We love our kids. We don’t want to see them suffer while they’re growing up and learning the life lessons we know they will need. So we protect them from the consequences of their actions, their poor decisions, their innate laziness or their desire to feel superior.
Also, we’re thrilled when they shine because they’re smart or athletic or budding comedians.
And that’s how we help spoil them and turn them into weaklings lacking character and grit.
Ramona’s son had always been the brightest kid around. She was so proud that he’d never struggled through high school or college to get good grades. She’d noticed that he avoided subject areas that were difficult; he got upset when he had to struggle with anything. So she tried to be helpful by encouraging him to follow interests that were easy for him.
When she didn’t immediately cater to his every whim, he verbally abused her; he told her she was a rotten and incompetent mom.
Later, in law school, when he had to struggle a little, she noticed that he always blamed his difficulties on poor teachers, bad case presentation and other students who cheated. He thought he was a victim of circumstances. He never applied himself diligently. Instead, he raged against them all and sometimes told them off in public. His struggles were never his fault; his anger was always justified and righteous.
After he passed the bar exam, he couldn’t keep jobs at two prestigious law firms in a row. He’d loudly and publically told off the managing partners because they hadn’t supported him enough.
He started his own practice but had problems getting and keeping clients. He was too busy to keep good books so he never made a profit. But he bought everything he wanted. He wanted to abandon the whole affair and have his mother support him. She was tempted to bail him out; she agreed with him that it wasn’t his fault. And, she fantasized, if she kept helping him, he’d finally grow up, learn his lessons and be successful.
But a friend recommended a book that caused her to step back and examine the course she had followed with him for decades. She saw, although she tried to avoid the bitter truth, that she’d helped him grow up weak and selfish. He had developed no grit or character – no inner strength, resolve, determination, perseverance or resilience. If things didn’t come easily to him, he raged against other people or forces that must be to blame for his suffering and failure.
What had Ramona done that encouraged any of his tendencies toward weakness?
Whenever he refused to struggle, she accepted his excuses and justifications, and allowed him to think that his reactions were normal.
When he had to overcome adversity in order to succeed, she took over and got him past the problem. Then she allowed him to think that her help wasn’t important and he could have done it himself if he’d really wanted.
Ramona had participated by loving her son in the wrong way.
She’d helped him avoid struggle, sacrifice and self-discipline. She’d helped him think he was entitled to easy and rapid success. If it didn’t come that way, he thought it meant he was stupid and he was never going to admit that.
Do you carry a “rattlesnake” in your hand? Was it thrown at you or did you grab it willingly? Do you typically throw them at other people?
The rattlesnake represents the responsibility to make something happen or to change in order to please somebody else.
One problem is that people usually pretend there’s only one responsible party in any interaction, and they throw the rattlesnake at someone else in order to establish blame and responsibility. On the other hand, some people gladly take all the rattlesnakes and let the other person off the hook – as if they feel guilty for any imperfection or they enjoy being martyrs. Then they have the burden of coping with rattlesnakes forever because interactions continue escalating.
But, in most interactions, personal and business, there are usually many rattlesnakes.
For example, at a team meeting, Kathy got hurt and angry when Peter said he hadn’t gotten a necessary document from her. She fought back tears, scowled, crossed her arms, clenched her fists and swiveled her chair so her back was to the group. Peter said he was sorry – he hadn’t meant to imply that she was incompetent.
How many rattlesnakes were there and who had them? See the original article for more information and assessment.
Another example: Ellen got straight to the point in her performance evaluation of Glenn – she was frustrated. He was technically skilled but he resisted change and pushed back loudly and repeatedly in meetings about why the team couldn’t do what it needed to do.
Glenn told Ellen that he didn’t like her style of managing and evaluating. He felt disrespected and threatened because she was brusque, and that’s why he got defensive. Good management, he said, meant that Ellen should adjust her approach to the preferred styles of each individual in the group.
How many rattlesnakes were there and who had them? See the original article for more information and assessment.
Often, people need coaching to help them overcome their defensiveness and passive-aggressive tendencies, and to build the strength, courage, determination and skill needed to stop angry confrontations and to emerge as the obvious candidate for promotion. To get the help you need, call Ben at 1-877-828-5543.
Suppose your toxic parents want you to forgive them for the way they treated you years ago. They sound sincere and they say that they need you to nurse them now that their health is failing. They don’t have enough money to live well so you should support them like they once supported you. Also, they need your help to deal with a health-care bureaucracy they don’t understand.
Can you forgive them and do what they want?
Forgiveness is a loaded word.
To most people, especially toxic ones, forgiveness means not only you opening your heart to them, but also you giving them what they want. At the very least it means increased relationship and, usually, endless arguing and debating, endless servitude.
But, suppose also that, trying to help them, you’ve bounced between anger and feeling guilty. Suppose that the last ten times you’ve forgiven them and tried to be a dutiful child, you’ve gotten entangled in painful interactions. Every time you get close, they try to control you and you feel angry again. They don’t listen to your needs; they think their need to have you help them is more important than your values of independence and freedom.
Forgive them and move far away – physically, mentally and emotionally.
What I mean by that is:
Forgive them, have compassion for their struggles, and also stop thinking about them – about 2 minutes a week might be okay. Forgiveness means that you don’t replay all the old incidents; you don’t get angry; you don’t try to justify yourself in your eyes or theirs; they occupy very little of your mental and emotional space.
Get far away physically so there are no more incidents that will trigger you again. End contact by telephone, email, social networks.
You don’t have to confront your toxic parents. You can simply tell them the way it is for you – calmly, firmly; no debates, no arguments, no justifications, no asking for their approval or permission. Don’t waste your time in further confrontations.
When they pursue you, keep your distance. Don’t engage. Of course they won’t respect your desires and boundaries. They’ve always known what’s right. Disappear again.
Think of your personal space as a target with a bull’s eye and many concentric circles going out from the center. The more toxic people are, the further away from the center of your life you move them. Every time someone pollutes your environment, for whatever reason, move them at least one circle further away from you; or more if they did something you particularly don’t like.
If someone apologizes, do not move them closer. Watch their behavior. How long before they revert to the old harassment, bullying or abuse? Keep moving them further away.
