Nowadays, even young children talk back, roll their eyes, are sassy and snarky, and demand to know why before doing what parents want. These kids act as if they can set all the standards, know everything and are entitled to express their thoughts and feelings in any way they want about anything.
Many parents think this is their toughest disciplinary problem. Many parents want to know why this behavior has trickled down from teenagers through tweens to children. Is this behavior the result of the bad influence of the media – television, movies, internet – or their peers? If so, these parents think, how can we control what children are exposed to?
Cindy was up again at 2 AM, infuriated at her mother and her older sister. They were so mean and cruel. What they’d said and done hurt so much. It was like she was a child again, subjected to their verbal beatings. The more she thought of what they had done, the angrier she became. She couldn’t stop her racing mind from obsessing on what they’d said.
She linked the episode yesterday afternoon to the thousands of times she’d felt the same pain and frustration. She wanted to beat them, even kill them, or never see them again. But they were her family and she thought she couldn’t talk back or leave them. She felt frustrated and stuck.
As the rage took her over, guilt and shame started growing. How could she feel that hateful about her family? Maybe they really were trying to help her? The more she tried to get back to sleep, the more she jumped back and forth between rage and guilt. She hadn’t seemed to make any progress in becoming a better, more spiritual person.
Cindy is stuck in “The Emotional Motivation Cycle.”
The episode yesterday was like the key that started her emotional motivational engine. And the more she thought about it, the faster ands hotter the engine went.
This cycle can be triggered by external events like Cindy’s mother and sister attacking her, or by thoughts and memories of previous episodes of harassment, blame or put-downs. Once triggered the cycle repeats and builds in intensity and speed until we are taken over by it. At 2 AM, in a half-sleep state we are most vulnerable to simply watching it run, as if on its own, and take over our minds and bodies.
Fear --> Run, Freeze --> Self-Bullying (Blame, shame guilt) --> Frustration --> Anger, Fear -->
Of course, the crucial question for each of us is, “What are the repeating stages in our cycle?” We probably know exactly which thoughts, memories and words will follow in which sequence because we’ve done it to ourselves so many times.
What’s the Purpose of the Cycle?
The purpose of the cycle is not really to make us feel angry and bad, even though it inevitably does. The purpose is to motivate ourselves to make effective action. Feeling is a tool; make us feel bad enough and we’ll finally break out of the iceberg that traps us and do something so they can’t hurt us again.
The major downsides to the Emotional Motivation Cycle method of self-motivation are that:
It can make us too depressed to act. We make ourselves feel like we did when we were children; all our strength, energy, adult wisdom, determination and skill are sucked out of us, and we feel helpless and hopeless again, like we did when we were children.
Two responses, often championed in self-help literature, do not work:
Stop thinking about it. However, ignoring the insistent call of our spirit is not effective, and who would want it to be? Our spirit wants us to do something effective; to stop bullying on our Isle of Song. Nothing less will satisfy our spirit. Why should we settle for less?
Become more spiritual, understanding, forgiving – act like the Golden Rule requires. The assumption here is that our unconditional love and perfection will convert bullies and they’ll stop abusing us. Or we’ll get into heaven faster. That’s simply not true for real-world bullies. Our spirit knows that also; that’s why it won’t stop bringing us back to the problem.
Instead, I recommend:
At 2 AM, wake up so we can be mentally, emotionally and spiritually strong, not weak. Get out of bed, eat a little chocolate, shower if you need and plan what to do to act effectively.
Often, the desire to protect our children from obvious, blatant rotten behavior motivates us to break the cycle and stop the abuse.
We can train ourselves to respond to our spirit when the situation is merely an irritation or frustration. We can develop good habits that function naturally, automatically, easily. The more we start listening to our inner voice, the more we’ll respond effectively in the moment of an assault or at the first self-hating thought.
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.
Almost every one of the women who’ve interviewed me on radio or TV admitted that they were raised to be “nice girls.” Their mothers had taught them that the most important value was to be nice, polite and sweet at all times. They should ignore or rise above bullies; feel sorry for how empty and insecure bullies must feel; how horrible bullies’ family lives must be. Nice girls should try to understand those mean girls, to forgive them and to tolerate their nasty, insulting, abusive behavior.
Nice girls should be sweet and kindly in all situations; not be disagreeable, not make scenes, not lower themselves to the level of the mean girls by pushing back verbally or physically. Nice girls were raised to believe that the virtues of loving compassion and sympathy were their own rewards and would also, eventually, stop bullying. Nice girls were to live by the Golden Rule. Being a virtuous martyr was preferable to acting “not-nice.”
