but they don’t. I think of these as absentee moms, whatever their reasons – whether they’re simply uncaring or not paying attention or don’t want to deal with it or not physically present. Nannies can be even less responsible, especially if their employers don’t want to hear about it.
Mean moms who set a bad example by acting mean to their extended families, to their children and to helpless servers in all forms – waiters, checkout clerks, nannies, maids, etc. Mean girls imitate what they see and hear from their mean moms, not pious platitudes or empty commands thrown at them.
Mean moms who encourage mean girl behavior. They enjoy watching their daughters be popular, superior and controlling. They may think it’s cute and a sign of leadership potential, but whatever they think, they train their daughters to be mean.
Mean moms who protect and defend their mean daughters when they get feedback about mean behavior. Of course, one-in-a-million children will be sneaky enough to be mean only when their parents aren’t looking. Sneaky, mean girls can bully targets by acting as if the target did something to hurt their feelings and get their protective moms to get the target in trouble. Or mean girls will simply threaten a target by saying they’ll get their moms to get the target in trouble. Mean moms collude and often encourage this behavior. Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series is an example of a mean boy protected by his mean father.
Suppose you’re the parent of a child who’s bullied by a mean girl, what can you do? If you’re convinced that your daughter was not a provocateur who tried to get the other girl to react and get in trouble, should you talk to the mean girls, their moms, teachers and principals?
Know your daughter; will she assert and defend herself? Since she might not talk about the meanness, you have to watch carefully on the playground and look for signs after school. Mean girls are bullies who try to assert themselves over less assertive and less aggressive children. Don’t ask your daughter to suffer or “rise above” because a mean girl and mean mom don’t know any better or have difficulties in their lives.
You might encourage your pre-school or kindergarten daughter to stand up for herself, but you should give plenty of encouragement and specific direction. Even though your daughter is young, champion her inner strength, courage and perseverance. She might be a target but she doesn’t have to become a victim. Never believe mean girls’ opinions and don’t give in to their demands.
Intervene rapidly when your daughter seems unable to defend herself. Don’t let the behavior continue. Say something strongly and firmly to the mean girl. Girls who were merely experimenting with a mean behavioral tactic will stop and not repeat it. That’s a test of the girl – nice girls stop when you set a behavioral standard but mean girls don’t. Mean girls think they’re smarter than you and that they have their own mothers’ protection.
If the mean girl doesn’t stop, test the mean girl’s mom one time. Calmly detail the behavior and listen carefully for the response. Is the mom appalled at her daughter’s behavior or does the mom blow it off or explain it away? Just as in sports and childhood, your daughter might have been provocateur and then looked innocent when another girl retaliated. So it’s natural for the other girl’s mother to try to discover the whole context and behavior before the incident. But does the other mom immediately get defensive and angry, and twist the facts in order to blame your daughter? Does she insist that her daughter is never wrong? Is the mean girl’s mom too busy with her own life to educate her daughter or has she turned her child over to a nanny who won’t correct the child?
If these attempts change the girl’s behavior, you weren’t dealing with a hard-core mean girl and a mean mom. But mean girls and mean moms aren’t stopped by the easy tactics. Now you have to cut off after school activities including parties, despite the ramifications. Also, get the pre-school teachers and principals involved. Some will be helpful; they’ll keep it confidential, they’ll monitor to get their own evidence and then they’ll intervene. They’ll get the mean girl out of your daughter’s class, they’ll break-up the clique, they’ll stop the behavior at school and they’ll have proactive programs to talk about mean girl behavior. Depending on the age of the girls, they’ll teach witnesses what to do. Unfortunately, unhelpful, uncaring, lazy, cowardly teachers and principals will look the other way or condone or even encourage mean girl behavior. They’ll put you off with excuses. Don’t let this happen. Remember, principals fear publicity and law suits.
Teach your children what’s right and also how to defend themselves. Don’t convert your daughter into a victim. Don’t sacrifice your child on the altar of your ignorance, fear or sympathetic heart. Protect and defend your child even though there may be a high cost socially.
Inept, unskilled or over-protective mothers sabotage their daughters.
Almost all the women who’ve interviewed me on radio and TV or who’ve called in with comments have said that their mothers told them to rise above mean girls, to be nicer and kinder to bullies, to be nice because the mean girls were being bullied at home, to feel sorry for the bullies because they had low self-esteem or to simply forgive mean girls as a spiritual thing to do.
That’s bad advice; those methods don’t stop real-world bullies and mean girls. Those mothers trained their daughters to be easy targets and victims. Those grown daughters still bear the wounds and scars of being hurt and victimized while not being allowed or knowing how to defend themselves.
In addition, some over-protective mothers said that they’re home-schooling their daughters because they were bullied at school. There are many good reasons to home-school children, but I think that’s not one of them.
Of course we don’t throw our children into deep water and risk their drowning. First, we teach them how to swim. Everything I say also relates to fathers and sons.
So what can mothers do?
If you’re fearful and protect your daughters in a cocoon, you’ll create problems for them when they grow up. Don’t make being a victim into a multi-generational problem. The fear they sense will lead them to think they’re weak, fragile and incompetent. They’ll develop anxiety and low self-confidence and self-esteem. They’ll be naïve and unskillful and, therefore, easy prey for abusers and predators in their adult love life, with friendships and at work.
Teach your daughters that the real-world has predators and also teach them how to recognize bullies. Overt bullies are easy to recognize. Also, teach them the early warning signs of stealthy, covert bullies and mean girls.
Teach your daughters how to stop school bullies individually – verbally and physically. Predators will misinterpret their kindness and offers of friendship as weakness and an invitation to abuse them more. Teach your daughters techniques of increasing firmness to get bullies to stop or to get away from them. Teach them how to rally their friends to help them.