What if they don’t want you to forgive them? They just want you to forget what happened and do what they want and need now.
What if they’re angry at you for what they claim you did? What if they want you to apologize to them before they’ll forgive you?
In what circle do you want to put your toxic parents?
You’re in charge of your personal space. “Because I want to” is more than sufficient reason for placing them in any particular circle and moving them closer or further away. At what circle do you drop them off your map?
I’d also take the same approach with toxic friends, extended family and adult children.
We want to be people of our words; we want to be ethical and honest, and have trustworthy character; we want to do our duty. But sometimes our loyalty to our vows – especially our marriage vows and vows to take care of parents or children – makes our lives a living hell and also sets a terrible example for our children.
Deep in our hearts we know we must stop being loyal to those vows or our lives and spirits will be destroyed. But how can we stop honoring our vows?
In public we pledge many things in our marriage vows. But suppose our spouse turns out to have deceived us and reneges on their side of the vows? Suppose that husband turns out to be physically, mentally and emotionally abusive? Suppose he harasses, controls, bullies or abuses his wife? Supposes he justifies his actions by saying that he’s the head of the house and she must do what he says? Or suppose he blames his lack of self-control on her and uses threats, guilt and shame – his rage and violence are her fault and if she did what she should, he’d treat her better? Or suppose that wife turns out to be manipulative and controlling? Or supposes she’s lying, crazy and always verbally, emotionally and physically abusive in order to beat the husband into submission?
In private we may pledge many things to our parents, especially as they get older. But suppose they’re narcissistic, demanding, bullying and toxic. Suppose they squander all their money against our advice and then they insist we spend all our money on them – either taking care of them or sending them to an expensive, assisted living facility? Suppose they are relentlessly critical, scolding, chastising, whining, complaining and demeaning, and nothing we do is ever good enough? Suppose they are vicious in private but sweet as sugar in public, so every thinks they’re saints while they act like devils in private? Suppose they’re lying, manipulative and back stabbing – they praise their favorite child, put us down and leave everything to the favorite while we’re the ones taking care of them? Suppose we think we’re responsible because they raised us, we think we owe them and we still want their approval? Suppose we feel guilty if we think of acting like ungrateful children and abandoning them in their hour of need?
In our hearts we pledge to take care of our children until they can take care of themselves very well. But suppose they’re 40 and still living with us because they never took our advice and never got good careers or married the right person or held a job? Suppose our toxic children are rotten to us until they need something? Or they threaten to deprive us of our grandchildren unless we give them everything they want, even to divorcing our spouse, whom they hate? Suppose they still act like spoiled, vicious, toxic teenagers, blaming us for all their failures, feeling entitled to everything they want, full of sneering sarcasm, back-talk, temper tantrums and demanding that we slave for them? Suppose we still think that if we love them enough, if we’re nice enough to them they’ll finally grow up and become successful? Suppose we’re afraid they’ll fail completely and end up homeless if we don’t give them everything they want?
Those are horrible scenarios but all too common.
Probably, we’ve discovered the hard way that we can’t make things better by being peacemakers. Tactics like begging, bribery, endless praise, appeasement, ‘second chances,’ forgiveness, sympathy and unconditional love, and the Golden Rule usually encourage more harassment, bullying and abuse. We won’t get the results we want; we won’t stop emotional bullies or physical bullying unless we’re clear about which values are more or less important to us.
So we wallow in negative self-talk, perfectionism, blame, shame and guilt. We get discouraged, depressed, despairing and easily defeated. We lose our confidence and self-esteem.
Often, we stay stuck in those versions of hell because we gave our word and we’re people of integrity – even though they broke their side of the bargain, we understand how hard it has been for them. We think we must honor our pledge or we’d be just as bad as they are.
I say that’s a big mistake.
I say, “Choose life, not a slow spiritual and emotional death.” I say, “Examine your hierarchy of values and get clear about which values are more important to you. Then honor the most important ones gracefully and cheerfully.” And make yourself cheerful living a great life with your choice.
Don't be a victim waiting forever for other people to grow up or change or die. Don’t suffer in silence. Use your own power. Say “That’s enough!” Say “No!”
Often, we avoid examining that hierarchy of values and discarding those early vows until we are forced to. We may not be willing to protect ourselves but we will act resolutely to defend others.
For example, our crazy or bullying spouse abuses the children and only then does our spirit rise up with fierce determination to protect our children. We discard that marriage vow for the sake of something much more important than loyalty to a toxic spouse – loyalty to our children
Or the toxic parents are so abusive to our spouse and children that we take the power we need to protect what’s more precious than our toxic parents – our marriage and our children.
Or our toxic children are so vicious, nasty and abusive that our spirits will stand no more – we’ll protect our marriages, our health and our retirement funds from the energy vampires who want to suck us dry, even if they’re our own children
Although each situation is different, bullies exhibit common styles, techniques and patterns. These commonalities enable us see what responses are ineffective and also to develop responses that are effective to stop bullying.
Whether in relationships, by our own children’s temper tantrums or nastiness, by false friends, at school or in the workplace, there is one rule of thumb that’s critical in order to stop bullies: Don’t suffer in silence.
For some relationship examples, see the comments to the articles:
Kids’ silence prevents effective action from the principals and teachers who would protect them.
As parents, we must learn to recognize the signs that our children might be subjected to bullying and abuse. Sometimes, we must pry the truth out of our reluctant kids. Sometimes, we must check their phones, computers and social websites. Sometimes, we must investigate with parents of their friends or with teachers. Sometimes, we must learn to force reluctant principals to act, even though that might violate our old beliefs or values.
I’m not going into the many reasons that targets suffer in silence. We don’t need a scientific study to analyze all the reasons. If we and ten friends make a list, we’ll cover more than 90% of the reasons. So what?
Single mom Joan didn’t know what to do. Her teenage daughter, Mindy, was often so nasty to her that Joan would shake with rage, and cry with pain and frustration.
