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

What could they do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some variants:

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

Sue Shellenbarger’s article in the Wall Street Journal, “Colleagues Who Can Make You Fat,” focuses on people at work who try to sabotage coworkers’ diets.  People reported that colleagues and bosses made them uncomfortable admitting they were on a diet 23% of the time. In contrast, dieters said they were uncomfortable admitting that they were dieting to people in personal life – friends, relatives and spouses – 63% of the time.  That is, there are almost three times as many diet saboteurs among those who are closest to us.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Diet saboteurs use many techniques.  They:

  • Tease, taunt and mock.
  • Criticize, pressure and manipulate.
  • Gleefully predict failure.
  • Get upset because we’re spurning their offerings of fatty, starchy, sugary, calorie-loaded food.
  • Lecture that we’re harming our body by dieting.

The article says that these saboteurs usually mean well.  I disagree. When diet saboteurs continue harassing and abusing us relentlessly, they don’t mean well.  They’re narcissistic bullies who have their own agenda that they think is more important than ours.  They’re righteous. They know better and they’re out to change us – usually by beating us into submission.

Typically, they try to sabotage our diets because:

  • They may feel abandoned because we no longer eat the same food with them.
  • They may be striking back because they take our change as a put down of their old habits.
  • They may feel jealous that they’re not losing weight.
  • They may see our being thinner as a threat.
  • They may simply not like us and are finding another reason, excuse or justification to mock, ridicule, or put us down.

Who cares what their reasons are?  Understanding their reasons won’t help us stop them.  After the first time we’ve asked them to stop, their reasons for continuing now become excuses and justifications for continued harassment, abuse and bullying.  Bullies always find excuses to continue inflicting pain.

What’s wrong with this picture?

  1. People who are closest to us – toxic spouses, family, friends – are the most relentless saboteurs.  Things are not as we would wish. Notice that I didn’t say, “Things are not as they should be.”  Things are as they are.  That’s not what’s wrong with this picture.
  2. What’s wrong with this picture is that people feel uncomfortable and that feeling keeps them from doing what they need toTheir discomfort is their excuse to become victims.

As William Boast said, “It’s important that people know what you stand for.  It’s equally important that they know what you won’t stand for.”

Don’t debate or argue with their justifications.  Don’t accept apologies unless their behavior changes.  They won’t change their behavior; they won’t give up their desire for domination and control.  Instead, stop bullies or get them off our Isle of Song.

These bullying spouses, family members and friends are telling us to examine what kind of behavior we will and won’t allow around us and our families.

To have the wonderful lives we want, we must stop bullying behavior in our personal spaces.  We wouldn’t allow family members to push an alcoholic to have “just one drink” and we wouldn’t allow family abusers or perverts access to our children.  The need to stop diet saboteurs is no different.

Of course, we can start resisting gently by asking them, one-to-one in private, to stop. Or we could ignore it or laugh it off in public.  Those approaches become tests of them.  Do they stop or do they identify themselves as bullies?

We know what doesn’t stop bullies: ignoring, minimizing, conflict-avoidance, begging, bribery, defeatism, forgiveness, appeasement, understanding, unconditional love, the Golden Rule.  Relentless bullies misunderstand our kindness. They take our “rising above” as weakness and, like sharks or hyenas, they’re encouraged to attack us more.

Their relentless attacks force us to confront the central issue: which is more important; good behavior or bad blood?  And when they continue their abuse, bullies force us into an all-or-none choice.  Are we willing to defend the behavior we need to have, even if it breaks the old family dynamic, the code of silence that enables the nastiest spouse or relatives to continue getting away with their abuse for the sake of, “family?”

That choice thrusts us into the second stage of maturitywe’re called upon to decide, as independent adults, what behavior we will or won’t allow into our lives, no matter what the relationship is called.  We’re called upon to have more confidence and self-esteem.

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

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

Negative, bullying, abusive self-talk can corrode your spirit, sap your strength, ruin your focus and destroy your courage.  Looking at yourself with hostile eyes and talking to yourself with that old critical, perfectionistic, never-pleased voice can be demoralizing and debilitating.  Constant repetition of all your imperfections, mistakes, faults, failures and character flaws can lead you down the path toward isolation, depression and suicide.  Don’t believe it? Think of some examples of relentless self-bullying:

  • The abused wife who accepts her husband’s excuses and justifications that his verbal or physical beatings are her fault. She’s to blame for his failures; she’s never good enough.  If only she were adequate, he wouldn’t be so nasty, vicious and violent.  If she talks to herself with his voice, she’ll never leave.  If she accepts the guilt and shame she’ll keep trying to please him, but she’ll never succeed.  She convinces herself she’ll never make it on her own so she stays and endures more brutality.
  • The kids bullied at school who tell themselves that they’ll never be good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, successful enough or loved. They think it’s their fault they get harassed, teased, taunted and emotionally and physically bullied.  They give in to bullies.  If their nagging, hostile, abusive voices convince them that there’s no hope for a better future, they become the next Phoebe Prince, Tyler Clementi or other young suicides.
  • The people harassed at work who’re told they’re dumb, ugly, the wrong color, religion, nationality, gender or sexual orientation. They’re made the butt of jokes and threats; their work ideas are stolen; they’re belittled, ostracized, shamed and passed over for promotions.  If their self-critical voices convince them to give up, their spirits will die.  They won’t be able to summon the will, determination or perseverance to fight back.  They’ll feel overwhelmed and unable to learn the skills they need to protect and defend themselves.
  • The kids who think the deck is stacked against them. Their parents have treated them badly or one or both have blamed or abandoned them.  If they convince themselves they’re stupid and not loveable, they’ll give up.  They’ll accept bullying; their own and from other kids.  They shuffle through life, putting themselves down, defeating their efforts before they’ve really begun.  They lose their fighting spirits; the spirit that will struggle against the conditions and vicissitudes of life in order to make great lives for themselves.