“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.”
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.
This is about the opposite side of the coin from the toxic parents and grandparents that many people have experienced.
One of the saddest cries for help I hear is from nice, kindly, well-meaning grandparents whose daughters have given in to their controlling husbands. Their daughters don’t come to visit and don’t bring the grandchildren, they schedule visits and cancel at the last minute, the daughters and sons-in-law won’t allow the grandchildren to receive presents, the sons-in-law blame the grandparents because everything they do offends them and the daughters take his side and become verbally abusive in every attack.
The poor grandparents try everything, but no matter what they do they’re blamed. When they try to point out what’s happening, their daughters attack them. According to the daughters, the grandparents are completely at fault. Their husbands are reasonable and correct. The grandparents are blamed for what they do and blamed for what they don’t do.
The grandparents see their daughters isolated from their former friends and families, not allowed access to computers and not allowed to have cars. And yet, their daughters accept that treatment and defend their husbands. They see their daughters harassed, bullied and abused but don’t know what they can do to stop it. The frustration and helplessness are agonizing.
If you ever see fresh and obvious evidence of battering or beating, or obvious evidence of child neglect or abandonment you can report that. But be sure that’s what it is. You don’t want to get identified as a person who “cries wolf.” Of course you’ll get blamed, but you get blamed for everything anyway.
You might offer to take the grandchildren on trips without their grandparents. But beyond that, there’s not much you can do for now. Since your daughters aren’t minors, they’re entitled to live their own lives, no matter how horrible we think they are.
I’m talking to grandparents who were decent parents. I’m not talking to negative, controlling, toxic, abusive bullies. Don’t wallow in blaming yourself or trying to identify the specific incidents of bad parenting that led your daughters to accept their husband’s abuse and to hate you. It’s not your fault. Every one of us didn’t like some of the things our parents did and most of us got over it. Probably, your daughters were fine before they met the sons-in-law. Your daughters have chosen a different path for now.
Stop the negativity and bullying self-talk. That destroys self-esteem and leads to depression. That won’t make you behave good enough or the right way to finally please your daughters and their husbands. Forgive yourself when you’re provoked and lash back.
Plan for the future
Keep writing to your grandchildren, keep sending gifts to them and keep a record. Someday, you may have an opportunity to show them the truth. Try to hold your tongue quiet and don’t engage in arguments about who’s right or how badly your daughters treat you. You might say, “I know you look at it that way. That’s your privilege. But there’s another side.” Don’t explain the other side; simply state it.
Allow your daughters to create distance. Accept the treatment for now and hope and pray for the future. You don’t want to push your daughters further into their husbands’ control because they don’t want to face your, “I told you so.”
Go have a wonderful life in all other areas. Keep your focus on the rest of life as best you can. I know that’s hard but that’s what you’ve been given. It’s like the weather; snow and sun, drought and hurricanes. And you don’t get to choose.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
As reported in the Huffington Post, to focus attention on National Bullying Prevention Awareness Week, Disney star Demi Lovato has gone public. She was bullied so much in school that she and her parents chose to do home schooling rather than face the bullies at school. Her story follows Miley Cyrus telling of being bullied, harassed and abused verbally and physically when she was in school.
These stories follow the recent publicity given in the New York Times to the “slut list” at “top-ranked, affluent, suburban New Jersey Millburn High School” that’s been going on for at least 10 years. In this case, it was the “popular and athletic” girls who went after the younger girls.
Notice that these examples were of girls bullying other girls; a common occurrence that often gets lost in the glare of publicity about boys who bully. These are often the girls who will grow up to be women who bully women at work.
I hope the publicity will stimulate people who can change the situation. Who do I mean?
Bullies and their parents. Ultimately, bullies are responsible for their actions no matter what their excuses and justifications are. And their parents are responsible for not teaching or setting better examples for their daughters. In too many cases, they’re also responsible for minimizing the effects of their daughter’s behavior on the target girls and for protecting their daughters from the appropriate consequences of their actions.
But bullies have been with us forever and will continue to be. We can’t wait for all parents to socialize their children better or for all children to change.
Parents of the targeted girls. They are often remiss in three areas. First, if they don’t teach their daughters how to stand up emotionally, verbally and physically. Yes, sometimes, physical force is necessary to stop bullying girls, just as it is often effective in stopping bullying boys.
Second, if parents don’t organize a core group of active parents to support principals who want to stop bullying or to force uncaring, lazy or cowardly principals to stop bullying at their schools. When bullies are tolerated at a school, they prey on many targets.
Third, if parents don’t pressure reluctant legislators to make laws that can be enforced. Often legislators focus on free speech, even when the pendulum is shifting to limit some speech in an effort to protect children.
Principals who won’t act. For example, the principal at Millburn said that there was no evidence to determine who made the list; no one had come forward to identify the predators. Funny, I’ll bet almost every kid at school knows who organizes and publicizes the “slut list” on Facebook and through cell phones. Principals can have proactive stop-bullying policies and programs, vetted by school district lawyers, that enroll all students, including bystanders, in outing and stopping school bullies. I focus on principals because strong, active principals set the tone. They involve district administrators and train teachers and staff.
Notice that I haven’t focused on understanding and therapeutizing bullies. Let’s stop them first. That can motivate bullies to learn other tactics.
I haven’t focused on statistics either. Statistics may be important in swaying congressmen, but when there’s bullying at your child’s school or your child is being bullied, you don’t pay much attention to statistics. You want your immediate situation changed.
If Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and the kids at top-ranked, affluent, suburban schools can be bullied, harassed and abused, your daughter can be also.