Sometimes, Mindy would call Joan names, tell her how much she hated her, tell her that she was ruining her life, tell her to get out of her room and leave her alone, and demand that she never ask about school. Even when Joan cooked Mindy’s favorite meals, Mindy would grab and gulp, and never say “Please” or “Thank you.” Over the phone, Mindy would vent and yell at her mother.
Joan admitted that Mindy had always been that way and she’d always let her get away with it. Sometimes Mindy was sweet, but then, for no apparent reason, she’d blow up and verbally attack her mother.
Joan could never bring herself to do anything “nasty” to her daughter no matter how negative she was.
What could Joan do to stop her daughter’s bullying?
Didn’t want to stoop to Mindy’s level. She believed that if she was kind enough, eventually Mindy would see the light and change. She believed in the Golden Rule.
When Mindy went to college, Joan thought her daughter’s behavior would finally change. But she was wrong. On the phone, Mindy berated Joan even more. When Mindy came home for Thanksgiving, she treated her mother even worse. When Joan suggested that Mindy seek help just in case Mindy was feeling more pressure and stress, and taking it out on her mother, Mindy exploded.
Open a previously unassailable belief system to new data. Joan removed her old definition of “nasty” and replaced it with one that labeled her as being nasty to herself and to the person she hoped Mindy would become, if she continued to let Mindy act nasty to her.
Describe the new tactics. Joan would demand the “magic words” again, just like we do when little kids ask for anything. Mindy would have to say, “Please,” and “Thank you” or she wouldn’t get anything. Demanding and bullying would no longer be rewarded.
Have effective consequences for nasty behavior. Joan would let Mindy show her what consequences were enough, by how much it took for Mindy to change. The first time Mindy yelled at her over the phone, Joan calmly said, I won’t allow anyone to talk to me that way,” and she hung up. Despite her fears, she didn’t call back. Mindy called a few hours later and said, “Don’t you love me?” Then she started yelling at Joan for not calling back. Joan said, “I love you so much, I won’t let you talk to me like that.” And she calmly hung up again.
Be sweet, firm and cheerful as we apply consequences.
Read “cue cards.” Stay firm and calm by pulling out cue cards we’ve prepared and simply read them as we apply consequences.
“If you want something from me, make it enjoyable for me.” When Mindy was nasty, demanding her mother take her to the mall, Joan said, “I won’t be bullied, but I might drive you if you make me like going with you.” Mindy said, “I won’t suck up to you.” Joan sweetly responded, “Then I won’t take you,” and she turned cheerfully and left the room.
Be open to bribery. When Mindy was nasty at Christmas, Joan read a cue card she’d made, “Be nice to me, you may want something from me, like a Christmas present.” Mindy said, “That’s bribery!” Joan sweetly replied, “Yes. I’m glad you understand. I work hard for my money and I spend it only on people who are nice to me.”
Have them act like a guest in our home. Before spring break, Joan told Mindy that she’d packed up all of Mindy’s things into boxes she put in the garage. She was converting Mindy’s room into a guest bedroom. Mindy was welcome to come back as long as she behaved like a nice guest in Joan’s home. Mindy was furious and began to yell, but Joan hung up. Mindy later called back and said she’d act like a guest. Joan was delighted and cheerfully said, “I’m so happy. I hoped you would. That’s the kind of relationship I want to have with you. But you should also have a back-up plan just in case you forget, because I’ll only allow good guests to stay. Three weeks is a long time and you may forget what the standards are and need to have somewhere else to go.”
Pushing the boundaries.
Joan expected Mindy to resist because Mindy had always been able to beat her mother into submission. She’d still think she could do the same.
Joan was prepared and steadfast; she expected Mindy to be nice for a while, then to push the boundaries again. She was right. But this time, when Mindy pushed back a little, Joan immediately and sweetly imposed a consequence.
By the next summer, Mindy was treating Joan well. She was polite, civil and sweet. Joan was glad to have Mindy stay as a guest that summer, as long as Mindy had a job. Joan didn’t collect any money, but she knew that if Mindy got lonely and bored, she’d probably slide back to her old, nasty habits.
When should we start requiring good behavior?
How about, as soon as we can? Of course we respond kindly to angry babies. Of course, the process of teaching them new ways of getting what they want is initially very slow and speeds up the older they get. So it’s really our good sense and close observation of each individual child’s growth and development that must guide us.
But the goal is always clear. “We ask for what we want. But we’ll get what we’re willing to put up with.”
Venting, like catharsis, seems so natural: we all blow off steam sometimes. And when we finish, we usually heave a great sigh of relief.
But to me, the real questions are, “What’s the point of venting?” and “Can it help stop bullies?
I think of venting as a process, or part of a process, not as a result in and of itself.
Tens of thousands of years ago, we might have vented our fear and anger through physical action. Get rid of the adrenaline, calm down and decide what to do. But we still had to be careful and keep ourselves in check enough while we’re venting to see the signs of saber-toothed tigers or giant bears or we wouldn’t be around to vent again.
Or we might have used a big club to whack an opponent and then face the consequences of that rash act.
Nowadays, we can still use some techniques like physical effort to release steam and calm us down. For example, working off adrenaline by banging a ball or running or boxing. In addition, a wise woman once said that whenever she got angry, she vacuumed her house. That way, when she finished being angry, she’d have a clean house and she could focus on what to do next.
Some people use anger and venting to give themselves enough energy to stop harassment and bullying. In that case, it does help us stop bullies. A classic example might be Ralphie Parker in the movie, “The Christmas Story.” In that case, he channeled his anger effectively and vented while he was beating up the bully. But usually, when we act from anger we’re not strategic; we do dumb things that make the situation worse.
Therefore we must challenge ourselves to stop repeated replaying and re-venting over the same incidents and injustices. Repeated venting without effective action becomes narcissistic whining and complaining, which becomes boring and self-destructive.
Such repetition drives our good friends away. I think it was Annie Liebovitz who said, “Spilling your guts is about as attractive as it sounds.”
We most also be wary of hanging out with people who vent repeatedly. Yes, injustice might have been done, but we still have to move on effectively in life – either fight the injustice effectively or go in a different direction successfully.