Kids who’ve turned off their engines look and act dull and listless; as if they’ve given up already.  You can almost hear their constant inner, self-dialogue.  They’re so distracted by the destructive IMAX Theater in their minds that they can’t pay attention to what’s happening around them.  Their attention is captured by all the putdowns and listing of all their failures, the magnifying of the problems they face, the making of insurmountable mountains out of molehills, the diminishing of each skill or success, the magnifying of each imperfection.  They’re not resilient; the smallest adversity defeats them.  Happiness is fleeting; bitterness and depression is their lot.  Anything good they get is never enough, never satisfying, never brings joy.

Alternatively, they use their engines, often ferociously, to blame their parents and try to beat them into submission, to extract material possessions and guilt, to vent their hatred of themselves and the world onto their parents or onto the one parent who stays and tries to help them.  They bite every hand that’s offered to them.  They fight against teachers and against learning a skill that might make them financially and physically independent.  They explode with sarcasm and rage in response to the slightest nudging.  What a waste.

All the help offered them seems to bounce off.  They won’t accept what’s offered because that hyper-critical, judgmental voice knows better.

They have no inner strength, courage, determination, perseverance and resilience.  They feel helpless and that their situation is hopeless.  They may go down the path to being victims for life.  Their self-confidence and self-esteem may be destroyed.  Anxiety, stress, guilt, negativity and self-mutilation may be stimulated.  They move easily toward isolation, depression and suicide.  Nothing will help them until they turn their engines on again.

Compare them to the kids with great engines; always active and alert, always wanting to learn, willing to face and overcome challenges, seeking risk and reward, capable of overcoming adversity.  They have tremendous drive to live and to succeed.

These spirited kids with great engines can tax your patience almost beyond its limits, but the reward is so apparent.  They’ll make something wonderful of their lives.  They won’t give up.  They won’t be defeated by defeats.

Our job as parents with these spirited kids is clear: help them develop great steering wheels so they can direct themselves to fulfill the promise of their great engines in worthy endeavors.  Whatever direction they travel, they’ll go with passion, intensity and joy.  They’ll overcome setbacks by continuing on with renewed effort.  As Coach John Wooden said, “Hustle can make up for a lot of mistakes.”

There is no formula to save kids who turn off their engines.  Even when you know every detail of their history, there is no formula.  There’s only the continued presenting to them of encouragement and opportunity.  Sometimes a mentor or coach is crucial, sometimes a small success that’s a surprise, sometimes an example of someone else’s life will catch their attention.

We know that attempts to improve their steering wheel won’t help.  No lectures about being better, kinder, gentler people will help.  The beginning of a new life for them is the miracle of starting their engines.  Then they grab opportunities for themselves.  Then we can help them with their steering wheels.

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

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

So what can we do now?

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

What to expect and how to respond?

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

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

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

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

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

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AuthorBen Leichtling
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Amy Chua’s article in the Wall Street Journal, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior,” has gotten enough publicity to make her book, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” a best seller.  She’s clear that she uses the term “Chinese Mother” to represent a certain way of treating children that may be found in people from many, many cultures. If many people adopt her style of parenting in order to make their children play at Carnegie Hall that would be a shame.  Amy Chua is an abusive bully.

She beats her children into submission and claims that they’ll have great self-esteem as well as becoming successful in the competitive jungle of life because they can accomplish the very few things Ms. Chua thinks are important.

They also won’t suffer from anxiety, nightmares, negative self-talk and depression because they’ll be successful in her real world.  The bullying and beatings will make them as tough as nails.  They’ll wipe out your kids; you lazy, slacking, guilt-ridden, ambivalent, permissive American parents.

Some of her ideas and claims are:

  • “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it.  To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences.”
  • “Chinese parents can order their kids to get straight “As.”  Western parents can only ask their kids to try their best.”
  • “Western parents are extremely anxious about their children's self-esteem…Western parents are concerned about their children's psyches.  Chinese parents aren't.  They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently.”
  • “Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them.  If their child doesn't get them, the Chinese parent assumes it's because the child didn't work hard enough.  That's why the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child.”
  • “Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything.”
  • “Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences.”

Therefore, she proudly states that never allowed her daughters to:

  • “attend a sleepover
  • have a playdate
  • be in a school play
  • complain about not being in a school play
  • watch TV or play computer games
  • choose their own extracurricular activities
  • get any grade less than an A
  • not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama
  • play any instrument other than the piano or violin
  • not play the piano or violin.”

Why will some people take her seriously? People who think that American culture produces only losers – selfish, lazy, narcissistic, weak, slacker teenagers and adults who will never succeed – will be tempted to improve their children’s test scores acting like Ms. Chua did.  People who enjoy beating their children into submission will be tempted to use her ideas as a justification for dominating and abusing their children.  People who think that China is the next rising super-power and that today’s Chinese children will rule the world and our children won’t be strong and determined enough to stop them will be tempted to channel their children down Ms. Chua’s narrow track.