As a result, when these nice girls became adults, they had trouble protecting themselves from bullies.
And, in addition to the emotional scars and the feelings of helplessness and impotence in the face of the real world, they bore a measure of anger toward their mothers for not teaching them how to be effective as grown ups.
The start of their change was to openly admit that, in this area, their mothers were wrong.
At first they thought that they needed at least two hierarchies of priorities; one for their home life and one for the outside world. This was abhorrent to many because it sounded like situational ethics. But it wasn’t. They would have the same ethical framework and merely different tactics that fit their different situations.
Determination, will and perseverance were more important qualities than being nice. These qualities gave them the power to take charge of their lives. They didn’t have to be mean, but they did have to be strong, courageous and sometimes firm. They were the ones who decided what they wanted and needed; what was right for them; what their standards were. These decisions were not consensus votes affected by the desires and standards of other people.
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.
Should we confront our toxic parents or not? Well, it all depends on us, them and the situation? But here are some guidelines we can use to decide what we want to do.
And what’s the “right time, place and way?”
Don’t use the word “confront” on ourselves. It’s a dirty word that bullies use to get us not to protect ourselves and not to set our boundaries. Bullies demand infinite forgiveness and unconditional love – but from us only; not from themselves. We must “protect ourselves” and we must “set our boundaries.” That’s a much better way of saying it. Notice how “protecting ourselves” and “setting our boundaries” are good and necessary actions. And if toxic, bullying, abusive parents keep trampling our boundaries, we have to ask ourselves, “Why are we with such jerks and control-freaks? Why are we presenting our throats to vampires? Why are we still letting hyenas feast on us? Why do we let sick people vomit on our feet? Why do we allow them in our space? Why are we in theirs?” Protecting ourselves is a more important value than not hurting the feelings of toxic people or not getting them upset or not making a scene or not upsetting the family.
Do we hope that “protecting ourselves” will change relentless bullies? Maybe when we’re young and they’ve just started, we might hope that standing firm and saying, “No! Stop! Sit! Stay!” will change them. Or maybe we might have succeeded by hitting them with a rolled up newspaper or biting them on the lip to show them who’s the alpha dog. But toxic parents have been mean, nasty, vicious predators for as long as we’ve been alive. A little kid really can’t resist them or change them. So by the time we’re middle-aged and they’ve been hurting and bullying us for over 40 years, we can release the hope that we’ll change them. I’ve seen toxic parents remain bullies even after near death experiences or being cut off from their grandchildren, although those two circumstances are the only ones I’ve seen effective in the rare cases of toxic parents who have changed. Standing up for ourselves probably won’t change them. But we can give it one more shot if we want to.
Do we hope that we’ll feel better or more powerful after we stand up for ourselves? We may and those are great reasons for defending ourselves and enforcing consequences. Words are not consequences; words without consequences is begging. Only actions are consequences. Take power. Don’t wait for jackals to empower you.
Will we speak up in private or public? We usually think of saying things in private the first time someone bullies us. But after a private talk, relentless bullies will think they can ignore us since we’re defending ourselves in private and they’re attacking us in public. Therefore, we have to speak out in public. Don’t let a lie or an attack or a put-down or sarcastic criticism pass unchallenged. We can protect ourselves in the moment, in public by saying, “That’s not true. That’s a lie. You’re still a bully and I won’t put up with bullying any more.” Don’t debate or argue whose perception is correct. We stick with our opinion; we’re the expert on us. Make them leave or don’t stay with they if they don’t change.
Might protecting ourselves change the family dynamics? Too many families hide the truth and live on lies. Too many families protect bullies and perpetrators because “That’s just the way they are” or “We have to put up with abuse because it’s family.” No. We don’t repay a debt to toxic parents by being their scapegoats or whipping posts because they once gave us food along with abuse. Don’t collude with these crimes. Speaking out can change the dynamics. Test everyone else. We’ll find out who wants to be friends with us and who wants to repress us – for whatever reasons. We’ll find out who we enjoy being with and who we won’t waste precious time with.
Will protecting ourselves set a good example for our children? Yes. And it’s crucial for us to set great examples. Be a model! Don’t sacrifice our children on some altar of “family.” Protecting children is more important than any benefit they might get from being with toxic grandparents.