I’ve met too many people who have filled their lives and many hours of psychoanalysis in endless probing and catharsis. They seem to assume that if only they vent enough, finally they’ll come to rest in peace on the other side. Too often they end up knowing everything about some sides of themselves, but never having changed their behavior, fixed the situation or created wonderful lives. A life of verbal and righteous indignation is not a very fruitful life.
I’m more focused on overtly using techniques for moving to the other side and rapidly taking effective action.
If you have a “leaper” and a “stepper” on your staff who are at war with one another, you have a big problem that needs immediate attention.
Leapers are people with fast biological clocks. Steppers approach the world slowly and cautiously. Their very different views of the world can lead to disastrous results if they’re put into roles that make them dependent on one another to complete tasks.
For example, Larry the leaper and Steve the stepper are on the same technical team.
The more invested they are in the rightness of their styles, the faster the gulf between them will widen until their differences become irreconcilable. When they go to war, they’ll both look to you as their manager to punish the other (guilty) person and to excuse their own transgressions.
Joan’s father had bullied and abused her all her life. He’d yelled, scolded, chastised, taunted and emotionally terrorized her. He’d been manipulative, sneaky and lying. He never admitted anything was his fault. He’d always blamed on her; everything was her fault. He still treats her the same way. He’s a narcissistic, control freak.
Joan could never understand why he treated her that way. She hadn’t deserved it. She knew he’d had a terrible childhood, but she didn’t deserve to be the one he took it out on.
Now, he’s in his late 80s and Joan could see that he was sinking rapidly.
How can she resolve things with him before he dies?
Sporadically, through the years after she’d left home and made her own life, she’d tried talking with him about how he treats her but he’d always rejected her attempts, calling her weak and bad. He never admitted he’d done any of the things she said. That led to the usual angry rant about her failings and what she owed him. And a demand that he’ll never talk about that again.
Of course, she’s going to try once more. And maybe a miracle will happen. But my experience is that any change would be extremely rare. I’ve see most people recover from near-death experience and be unchanged. They immediately cover themselves with their old costume of abuse and bullying.
I’ve seen a sexually manipulative perpetrator on his death bed try to grope his daughter, just like he did when he molested her for years when she was young.
She means that they’ll have a heart-felt talk, and she’ll say her say again but this time he’ll admit to all he did and apologize and ask for her forgiveness, she’s probably going to be disappointed. No matter how much she begs, bribes or tries to appease him, likely he won’t change. He’ll still insist he never did anything bad to her and it’s all her fault. Also, he’ll never tell everyone to whom he bad-mouthed her, that she was actually a good daughter and he was simply mean and nasty. So the task for her is to accept that she can’t change him and to find a mental place in which to keep him that doesn’t stimulate any self-bullying by blame, shame or guilt – just like he’d do to her again if he had the opportunity.
She means that she can come to like him and they’ll part friends, she’ll be disappointed again. They’re not friends. We can’t be friends with someone who has beaten us, mentally, emotionally or spiritually, no matter how hard we try. A survival part of us doesn’t want us to get close enough so they can abuse us once more. The task for her is to let the anger and hatred motivate her to get distance, no matter what he thinks of her or accuses her of.
Should she stay at his bedside while he passes? If she wants to be with him at the end in order to assuage any guilt she may have for missing a last possible chance for resolution, then she should be there as long as she won’t let him hurt her feelings any more; as long as she doesn’t expect anything more than he’s always been.
Should she have her children visit him at the end? Again that depends on what she wants from the interactions. If he’s been manipulative and rotten to her children, or bad-mouthed her to them, then I wouldn’t let them be subjected to that again. In age and stage appropriate ways, she can talk to them now and as they grow.
Many children are raised with a set of rules such as: “Don’t make anyone uncomfortable. Don’t hurt people’s feelings. Don’t upset anyone. Don’t be disagreeable. Don’t argue. Be polite. Be nice. Follow the Golden Rule. Make everyone like you.” But those are not effective rules for adults in the real-world.
Of course, we know why we teach children those values. Who wants to raise hostile, nasty, argumentative, vicious, abusive bullies?
She held her tongue but she built up huge resentment that eventually exploded.
With friends and a few relatives, either she’d get in a fight so she could be righteously angry, blame them and never talk to them again or she’d nurse a cold fury until she felt justified in simply cutting them off completely without explanation.
With strangers, she sat quietly and never shared what she thought or what she was interested in. She didn’t want to make them uncomfortable and she was afraid of hurting their feelings or raising a subject that would be contentious. Most people thought she wasn’t very bright.
Mary had two underlying and interlocking problems:
The set of rules that made “not upsetting people” her most important value, no matter what.
Having only all-or-none responses of holding back totally or exploding. In a sense, she could remain at zero mph or she could go 100 mph, but she didn’t know how to go 30-60 mph.
The solution to the first problem required that Mary examine, as an adult, the rules she’d accepted all-or-none when she was a child. Children do think in black-or-white but adults have more experience and wisdom. Mary could see the kernel of value in her old rules, even though her parents had used them to control her all her life.
But as an adult, she could see where those rules were insufficient and what changes were necessary:
She felt the pain of all the times she’d made those rules the most important ones instead of protecting herself. She could now see situations in which speaking up or pushing back verbally in order to defend herself were more important values.
She could also see which subjects she simply didn’t want to discuss with which people.
One of the most compelling moments was when she saw which people she did want to disagree with, whether or not they were uncomfortable or had hurt feelings, because to be “nice” to them would have violated her most important values. In fact, she reached a point where making a few people, like her toxic mother, uncomfortable or angry was a sign that Mary was on the right track.
We grow up testing ourselves; “Are we good enough? If not it’s our fault. Did we succeed; we still could have done more. Did we fail; it’s our fault.” Testing ourselves is a motivation strategy, “Figure out what’s wrong with us and improve it.” And behind it is the hidden message, “We’re defective and we’d better work at improving and perfecting ourselves every minute or no one will want us and we’ll fail.”
The strategy may work for us when we’re children, but it’s self-defeating when we’re adults.
We do grow up; we do get free of our families; we do get jobs, lovers, our own children. That seems to prove that the self-testing strategy works. Since we’re obviously still a long way from being good enough, so we’d better keep questioning ourselves in order to improve.