There’s a grain of sense in what she says, but that grain is covered by a mountain of brutality that will be successful in creating only slaves or another generation of bullying parents, not in creating fully human beings.

What’s wrong with Ms. Chua’s ideas?

  • She lives in a kill-or-be-killed world of desperate striving for the most material rewards of success.
  • She’s rigid, narrow, and all-or-none with only two possibilities.
  • She allows only a few criteria for success – Stanford or Yale, violin or piano, maybe ballet.  I assume only one or two acceptable careers like lawyer or professor.
  • She assumes that there are only totally slacking children (Americans) or totally successful children (with “Chinese Mothers”).  If you give children an inch, they’ll become complete failures.
  • She assumes that there’s only one way to get children to work and succeed.  Because no children want to work at the right subjects, you must beat them into submission physically, verbally and emotionally.
  • She thinks that the only way her children can be successful and happy and honor their parents is to be champions at her approved activities.
  • There’s almost no joy in their lives.  Yes, there’s a moment when her daughter masters a difficult two-handed exercise.  But the best that the rest of life holds is the thrill of victory and success at winning.  There’s no possibility for joy in doing activities that thrill your soul and uplift your spirit.

Ms. Chua has only one value – compete and defeat; win at any cost. This is a great and necessary value.  It has made our society the first world.  But if when the only value, when she ignores all the other equally great and necessary values she becomes inhuman – a barbarian, a torturer, no better than a Nazi or Communist or Fascist.

No wonder she’s aghast at all the personal attacks.  She may be a brilliant law professor and accomplished writer but she’s completely out of touch with the world’s great traditions championing other values like great character, individuality, liberty, self-determination, love, beauty, compassion, spirituality and human connection.  That’s why people take it so personally.  Ms. Chua is attacking our most cherished values; cherished for good reasons.  These values make us human in our most fundamental American, western ways.

Ms. Chua represents inhumanity justified by Darwin and Marx.  She represents a revival of B.F. Skinner’s way of raising his daughter in a “Skinner Box,” as if she was a pigeon.  When she grew up she sued him.

A better approach:

  • Have you observed your children individually and carefully?  One approach does not fit them all.
  • Which children need you to provide more structure and which will be dedicated and determined on their own?  Which children respond better when they’re encouraged and which respond better to having their imperfections pointed out?  This is where expert coaching is helpful to design approaches that fit you and each child.
  • What are your children passionate about so they become energetic and determined on their own?  Are following an artists path, playing the oboe, writing “silly” stories like “The Little Prince,” learning to program computers, studying bugs and strange sea creatures, mastering any sport, being a person who inspires others to be the best they can be, dedicating yourself to raising independent and creative children living rich and full lives, being a craftsman who makes great pianos or violins, coaching basketball teams at “minor schools” like University of Connecticut or UCLA to set winning-record streaks, being entrepreneurs like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, making movies, loving children and a thousand other endeavors worthwhile to you?  How can you encourage and nurture your child’s dedication and skill in those areas?
  • Character is critical.  All of the world’s great literature points to the deficiencies of social climbers, bureaucrats and people whose only focus is to win at all costs.  What would Ms. Chua have created if she could have gotten her hands on the children who became, for example, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Dickens or Alexander Solzhenitsyn?  Or great figures in the world from Joan of Arc, Hildegard of Bingen and Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. or Aung San Suu Kyi, to name only five of thousands.
  • Don’t be a victim of your parents’ ideas about what constitutes success and how to achieve it.  You can give your children the tools of the mind, will and spirit and let them create their own lives that they’ll love.

By the way, Ayalet Waldman wrote a somewhat tongue-in-cheek response in the Wall Street Journal, “In Defense of the Guilty, Ambivalent, Preoccupied Western Mom.”  In part she defends her children’s choices and her catering to those choices.  In part she also defends her selfish desires to discourage her children when their activities would inconvenience her.  That’s not the answer either.

All of the poles in this discussion are the wrong places to be – being a wimpy parent or an uncaring, selfish parent or a brute.

Instead, find the fire in your children and feed that fire.  Help them become skillful and competent in areas that matter most to them.  Help them create a life that’s uniquely theirs, not one you think is proper or best for them.

Why do I say that Ms. Chua is abusive and a bully?  Let’s review – what do “Chinese Mothers” and bullies have in common.

  • Bullies and “Chinese Mothers” don’t care what you think or how much pain you feel.
  • Bullies and “Chinese Mothers” can do what they want to you and you’d better like it.
  • Bullies and “Chinese Mothers” are right and righteous.
  • Bullies and “Chinese Mothers” are the best because they’re the winners in life.
  • Control-freak bullies and “Chinese Mothers” beat you into submission for your own good.
  • Control-freak bullies and “Chinese Mothers” isolate you and make you dependent on them.

My conclusion is that if it looks like a bully, if it acts like a bully and if it feels like bullying then it’s a bully, even if it calls itself “Mommie Dearest.”

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AuthorBen Leichtling
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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.

These adults can become physically as well as verbally abusive.  Their simmering rage when they’re thwarted can be frightening.  Usually they’re selfish, narcissistic control-freaks, lazy, demanding and surly, and feel entitled to whatever makes their life work most easily.