What’s the “right time” to speak up? If we hope to change toxic parents, the “right time” and the “right way” can be considerations. But for any other reason, the time to speak up is always “NOW” and the place is always “HERE.”
Should we talk to our parents in a safe environment with our therapists present?The first step in stopping bullies is connecting with our inner strength, courage and determination. We are the safe place in any situation! We’re adults now. So what if they attack us one more time. Don’t be defeated. Look at them as predators or jerks and score them “failed.” We’ll feel much stronger if we say what we have to say firmly and then be strong and apply our consequences when they attack us. If people aren’t nice, don’t waste time on them.
Notice that all these considerations are about us and our judgment, not about the right way to convert toxic parents. It is about us and the personal space we want to create and what behaviors and people we’ll let in.
How can we still relate to the nice people in the family?
I think that we can only relate to those who want to have a wonderful relationship totally separate from the toxic parents. That is, we’ll talk to the nice and fun ones, text them and see them on our own without our toxic parents being part of that. Is that sneaky? No. That’s just cleaning up our homes and sweeping out the crud. And not allowing it back in. Tell the good relatives what’s going on and see if they want to have fun with us.
We must ask ourselves, “Are we doing all the work of self-analysis, apologizing, appeasing, communicating and being perfect? Are we wasting our time trying to turn hyenas into vegetarians?” If we don’t defend ourselves in public when hyenas attack, we’ll only encourage them to go after us more.
The fundamental problem with that approach is our willingness to debate and argue because outside experts tell us that we’re right or that we’ve been wronged, and, therefore, our spouses should change.
The better course, the winning way is to ask our inner expert.
We ask ourselves, not if they’re bullying us, but simply whether we like or don’t like what they do. We know what we like and don’t like; we know how much we like or hate it; we know what we’re willing to compromise about or put up with and what we’re not.
We begin with our judgment and act on that judgment.
The fundamental and true justifications for what we do are “I want to” and “I don’t want to.” Not necessarily as a snap judgment, but as a source of energy and power. Later, we supply a thin coating of logical reasons to make people think we’re rational.
A declaration of what we want or don’t want is unassailable by outside experts. We know right away that any who tries to talk us out of what we want by saying, “That’s dumb. That’s crazy. That’s silly. That’s unreasonable. That’s selfish. That’s arrogant. That’s too demanding. That’s not loving,” is not a person we want to keep as a lover, friend or relative.
Acting because we want to is more than enough justification.
Acting as our own expert, on our own best judgment, because we want to is how we take charge of our present and future.
But what if we’re wrong or too picky?
On the one hand we do know that experts are wrong. For example, expert advice for the best way to parent has changed every few years during my lifetime. There are no guarantees.
This choice is wonderfully illustrated in the Daniel Day-Lewis movie version of “The Last of The Mohicans”.
British Major Duncan wants Cora to marry him. Her father wants her to marry him. But Cora hesitates. Cora is thinking about breaking away from the cage of her upbringing. She tells him of her hesitation.
Duncan says, “Why not let those whom you trust, like your father, help settle what is best for you. In view of your indecision, you should rely on their judgment and mine. Will you consider that?”
At first she’s not sure, but later she sees a side of Major Duncan she would never let herself live with. She tells Duncan, “I have considered your offer. The decision I have come to is that I would rather make the gravest of mistakes than surrender my own judgment. My answer to you must be, ‘No.’”
She will follow her own judgment, not theirs. She will not let those “experts” rule her life.
Be brave. We can get help to access the expert within us and learn to trust our inner expert. We can act because we want to and be the hero of our lives.
Mean girls, like mean guys, can make middle and high school a wounding, scarring misery for many kids.
We’d expect elementary school friendships to change as girls develop different interests in boys, studies, athletics, music, art and science at different rates – especially interests in boys. We’d expect old friends to drift apart.
But the verbal, mental and emotional consequences of put-downs, teasing, taunting, cutting-out, ganging up, harassment, hazing, bullying and abuse can be devastating. Scars can last a lifetime.
Alicia and Cory were best friends for years but in middle school, Cory changed. She became boy-crazy and Tammy became her best friend. Alicia wasn’t interested in boys at that time so she and Cory started drifting apart. Nothing unusual or wrong with that.
But Tammy made it a problem. She and few friends targeted Alicia and insisted that if Cory wanted to be Tammy’s “best friend,” Cory had to join in the attacks on Alicia. Cory didn’t resist. As soon as Cory gave in, Tammy upped the stakes and kept making Cory be more and more vicious in order to join the gang.