And if we can’t change a pattern, that means we have a great and permanent defect, an evil place inside of us, maybe too much ego, and we’re doomed to fail forever. And that feeds a vicious cycle:
Low self-confidence and low self-esteem --> so we give up ourselves even more --> we pick the wrong people and try to please them by doing what they want --> we fail once again and feel even worse --> our self-confidence and low self-esteem plummets -->…
So what can we do to find love and relationships that fit?
Instead of testing ourselves, we can test the world.
Act like we are and set high standards for behavior we want. We’re reasonably good, nice, decent people. Therefore, in addition to participating in the other person’s activities, ask the other person to participate in ours. Don’t justify our standards. Be behaviorally specific. Ask for more than vague words like “kindness, respect, appreciation, love.” Simply say, “No yelling, no hitting, no threatening, no relentless sarcastic blaming, no controlling, no public humiliating, no demanding perfectionism. Instead, speak softly, negotiate about what we do, give in and do what I want sometimes for no reason, keep disagreements private and my sense of humor counts.” We can fill in the rest of our lists from what we got or didn’t get in previous relationships.
“Create an isle of song in a sea of shouts.” Rabindranath Tagore said that decades ago. I agree. We were told that if we insist on our high standards and what we want, we’ll end up alone. “The only way to get someone is to lower your standards.” Nonsense. Of course, in all relationships we make agreements and we don’t always get our way, but we must not lower our important standards.
Now that we’re adults, now that we’ve been in and out of relationships in which we gave up our true selves, we’ve learned that we’ll never get the love we want if we fill our space with inappropriate, abusive bullies. We’ll never get what we need if we give up on ourselves. We’ll only get what we need, we’ll only find someone who loves us for ourselves if we act like ourselves and test the other person to see if they like that.
Of course the other person has free will also. They can stay or leave if they want. But if they leave because they don’t want to live up to our standards or they think we’re incompatible, we have to get over the emotional pain and be thankful that our isle is clear for someone else who wants to be with us as we are.
Only one of many examples: A homely, awkward girl with a wonderful personality and spirit. Of course, during high school and college she was rejected by all the boys who were looking for cheerleaders. As much as she wanted to be wanted, she knew in her heart that she didn’t want jerks like that and she wasn’t going to abandon herself in order to please one. Then she met someone who was worthy of what she wanted. And wonder of wonders, he was hot for her, body and soul. They’re still enthralled with each others’ unique greatness and with their fit with each other.
How can we improve if we’re not always testing ourselves? It’s simple, although not necessarily easy. We know when we haven’t lived up to our standards, when we’ve done or not done something we should have. We don’t have to beat ourselves up in order to apologize, make amends and do better next time. We simply dedicate ourselves to that task.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
There’s a world of difference between being an active witness to bullying and abuse, and being merely a bystander.
A bystander has already decided to be an uninvolved spectator, to look the other way, to pretend ignorance if called upon.
A witness can make a tactical decision based on the circumstances – intervene now in some tactical way or speak up later.
At work, co-workers or bosses are bullies; at home, abusive parents will harass and bully one young child while lavishing goodies on the other; in addition, toxic parents will favor one adult child over another with love and inheritance on the line.
I’ll focus here on kids, but the larger implications should be obvious when you think about slavery or the Nazis or a hundred other public examples.
Often, at school and at home, mean kids will try to turn siblings or friends against each other.
For example, Charles’ friend, Brad, was relentlessly nasty to Charles’ sister Sarah. He made fun of her, called her stupid, dumb and ugly, and, even though Sarah was tall and skilled enough to play with the older boys, he’d cut her out of their games or he’d intentionally knock her down.
Charles looked on in dismay but never interfered. That was puzzling to Charles’ parents because, in one-to-one situations, Charles played well with Sarah and liked her. Yet Charles had become a bystander; he wouldn’t step up to what he knew was right.
How come he didn’t protect Sarah from Brad? Was Charles afraid that if he interfered he’d lose a friend or that Brad would beat him up? Did Charles secretly want his sister out of the way?
Without knowing the real answers to the “why” questions, the pain, shame, anxiety and stress of watching his sister tormented and the guilty laceration of his conscience finally drove Charles to choose which side he was on. He stood up for his sister and for high standards of conduct, but then he had to solve another problem; Brad was a head taller and 30 pounds heavier than he was.
In front of Sarah, Charles got in Brad’s face and told him to cut it out. If Brad wanted to be his friend and play with him, he had to be nice to Sarah…or else
Most of the Brad’s in the world would back down but this one didn’t. Angry words led to shoving and Brad grabbed Charles and threw him down. At this point Charles and Sarah’s advanced planning gave them a tactical advantage. Sarah, as tall and heavy as Charles, jumped on Brad’s back and the brother and sister piled on Brad and punched and kicked him.
As with most kid fights it was over fast. Brad got the message; he was facing a team. If he wanted to play with them he’d have to play with both of them. If he wanted to fight he’d have to fight both of them. No parents were involved and Brad chose to play with them and be nice to Sarah.
As much as the incident helped Sarah, Charles was the major beneficiary of his choice. His self-esteem soared. He had been courageous and mentally strong. And he learned that he and his sister could plan and stand firm together.
In a different situation, Ellen was popular and Allison, who was outgoing but had no friends, wanted Ellen all to herself. At school, Allison put-down and cut out anyone Ellen wanted to play with. If Ellen refused to follow Allison, Allison would get hysterical, cry and wail that Ellen was hurting her feelings. Ellen didn’t want to hurt Allison but she wanted to play with whoever she wanted to play with.
The situation came to a head during the summer. Allison wanted to play with Ellen every day. And on every play date, Allison would be nasty to Ellen’ younger sister. She’d mock Jill, order her to leave them alone and demand that Ellen get rid of her younger sister. They were best friends and there was no room for a little kid.
Ellen faced the same choice that Charles had; hurt her sister in order to collude with her friend or lose a friend and classmate.
Ellen didn’t agonize like Charles had. Ellen was very clear; colluding is not how a good person would act. However, her requests that Allison stop only brought on more hysterical anger and tantrums.