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.

Popular culture also makes their arguments seductive.  Most people have been raised to think that loving your child (“mother’s love”) means giving them what they want.

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.

Your teenager will be sneaky and manipulative in pushing your buttons and boundaries.  He’s mastered manipulating you for years.

Single parents are often easier to bully than couples.  For example, see the case study of Paula bullied by her daughter, Stacy, in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks.”

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.

If used well, blame and guilt don’t lead to self-bullying.  They’re useful ways of motivating us to do better, even though they can cause a lot of wear and tear on our bodies, minds and hearts. If we analyze our actions objectively we might take on the blame for some of what we did or failed to do.  We can decide how to make amends.  We can decide what actions would be better and we can strive to do better next time.

We can also use guilt and feeling ashamed of an action to motivate us to act better next time.  That’s a hard way of motivating ourselves but it’s often effective.

However, wallowing or obsessing in blame or guilt without changing behavior is merely self-bullying.  At some point, self-abuse becomes addictive and gratifying.  There can be a sinister pay-off in the pleasure of feeling wretched.

Unrelenting and deep shame, on the other hand, leads to destructive self-bullying – negative self-talk, self-doubt and self-harassment, loss of confidence and self-esteem, and increased anxiety and depression.

By shame, I mean the idea that “There’s something wrong with me; I’m bad, evil or defective; I’ll never be free from sin; I’ll never succeed; I’m cursed.”

This kind of deep shame, as opposed to the way I’m using blame, guilt and feeling ashamed, is not focused on an action.  This kind of deep shame points us at supposed defects deep within us, at defects that we can’t change, at defects in our identity.  There’s no escape from the flaws we imagine are inherent and permanent.  The self-laceration of this kind of shame is endless and self-defeating.

Where does this deep shame come from?  We’re not born with this kind of shame.  We’re born demanding that we be fed, clothed and have our diapers changed.  Little babies don’t question whether they deserve to get what they need for survival; they demand it.  That demanding approach is necessary for our survival.

Deep shame can only be taught to us through continued and brutal repetition – physical, verbal, emotional.  Eventually, most children internalize constant harassment, criticism, put-downs and denigration – assaults on our identity.

Imagine how you’d feel if someone shouted or scolded you, 24/7, “You’re bad.  You’re defective.  You’re wrong.  You shouldn’t have been born.  You’ll never do better.  I wish you were dead.”

However those harsh and shaming messages were thrown at us, whoever the bullies were, our task as adults is to leave them behind.  The two critical steps in leaving home are to leave physically and to leave mentally-emotionally.

The first leaving is obvious to most of us; we get financially independent in order to stay physically independent.  We test ourselves against the world, not our parent’s opinions.  Can we earn a leaving?  Can we meet people and make friends?  Can we love and be loved?

The second leaving is mental, emotional and spiritual.  We put aside all their beliefs, ideas, attitudes, values, opinions, rules, roles and moods – all the ways they thought mattered in how to face the world, how to earn a living, what equaled a good life, how to be a good person.

We put aside all the false ways they thought about us – whether we were good or bad, strong or weak, stupid or smart, pretty or ugly, hard-working or lazy, the prized child or the scapegoated child, probably going to be successful or guaranteed to fail, blessed to be happy or doomed to be miserable.

We put aside all we were handed when we were children and all we accepted because they were the big, right and righteous people and we were the little and learning people, and because we knew what would happen to us if we disagreed.

To become independent adults we must cast aside all of their opinions and, as independent no-longer children, we must choose and adopt our own beliefs.  Some may be the same as theirs; some may be exactly the opposite.

The two important aspects of that mental, emotional and spiritual leaving: One is that our ideas are now adopted by us as adults, with our adult understandings, meanings and limitations.  The second is that they are not carved in stone as childhood ideas are.  We change them as we get feedback from the world – does this idea actually fit the reality I can now see clearly with adult eyes; does this way of facing the world get me closer to what I want; does it help me be and do good as I now think of that?

In this destroying and creating anew our inner world and our ideas of the ways of the outer world, we can choose whether to keep blame or guilt.  But, in order to be free and independent, we must discard deep shame as a way of thinking about ourselves and of facing the world.  We can excise the stain we once accepted, we can heal the great empty space we once had, and we can fill us with ourselves at our best.  We can develop strength, courage and skill.

Then we can look back at the bullies in our family and decide whether to be with them at all or when and how to be with them.  If they continue to bully us, if their bullying continues to trigger our self-bullying patterns we are better served by disconnecting, by making distance – electronically and physically.

If they treat us as newly made adults they’ve just met and want to be friends with, instead of forcing us back into their old images, instead of continuing to try to beat us into the shape they want we will probably want to be with them sometimes.

My recommendations: Don’t stay where you’re continually blamed, guilted or shamed.  Be where you’re respected, appreciated, honored.  Also, don’t accept the one of you that continually blames, guilts or shames you.  Train and discipline yourself so that you have better internal self-talk.  Live with the good inner coach you create, not with the internal bully who sounds like your parents, still ripping you down.

For clear examples, read in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” the studies of how Kathy, Doug, Jake and Carrie got away from bullying, abusive parents.