Ellen didn’t want to play with Allison any more but didn’t know how to accomplish this. When she told Allison, Allison threw another fit – hurt feelings and crying.
This situation required different tactics from Charles’ because Ellen was younger and arrangements for them to play during the summer and after school had to be made by their parents.
Ellen’ parents could have gone to Allison’s parents and told them what Allison was doing. However, they’d observed that Allison’s parents had never tried to stop her hysterics, blaming and finger-pointing at school. They’d always believed Allison’s accusations about other kids and added their blame. They demanded that teachers do what Allison wanted.
Ellen’ parents thought that raising the issue with Allison’s parents would only lead to negativity, accusations and an ugly confrontation, which would carry over to school.
They decided to use an indirect approach; they were simply always too busy for Ellen to play with Allison. The rest of the summer they made excuses to ensure there would be no play dates. When school started, they made sure there were no play dates after school, even if Jill wasn’t there. They didn’t want their daughter to be friends with such a stealthy, manipulative, nasty, control-freak like Allison.
In addition, they told Ellen’s teacher what Allison was doing and asked them to watch if Allison tried to control Ellen and cut out other kids.
Most important, Charles stopped being spectator and became an effective witness-participant. Ellen also would not remain a bystander. She made her feelings clear and her parents helped intervene. Both children learned important lessons in developing outstanding character and values.
Tactics are always dependent on the specifics of the situation. As parents wanting to help and guide your children and grandchildren, remember that there’s no one-right-way to act. The people involved get to choose where they want to start the process of standing up as witnesses and participants. You can get ideas and guidelines from books and CDs but on-going coaching, to prepare you for your “moments of truth,” is essential. You will need to adjust your plan in response to what happens at each step along the way.
Let’s analyze a worst-case scenario for loving, caring parents.
You were pretty good parents but one of your children has turned out toxic – not a psychopath but someone who acts like she (or he) hates you.
It’s not your fault, but she blames you for not giving her everything she wanted or wants now, she’ll be sweet one moment and then abusive, vicious and hateful the next, she harasses and bullies you relentlessly when she wants something; she tries to involve the rest of the family in her schemes and feuds. Or her boyfriend or husband hates you and she goes along with it and it gets worse every year. And they’re narcissistic losers; they barely have enough money and you know that they’ll leech off you forever if you let them.
But that’s not the worst-case. The worst-case is when that toxic child has children. Your daughter has let you play with your grandchild, let you grow to love him and vice versa. Of course he loves you; you’re the sane rock in his life. He’s safe around you – no craziness, no yelling and screaming, no lies and broken promises, and no anxiety, brutality or manipulation of his affections like in his interactions with his mother and father. You treat him with loving kindness and he can trust what you say. When he’s with you he’s not stressed out; not blamed, guilty and abused for everything he does wrong.
The worst-case is when your daughter starts blackmailing you emotionally. She won’t let you see your grandchild unless you play her games and give her everything she wants. She raises the ante every day. You know she lies to your grandchild about you and why he doesn’t see you. It’s worse if she’s divorced because then you get jerked around and thrust in the middle by her ex-spouse and his family.
You love your grandson. He’s important to you, you’re important to him and you hope you can be a lifeline to help him make a better life than the chaos he’s growing up in. But no matter what you do, it’ll be wrong and your daughter will blame and abuse you. There will be days when you want to run away, leave no forwarding address, change your names and fingerprints, get new social security numbers and telephones. But you won’t because of the hope you can help your grandson.
What can you do to stop the bullying and extricate yourself from a horrible situation?
Usually there’s little you can do legally. It’s hard to exercise “grandparents rights” if your daughter or her spouse won’t let you. You can consult a lawyer and learn to document enough evidence to show delinquency and neglect so you can get custody, but that’s a faint hope.
You have to make one of the hardest decisions for anyone; how much will you sacrifice in order to get any time with your grandson? Realize that no matter what you decide, your heart will be broken thousands of times until he’s independent and maybe even for your whole life. Recognize also that nothing you do will change your daughter – this pain and violence to your spirit will go on as long as she has any control over your grandson. Understand that she will trample any boundaries you think you’ve set.
There is no magic bullet that will cure her. You won’t bring her to her senses, help her to act reasonably and consistently, make her to keep her promises, convert her to see that the child is better off with you or get her away from a controlling husband. Even if you act reasonably, she won’t. You’ll never understand why she does what she does; she’s selfish, nasty and changeable from moment to moment. You’ll be embroiled in her painful games and anger as long as she controls your grandson. Each episode will rip you apart.
Suppose you choose to get as much time with your grandson as you can; what are the best things you can do to help him? Most people choose this path. After all, how can we give up, turn our backs and live with our broken hearts?
In a loving couple, most grandparents differ over how much time and money they’re willing pay and how much pain they can stand for the privilege of seeing their grandchild. Love each other and keep working with that difference, knowing that both your hearts are broken anew every day. Don’t let this drive a wedge between you.
Plant seeds in your grandchild. He sees the truth but he’s told by his parents that his vision is wrong. He needs to learn to trust his vision. He needs you to tell him that what he sees about his home and parents is true. He’s not crazy – he didn’t do anything to deserve it; it’s not his fault; it’s just the way it is. That won’t confuse him; that’ll reinforce his confidence and self-esteem. He needs to know who’s jerking all of you around and the price you all have to pay as long as he’s in their clutches.
Collude with him to lie to his parents. Strong children – survivors – sense what they need to do in order to stay safe in a chaotic and hostile world. For example; he can’t say he’s having too much fun with you; that he loves you too much; that he’d rather be with you. He already knows what he has to hide.
Make a safe place for his heart and his favorite stuff. With you, he can dream big and not get his dreams crushed or used against him. Keep your promises consistently. Let him express his frustration and anger. Anger is better than apathy or depression. You can express your helplessness. At your home, don’t let him use the tactics he sees at your daughter’s home. Appeal to his better nature. Be very gentle with correction and discipline; he gets yelled at enough at home.
Prepare him emotionally and spiritually for the future. The more he can ignore his crazy parents, the better. Keep a spark alive in him that by biding his time, one day he’ll get free. He has to stop the bully in his head. When he’s 18 (to pick a number) he can leave and make his own way. Remind him of all the great and wonderful people who escaped from cages and prisons. He owes your toxic daughter, his mother, absolutely nothing.
Prepare him economically for the future. For him to live free he must plan to become monetarily independent. Depending on his brains and talents, he has to develop a marketable skill, even if his parents don’t like it and he has to do it in secret. Help him do that now and when he leaves home.
Many children are too weak to overcome their toxic parenting. But there are always some who are invulnerable to horrible circumstances, some who keep that spark alive and get free from the cage or prison they’ve been trapped in.
Your heart insists that you try to help your grandchildren. For clear examples, read in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” the studies of how Kathy, Doug, Jake and Carrie got away from manipulative or toxic parents. Also, see the example of teenage Stacy bullying her mother.
In almost all cases where the child flies free, they never look back and neither do their grandparents. If they or you look back, you’ll be turned into pillars of salt.
Self-bullies wallow in perfectionism, self-doubt, self-questioning, blame, shame, guilt and negative self-talk. Real self-bullies run themselves down and beat themselves up in almost every area of life. But even people who don’t use self-bullying tactics normally will condemn themselves if one of their children turns out incompetent or toxic.
A hundred fifty years ago, the fad was to think that if children turned out bad – weak, lazy, apathetic, unkind or uncaring – they had made bad choices; it was the child’s fault. But as Richard Friedman points out in his article in the New York Times, “Accepting That Good Parents May Plant Bad Seeds,” the recent fad has been to blame the parents.
Of course, surly, rotten, loser children also reinforce this attitude; it’s easy for them to blame parents in order to take themselves off the hook. You’ll hear these now-adults complain, “It’s your fault, if only you gave me more stuff or love when I was younger; if only you give me the stuff I want now, I’d be fine.”
But after giving time after time, at some points parents have to look in the mirror and say, “It’s not our fault. We didn’t do everything that child wanted, but we didn’t do anything particularly bad. He or she still acts like he’s entitled to everything he wants. That child is simply angry and maybe hates us. Maybe he or she is just a weak or bad seed. If we continue giving, he’ll suck every drop of blood from us and drag us down, all the while complaining that it’s our fault.”
So when do parents decide, “that’s enough! We have to protect ourselves from this toxic person, our beloved child, who will poison us if we allow him to.”
I am saying that there are children who grow up nasty, surly, rotten and toxic, and it wasn’t your fault; you didn’t do anything to deserve it. Whichever bandwagon of explanations you jump on – they have a defective gene combination (they were born sick mentally or defective emotionally) or they choose to be the way they are – the effect is the same.
So stop beating yourselves up; stop wallowing in self-doubt and self-flagellation. Give up shame and guilt; they’ll only prevent you from doing what you need to do. Of course, we’re less sure that it wasn’t our fault if an only child is the bad seed. If other children turned out well, we can see more easily how that toxic child turned out the way he did on his own.
Once we start questioning ourselves, our imperfections, negative self-talk, self-hatred and self-loathing will keep us stuck; weak and easy prey. We won’t have the strength, courage and perseverance to stop toxic children.
Face the problem thoughtfully and carefully, just like you’d face any other situation in which someone is trying to take everything you have and harass, abuse and torture you in the process. Of course this is different because your heart will be broken endlessly, anxiety and depression will become constant companions and the selfish, hate-filled and hateful child will continue blaming on you.
I know that’s not a specific list of “the seven steps that are guaranteed to make everything fine.” There are no guarantees of success.
But there is the wisdom that has been clear since the beginning of recorded history. The first and necessary step is to see clearly. Then become the one of you who has the grit, resilience and skill to stop a predator; even a predator you love. Only then will you be able to carry out an effective plan successfully. Anything less and that beloved predator will ravage you.
Jane was stuck in an internal war. Every time she made some progress toward goals she’d been pursuing for years – cleaned her house, did things on her to-do list, met people she’d wanted to, signed up for classes toward a better job, courageously risked being honest – she’d start beating herself up in ways she was familiar with since childhood.
A part of her would say, in an old, familiar voice, “Who do you think you are, you’ll never succeed, you’ll fall back into being a failure, you’re fat and ugly, you’re not good enough to stay on track, you’re weak at your core, you’ll never do the right thing, you’ll fail like you always do, no one likes you, no one will love you, you’ll be alone all your life.”
Then she’d isolate herself and start picking on herself physically. That’d only make things worse. She’d feel ashamed and guilty. “Maybe they’re right,” she’d think. “I’m not good enough. I’ll always be a mess. I’ll never change. I’ll never succeed.”
She’d become angry at her parents and all the people who’d taken advantage of her, at all the people who weren’t supportive now and finally at herself. And the cycle would continue; a little success leading to self-loathing and predictions of failure, followed by anger at everyone in her past and present, followed by more anger and self-loathing. After several wasted days, she’d get herself together to try once more, but the emotional and spiritual cost of each cycle was huge.
Self-bullying– negative self-talk, an internal war between the side of you that fights to do better and the side that seems to despise you, that’s full of self-loathing and self-abuse – can go on a whole lifetime. Of course, the effects can be devastating – anxiety and stress, discouragement and depression, loss of confidence and self-esteem, huge emotional swings that drive good people away and attract bullies and predators.
Perhaps the worst effect is a sense of desperation and panic, isolation and loneliness – it feels like this has been going on forever and doesn’t look like it will ever end; every failure feels like the end of the world; like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. You feel helpless and are sure that it’s hopeless.
This is not a war between the left and right sides of our brains. This is usually not our being taken over by an evil spirit that needs exorcised psychologically.
This is usually a battle between two sides of us that split apart because of terrible, overwhelming pressure when we were kids. Back then, we didn’t know how to cope with the horror so we split into two strategies that have been battling with childlike intensity and devotion ever since.
On the one hand, we fight to feel inspired and centered and to do our best; to be courageous and bold and fierce; to try hard, be joyous and hope for success. On the other hand, we fight to make us docile and not try to rise above our meager lot in life, to accept what they tell us and give up struggling against them so they’ll let us survive, to motivate ourselves by whipping ourselves so we’ll make enough effort and do the right things, and maybe then they’ll give us something in return and we’ll have those feelings of peace and joy.