Stopping bullying by toxic parents and grandparents is only one side of the coin.  The other side is to stop bullying of parents by adult children who are toxic users and abusers. I’ll focus on the adult children who:

  • Make poor decisions and try bully their parents to bail them out time after time.
  • Still yell at or even hit their middle-aged parents just like they did when they were teenagers.
  • Extort money from their parents in return for allowing them to see the grandchildren.

I won’t go into the abuse of elderly or senile parents, nor into situations in which the child is disabled or retarded and will need parental care for life.

For parents, this is one of the most heart-wrenching situations; to see that your adult children are:

  • Still incompetent and failing.
  • Still trying to manipulate or coerce you, long after they should have become independent and work to get what they want from the world.
  • Characterless, nasty, abusive adults – entitled, blaming, narcissistic, weak and desperate.

Of course we parents think we’re at fault.  We can self-bully until we feel guilt and shame.  “Where did we go wrong?”  And of course those selfish, manipulative children try to increase those feelings so that we’ll continue giving them what they want.

Although it’s now too late to begin when your children were young, getting an idea about what we could have done then might help us now. Parenting experts for the last generation have falsely assumed and wrongly encouraged people to think that if they kept protecting their immature, irresponsible children from consequences and kept giving them infinite second changes, the children would eventually mature and develop confidence, self-respect and self-esteem.  They would become competent and independent adults.

Of course, a few children do change and become responsible when they’re coddled.  But this strategy encourages most children to remain weak and needy, expecting to be supported for life if they’re in trouble.  The best way to produce spoiled brats (at any age) is to give them what they want.

Instead, you must not let your heart guide your actions.  You must let them fail and bear the consequences, no matter how hard.  You must keep reminding them that they will need to take care of themselves; they will be dependent on their own judgment and effort.  This is not an all-or-none shift.  There should be a gradual shift as they pass from elementary school to middle or junior high school.

In a loving and firm way, encourage them to learn how the world works and to do their best, but stop protecting them.  I think of that in the same way I think of helping plants get hardy enough to survive in temperate zones – we leave them out longer and longer in chilly nights.

Although there are too many brutal, abusive, uncaring, selfish, demanding parents, the biggest mistake I see parents make is to coddle their children way too long.

Don’t use the word, “supportive;” it’s too non-specific.  Be specific; give them encouragement to work hard and live poor if they can’t do better.  But don’t be a friend, don’t be a bank, don’t be a 7-11.

As for the shame and guilt you might feel because the children didn’t turn out the way you’d hoped; give it up.  They have free will.  By the time they’re adults they make their own choices.  Truthfully, how much success did any of us have giving advice to teenagers?  They listen to their own drumbeat; just like we did, whether our parents liked it or not. So what can we do now?  The same thing we should have done back then: cut them off economically.  Ignore promises; behavior counts.  Give your treats to the independent, self-supporting children who don’t need them.  Don’t give them to the irresponsible children who depend on and demand them.

Don’t let them yell, shove or hit you; don’t let them harass or abuse you.  Hang up or throw them out immediately.  Remember, we’re adults; we must demand civilized behavior on our islands.  If they can’t be polite, they can’t be on our islands.

Make a family rule: we get together to have a good time, not to straighten each other out, or review our bank balances, or complain, whine or blame.  Keep offering fun when you get together.  Stop offering advice or money.

Don’t debate or argue about what’s right or fair.  We suffered enough of those when they were teenagers.  It’s your money, you get to do what you want with it; they’re not entitled to anything.

Of course, your heart will bleed, but keep that to yourself.  Worry, cry and pray in private.  Remind them that it’s their lives and they have to succeed on their own.

With the grandchildren, we have two paths.  The first is to remain firm and suffer the consequences when they withhold the grandchildren.  We all know the truth about blackmail and extortion: bullies raise the price and there will be no end to it.  If they deny you access to the grandchildren; write, call, send presents and keep records.  You’ll make your case when the grandchildren turn 18.

The second path is to purchase time with your beloved grandchildren in hopes that you can have an effect on them so they won’t turn out like your children did.  Expect the price in money and abuse of you to increase with time.  Unfortunately, the grandchildren usually learn to hold you up for what they want.

There is no instant and easy cure.  Your children have free will.  They have chosen and can continue to choose to be weak and irresponsible.  You didn’t cause it, although you might have enabled it by giving them too much.  They can try to drag you under when they flail around because they think they’re drowning.  Don’t let them drag you under.

For a clear example, read in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” the study of how Paula slowly succeeded with her teenage daughter, Stacy,

Sometimes we need to replay the horrible things that people did to us – whether it was once or repeatedly, whether they were the perpetrators or they stood by or even colluded and ignored the abuse and our pain.  Sometime we need to get angry and vent and imagine all the ways we could retaliate and extract vengeance and justice.  Sometimes we blame ourselves, wishing we could finally win their love and undo the hurt.  During those times we typically say, “It’s not fair.  Why me?  Why don’t they understand and appreciate me?  What did I do wrong?” But in the end, whatever the specifics of our situations, we all know where we have to get to if we’re going to make the rest of our lives worth living.

By whatever process we use successfully, through whatever pain we have to endure, after we stop the harassment, bullying, abuse and torment inflicted upon us, we have two choices – to let our lives be destroyed by the rotten people who abused us or to move on somehow, to create families and lives worth living.