Both voices want us to survive and to feel centered, peaceful and filled with joy. Each takes an opposite path to get there. Instead of a psychological exorcism, we need an internal reconciliation and a release from old battles with our external oppressors and between our internal, battling voices.
The inner goal is clear: We’ll be whole and unified, both sides will be working together toward the same end (http://www.bulliesbegoneblog.com/2008/04/25/getting-over-parents-who-wound-their-children-the-2nd-stage-of-growing-up-and-leaving-home/#more-35): the different possibilities for action will be presented to us in the encouraging voices of coaches; we’ll be inspired and motivated by encouragement, not whipping: we’ll have an adult sense of our strength and capability; we’ll feel like we can cope successfully without tight control over everything and we’ll act in a timely manner; situations won’t put us into a panic; mistakes won’t be a portent of doom.
For example, Jane finally made internal peace. Her warring sides accepted that they had the same outcome – making a good life for her, filling her with the joy she’d always wanted to feel. They realized that neither side could defeat the other; their only hope was to work together using adult strategies of motivating her to take actions that would help her succeed. They saw that her situation now, in middle age, was very different from when she was a helpless child and had to depend on parents who seemed to despise her character, personality and style.
State laws and school policies are necessary, but they’re not enough to stop school bullies. The third necessary ingredient is the responsible people who are paid to make schools safe. If teachers, psychologists and counselors, assistant principals, principals, district administrators and school board members don’t create effective school programs and don’t enforce the laws and policies, perpetrators will be freed and their targets will be victimized.
According to the ABC News and investigative reporter Theresa Marchetta, Caitlin Smith was sexually assaulted in the final days of a summer program for incoming freshman at Englewood High School in a Denver, Colorado suburb. The evidence seemed clear-cut and, indeed, a court recently found the boy guilty of unlawful sexual contact with no consent.
The school had suspended him for the last three days of the summer program but what happened when school started in the fall?
The story is titled, “District Policies Fail Teen Victim: Guilty Attacker Remains in School.”
In order for Caitlin to be allowed to enter school, the vice principal had the Smiths sign a “No-Contact Notice” which reads, "You have been involved in an incident that may be criminal in nature," and suspects can not "harass, threaten, annoy, disturb, follow or have verbal/physical contact with any victim or witness in this incident.”
The perpetrator was immediately allowed back in school with Caitlin in the fall. He did not sign a No-Contact Notice and was still allowed back in school. This is despite a statement by Englewood Superintendent Sean McDaniel that, "I think that [the No-Contact Notice] would be a piece on the perpetrators side not on the victim’s side."
On Caitlin’s first day back in school, she was taken right back to the scene of the attack. "They guaranteed they wouldn’t take me down that hallway. I was freaking out, crying, upset. I didn’t want to go through, was closing my eyes,” she said. School authorities asked Caitlin’s mother to keep her daughter out of school. She reports that, "They're asking me to hold my daughter out of school and giving an education to a child [the bully] who shouldn't even be there."
To deal with such incidents, the Englewood School District has policies “which clearly states, multiple times, what happened to Caitlin was a ‘level one’ offense, ‘those which will result automatically in a request for expulsion to the superintendent.’”
When Marchetta asked Superintendent McDaniel, “Should a student be expelled or consider being expelled for having unwanted sexual contact with a student?" he replied, "Absolutely, no question. Sexual contact? I would expect an administrator to suspend with a recommendation for expulsion. Then, that would land in my office.” But he then admitted that the perpetrator was allowed to remain in school without even signing the No-Contact Notice and that now, over six months after the incident, he didn’t know what the principal was doing about the situation.
When Superintendent McDaniel was asked, “theoretically speaking, if it would ever be acceptable for a student accused of committing such an offense to remain in the population during the proceedings, he answered, ‘That’s a great question. No,’ [he added], ‘In that scenario to just to turn the kid loose back in to the student population with no requirements, parameters? No, I can not foresee a situation like that.’" But he then admitted that the perpetrator was allowed to remain in school without even signing the No-Contact Notice.
Parents and students need to know what to do after such an incident:
Don’t hide; make a fuss. Immediately go to the appropriate school authorities and the police. That’s like we encourage victims to report rape immediately.
Find and rally other students and parentswho have been harassed, bullied or abused – emotionally, sexually or physically. If any other kids excuse the perpetrator’s behavior and tell you that you’re being too harsh or if any other kids hassle, threaten or bully you, report them. Record evidence; that’s what cell phones are for. Travel with your friends.
If the authorities won’t act, immediately get a lawyer skilled in both the pertinent laws and in how to bring media pressure to bear. Plan an overall strategy and tactics.
Get an expert coach or therapist to keep your spirits up and to rally your strength and determination.
Don’t accept bullying; don’t take the blame. In most cases the girl is not a “slut” or “whore” that others will call you. It’s usually not your fault. You should know that if the school authorities won’t act, they’re the problem, not you. You don’t have to be perfect according to their standards in order for them to actively help you. Don’t indulge in self-bullying. Negative self-talk, blame, shame and guilt never help. They only increase anxiety, stress and depression, and destroy confidence and self-esteem. Don’t believe negative predictions; your life isn’t ruined and in 10 years you won’t want to be friends with your high school classmates – certainly not the hyenas who pile on.
As you can see, state laws and school policies are necessary to give principals and administrators the leverage to act safely without fear of law suits by bullying parents of school bullies. But the responsible authorities must be willing to act courageously, energetically, skillfully and effectively. When they don’t, laws and policies become scraps of paper, blowing in the wind of their excuses.
Since the principal and district administrator didn’t protect a target of such bullying and abuse, I predict that there have already been other incidents at Englewood High School and there will be in the future. Bullies are predators. They look for easy prey and they push the boundaries. Once one hyena gets away with boundary pushing – darting in, ripping off some flesh and darting back safely – the rest of the pack will pile on.
In addition to the perpetrator and his family, the principal and district administrator have a lot to answer for. I hope a public outcry focuses on them.