I’m not minimizing the damage and the pain or the time it may take, but throughout history, we see the same pattern in response to individual and cultural or societal horrors.  Some people’s spirits are destroyed by what was done to them.  Other people stay alive and vital.

Examples are all around of famous individuals who turned their backs on the perpetrators and moved on – Maya Angelou and Winston Churchill easily come to mind.  There are also inspiring examples known only to our families.  We must keep our eyes focused on the light at the end of the tunnel of pain – the light that reminds us to keep moving ahead despite the temporary discouragement, depression and despair. What keeps most people stuck in the abyss of pain for years; long after they’re physically and fiscally capable of separating?  Mostly, it’s a combination of:

  • Wanting the perpetrators to acknowledge what they did and to apologize or beg for our forgiveness.  Or wanting vindication and revenge.
  • Wanting the bullies to give us the love or money we desperately desire and deserve.  We waste hours trying to figure out how to say and do the right things so that we’ll finally win the love and respect we want.
  • We don’t know how to stop replaying the pain, which triggers emotional hell and reinforces the connection to the past.

There may be other desires that keep us enmeshed with the perpetrators or with our memories of past abuse but, in order to get free, we don’t need an exhaustive list or even to know the specific one that keeps us trapped.

Real predators – real bullies, abusers, perpetrators – no matter what their reasons and excuses, do not change.  Staying enmeshed in a dance of pain and anger only leads to spiritual death.  On this path, there is no rebirth; there is no new life.

We recognize someone still trapped in the pain and victim talk, not ready to move on when we hear them:

The results of this self-bullying victim talk are clear – stress, anxiety, self-doubt, guilt, shame, panic, low self-confidence and self-esteem; huge overreactions as if everything is a matter of life or death; a life ruled by the past, time wasted circling around the carcass of the past, chewing over the gristle of every past and present episode of abuse. The light at the end of the tunnel is when our spirits rise and make us indomitable and invulnerable, determined and indefatigable; when:

  • We won’t be weighed down by the baggage of the past.  We don’t have to please the perpetrators or excuse or justify our behavior to our abusers and we also don’t have to rebel any more just to prove that we’re independent.  We stop sacrificing ourselves for further flagellation and spurning.
  • The voices of the past become irrelevant; we now make decisions directed by our own spirits.
  • We won’t be at the mercy of external events, especially the past.  Instead we’ll create our own futures, no matter what.

This is the goal of all the talk, catharsis, coaching.  We become our original, fiery selves – strong, brave and determined – and now skilled adults.

In this new state, the fear of failure or success is gone.  We no longer view the world through the lens of “deserve, justify, punish or forgive.”  The emotional motivation cycle – endless self-criticism and self analysis, and then criticism of the criticism, and then criticism of the criticism of the criticism – of the old victim side of us is gone.

We no longer have overwhelming emotional reactions to whatever happens.  Mistakes are no longer life threatening.  Failing at something is no longer a portent of a bleak future.  Doing something wrong no longer consigns us to hell forever.

We ride through these ups and downs, buoyed by certain knowledge that we’ll keep plugging along, doing what we can, following our Heart’s Desire.

From here we can easily recognize other people who are still in the old place – underneath their franticness and self-flagellation, they look and sound like victims, not willing to do whatever it takes to protect themselves; attracting old and new predators.  Predators also recognize easy targets.

From here we can see how boring the victim personality is.  It’s all about their pain and problems, as if that’s really who they are.  They’re still trying to squeeze love or justification from a stone.  They still want to interact with scavengers.

In our new space, we’re interested and interesting, excited and exciting.  We focus on what feeds our spirits; not on endless cud-chewing and psychoanalysis.  We leave the predators behind and seek the families of our hearts and spirits.

The process of leaving the old, victim place usually includes many instantaneous epiphanies, as well as the time necessary to develop new habits through many ups and downs.  But that’s merely a process to leave the old and to be completely comfortable in the new.

When we live in a state of inner freedom, we don’t forget the pain.  We remember that abuse all our lives.  We hold that memory sacred – but we don’t use the pain to motivate ourselves, we convert it to a source of strength and courage to create a new life, a life that’s built on the ashes of childhood dreams destroyed.

Toxic parents can make your life miserable, especially if you’re still trying to win their approval or if you think you must see them during the holidays. Most people can call it quits with bullying lovers, end false friendships and divorce abusive spouses.  But stopping bullying by toxic parents seems more difficult.  And it’s even harder if there were one or two loving moments or you think you owe them for feeding you.

Too many therapists won’t show their shock and dismay at the abuse and will encourage adult children to keep interacting with toxic parents in the name of something called “family.”  See, for example, the article by Dr. Richard Friedman in the New York Times.

I disagree.

I’ve seen adult children put up with continual criticism, hostility and anger; even being told by parents that they wish the child had never been born or would die.  Some parents still remind their adult children that they’re never good enough and that they’ll be failures forever.  Some parents make it clear that the other siblings are better in every way and more deserving of love.  Often, the sarcasm, criticism, harassment and hostility are public, as if there’s a real intention to cause embarrassment and emotional pain.

Even worse for these abused adults is the thought that they’ll have to take care of those rotten parents when they get old and dementia makes them even worse.

Yet many adults accept the negativity, abuse and verbal torture.  They endure the stress, discouragement, low self-esteem and depression that usually accompany repeated brutality.  Some even internalize those hostile voices and beat themselves even when their parents aren’t present.

I think that a key sign of becoming an independent adult is deciding what criteria you’ll use for who you allow on your island.  If you believe that family of birth is crucial because that’s the way you were raised or because you think that will get you a star in your crown in heaven or because you think family will be the only ones to take care of you when you need, then you’ve given up control of your island.  You’ve decided to allow your island to be polluted by endless abuse and your spirit to be crushed if someone wants to.

On the other hand, suppose you decide to create an island that supports your emotional and spiritual life.  Now you’re in charge of your life.  Now you can demand good behavior before anyone gets on your island.  Now you’ve created space to find the right people to populate your island.  Now you’re a truly independent adult.

Now your tactics with your bullying parents are straightforward.  You tell them, as sweetly and firmly as you can, how they must behave and what they may not do if they want to see or hear from you.  You follow through with the natural consequences of leaving abusive situations, hanging up the phone, or not walking into the valley of punishment during the holidays.  Your toxic parents have free will and choice.

Notice, I haven’t said anything about long-term, in depth psychoanalysis of toxic parents.  That’s a secondary consideration.  Since these bullies typically think they’re right and don’t need to change, they don’t examine themselves or they stay in therapy forever instead of changing.  It’s not about whether they love you; it’s about how they love you.

You can see how these tactics are effective with parents in the cases of Carrie, Doug, Jake and Ralph in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks.”

Usually, I see more change stimulated when children stand up effectively to abusive parents.  That may start the toxic parents on a path toward acting more loving.

I’ve seen many parents, when confronted by not seeing their children or grandchildren or when they know that their abused children are enjoying life without them, finally change how they treat their children.

Of course, sometimes toxic parents don’t change.  But that’s not the goal of standing up to them.  The goal is having an island that’s not polluted by toxic people, but instead is a paradise for your heart and spirit.

As to the fears that you’ll go through life alone and unloved; that’s nonsense.  People with wonderful islands attract other people who want to be with them, who make their hearts and spirits sing.  And you’ll have more money because you won’t be wasting it on therapy.  And you’ll be setting a wonderful example for your children.

If you want the love and approval of older people, accept that you won’t get that from toxic birth parents.  Go get it from people who have the good taste to caress your spirit, not to abuse it.

You can also remove toxic siblings, relatives and supposed friends from your island if they don’t change.  In “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” you’ll see how Tammy and Kathy use these techniques with Toxic siblings and false friends.

Sometimes, even successful women give up their own identities and slowly accept boyfriends controlling their lives.  These women give up their independence and become willing victims.  A mild example was described by Dr. Irene S. Levine.  The bullying may start immediately, but usually there’s a step-by-step process of boundary pushing and giving in.  The bully’s harassment is relentless, no one incident is worth a huge fight and if she refuses to do what he wants, she’s wrong and he becomes more abusive or threatens to leave. What happens in a more extreme case and what can these women do to get away?

In one case, when Kate met Carl at work, she was successful with her own goals, place, money, car and an active social life.  At first, Carl was very charming and confident, and they became good friends.  Kate says they were two peas in a pod.  How wrong she was!

After they actually moved in together, Carl changed.  He knew that Kate had tattoos on her arms, but after they became a couple, he said that she needed to wear long sleeves when she was with him.  He wouldn’t be linked to a person with tattoos.  Kate thought that he was a jerk.  Now she thinks that she should have said goodbye right there, but she did what he said.  After all, she thought, it was only one small thing.

Carl wanted to move to a new town to start his own business.  Kate was reluctant because she’d also have to quit her job, but Carl insisted.  Before they lived together, Kate was a member of three coed gyms, but in the new town, Carl insisted that she go to an all-women's gym.  She gave in because she didn't want the headache of disagreeing with him, but she kept feeling like she was the one who was making all the changes.

There were many more areas that Kate willingly let Carl control.  After a while, she realized that she:

  • Sat in the home office for six-ten hours a day working for Carl.
  • Sold her car so he could get one he wanted, in his name.
  • Was never allowed to talk or go out with her friends.
  • Had a credit card that she was allowed to use only for household purchases, which Carl monitored.
  • Cooked, cleaned and took care of the dogs.
  • Was 20 pounds overweight and flat broke – he gave her only enough for household shopping and his errands.

Carl was always in a bad mood and yelled at her all the time.  Every thing she did set him off.  He said that his nasty moods were because he was stressed and she wasn’t helpful enough, so she had to put up with them.  He didn’t communicate with her; he just blew up at her. He never said that he was sorry; he acted like it didn’t matter.

Kate finally realized that she’d become his slave!  What I say in, “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” she eventually understood in her gut.  “What’s the price of tolerating bullies?  Slow erosion of your soul.”

Looking back, she realized that bullies and control freaks don’t take your kindness, reasonableness and tolerance as decent behavior they should reciprocate.  They take it as an invitation to grab for more.  They won’t stop until they have everything, which is never, or until they get bored.

There’s no point going into great analysis about why Kate did what she did.  Her tasks were to forget trying to change him and to stop listening and acquiescing to him.  She had to get away as soon as she could, find allies and supporters where she lived, go to coed gyms and lose weight, and get a money-making job again.  She also needed a coach to bolster her resolve, perseverance and resilience, and to plan effective tactics.

Early on, she had been independent and could have left, but she didn’t.  She had to struggle a lot to dig herself out of the pit she was in, but it was worth the rest of her life to become independent again.

Obviously there are great parents.  And there are children who repeatedly wound their parents.  But let’s focus on parents who repeatedly wounded their children … and still continue to bully and control them even after the children have become adults. Whether that’s done consciously and intentionally, or the parents are righteous and oblivious to the effects they’re having, or they think that they’re preparing their children to be humble and moral or to face a hostile world, the pain is real and the effects can last for decades.

Before we review a typical case study and offer the keys to moving on and creating the life you want, let me ask, have you been wounded by your parents?

In general, boys are wounded just as much as girls, but let’s look at Irene.  She’s now a skilled and competent nurse, but getting there was a long struggle.  Her parents relentlessly belittled, denigrated and punished her.  They didn’t hit her often, but they forced her to do everything their way.  They knew best and were always right; she was always wrong.  They said that her character and personality was fundamentally flawed.  Despite everything they did for her benefit, they knew she’d never be a good or successful person.  She’d always be a loser.

In response to their hostile criticism, emotional blackmail and verbal abuse, Irene became insecure and shy.  Although she was very mature and competent in her professional life, when she faced her parents, she became a little girl again.  She was intimidated by their certainty and rules.  Facing these bullies, Irene became a self-bully; bullied by the old attitudes, beliefs, rules and critical voices she carried in her head.

Irene was like so many other wounded people in life-long therapy.  She was completely focused on her parents’ continuing bullying, on resisting them, on hating them, on finally pleasing them, on getting past them.  She gnawed on the bone of her parents endlessly.  She was depressed and sometimes suicidal.  She thought she needed repeated catharsis to keep functioning.

The relationship with her parents consumed her life.  Irene kept trying to convince them to give in to her and to approve of her so she could feel good.  She just wanted them to be fair and reasonable … and to like and appreciate her.  She thought she mustn’t ever create a safe distance from them even though they still bullied her.  The guilt would be overwhelming.

Let’s focus on the perspective that gave Irene back her life.  I think there are developmental transitions we all go through.  The first stage of growing up and leaving home is when we leave physically.  Most of us go to school, get jobs, get stuff (homes and cars), get spouses or partners, get children, get debts … get self-supporting.  We often move away so we can spread our wings without our parents’ eagle eyes on us.  Then we think we’ve become free and independent adults.  Externally, maybe.

We usually make this outer transition between the ages of 16-35.  When did you?

But that’s only the first transition.  There’s a second, necessary transition before we become truly unique, independent selves.  In this transition, we clean out the internal mental, emotional and spiritual homes we gave our parents.  We discard everything we took in when we were children.  And we take in what fits us now.  Some of the attitudes and ideas may be the same as our parents have, but much of it will be different.

In this transition, we get over our parents.  The present and the future we want to create become the focus of our world.  Our parents aren’t the focus any more.  They no longer fill up our world.  We move them off to the side or into the background, whether they like it or not.

Now we can take in attitudes and ideas as adults; adjusting them with our adult experience and wisdom.  Children take in ideas as black-or-white, all-or-none RULES, and apply those rules everywhere.  There’s no gray for them.  Adults know there’s gray in many areas.  We all did our best and it was good enough to keep us alive and get us to where we are now.  But we didn’t have the experience to judge with wisdom.  We misunderstood, misinterpreted and had very narrow visions.  We were kids.

This second transition is usually age and life-stage dependent.  For example, our careers reach a plateau, we can see the children leaving home, we become middle-aged, we notice the same, repeating life patterns and lessons, or we wonder if we’ll ever fulfill our heart’s desire.

Are you there yet?

When we’ve done this, we’re no longer controlled by our parents’ voices, rules, beliefs and attitudes.  We have our own view of life and what’s important for us and how we can get it.  We can create the life we’ve wanted, independent of whether they like it or not.  We may or may not reject them; we’re simply not controlled by them or by having to be like or different from them.  We make up our own minds.

When Irene saw her life’s movement with this perspective, she heaved a sigh of relief.  She wasn’t a loser or flawed sinner caught forever in an insoluble bind.  Her parents’ opinions of her faults and what she needed to do were merely their personal opinions, shaped by their upbringing.  Nothing more truthful or important than personal opinions.  She no longer put them on a pedestal.

She wasn’t helpless.  The situation wasn’t hopeless.  She was normal.  She just had to persevere in order to create a life that she could call her own.  And if her parents didn’t like it; so what?  They didn’t get to vote.  If they wanted to get close to her, they have to pass the tests of her 9 Circles of Trust.

Some people get this in a blinding flash when they’re relatively young.  For Irene, it took much longer.  The transition wasn’t easy for her but it was do-able.  She felt free and light, like a great burden had been lifted from her shoulders.  She was always stubborn.  Now she could use her stubbornness to persevere.  The light at the end of her tunnel was the life she’d always wanted to live.

She won’t let her parents wound her any more.  The big difference from decades ago was that now she was just as tall as they were.  She was an adult.  Keeping herself safe from them was more important than old rules that had led her to accept their abuse and control.  When she made her parents’ opinion unimportant and she turned to face the light at the end of her tunnel, she could feel her wounds healing, as wounds naturally do when no one is picking at the scabs.

Where are you with your parents?  Where are you with your own growing independence?