Alicia had never done anything bad to Tammy or to Cory. Neither would talk with Alicia about why Tammy had singled her out. Tammy was simply a bully; each year in school she aligned herself against a scapegoat who she used to rally a clique around her as a leader in devising more and more cruel attacks. This year was simply Alicia’s turn. Since nothing bad happened to Tammy during her years at school, she didn’t see any reason to stop.
When Alicia talked with Cory, Cory cried, but didn’t stop her attacks.
What can Alicia and her parents do?
Alicia didn’t talk about the bullying but her parents could tell there was something very wrong. They dragged it out of Alicia. They could understand Alicia and Cory’s different interests and growing distance, but they were appalled that an old friend was so vicious toward Alicia.
Alicia’s parents knew Cory’s parents very well so they decided to talk with them. They didn’t know Tammy’s parents so they did not approach them. Cory’s parents were upset at their daughter, but after lengthy discussions they decided to minimize the bullying. They said that Alicia would have to deal and they were happy that Cory had gotten in to a popular crowd.
While Alicia’s parents were exploring other avenues, like talking to the district administrator, they knew that their immediate task was to help Alicia develop an attitude that would diminish the emotional hurt. They knew that kids who took the put-downs to heart usually suffered all their lives. More than the crying, loss of appetite, falling grades, sleepless nights, negative self-talk, anxiety, blame, shame and guilt, low self-confidence and self-esteem, and depression and maybe even suicidal tendencies often followed such relentless attacks. Indeed, Alicia had begun to take the viciousness personally. She wasn’t ugly but she wasn’t beautiful; she was skinny and she hadn’t started developing breasts yet; she was good-natured and social but not in the clique of the most popular girls. She began to think that there must be something wrong with her because she was picked on and didn’t know how to fight back – being nice, appeasement and following the Golden Rule hadn’t helped. Since the adults didn’t protect her, she thought that maybe there really was something wrong with her and she’d be a loser and alone all her life. Her parents and family loved her but maybe, she thought, in the outside world, she’d be victimized for life.
Alicia was not one to fight back with fists, arguments or even sarcasm. The tactic that fit her personality and comfort zone was simply to mutter “jerks,” laugh with scorn and walk away with her head held high. And she remained laughing and happy because she knew who the losers were. While that infuriated Tammy, Cory and the others, there were a number of other girls who responded to Alicia’s attitude of confidence and self-esteem, and to her smile and good cheer. She slowly collected her own clique of friends.
Alicia also built a mental movie of a future in which she was loved and had a loving family. She could see that she looked like her mother, who’d married her handsome father and that they loved each other. She had hope that she could also do as well. Therefore, she also judged the boys who circled around Tammy and Cory as jerks. She knew they weren’t good enough for her. Her self-esteem and confidence grew. Other kids noticed that she seemed more secure and sure of herself. Since she was nice and friendly, many wanted to be friends with her.
Alicia also realized that she would not want to be friends later in life with most of those middle school kids. As much as they had seemed important to her before, she decided that she’d make her own life, following her own interests so any middle school friends were probably temporary. That took much of the sting out of Tammy and Cory’s continuing scorn and harassment.
During the typical arguing and fighting leading up to deciding to divorce and during the divorce process itself, what should and shouldn’t you tell the kids? When you think there’s still a chance to salvage the marriage, should you tell them nothing is wrong so they don’t worry? Should you re-assure them that you and your spouse will be together forever? In a nasty divorce, should you tell them what a rat your soon-to-be ex-spouse really is? How can you protect the kids from being scarred and totally messed up later?
Whatever you decide, you must deal with each child and situation as unique and design your answer to deal with each child’s questions in an age appropriate way. And keep adjusting as they grow older.
Think of the process as your needing to peel layers off the children’s concerns. One concern will lead to another or maybe you’ll return to a previous one. Saying something one time will not be enough. You’ll have to return to some issues, depending on the individual, many times. But don’t make a problem where the child isn’t.
If it’s an ugly situation, don’t pretend that your ex is perfect. Be truthful and distinguish between what behavior the kids can count on and what’s just your opinion. Always ask them to check things out for themselves; like little scientists. Help them think of reasonable tests; who keeps promises, who’s on time, who are they afraid of, who can they rely on, who blames, shames and guilt-trips?
Some guidelines, not rigid rules:
Don’t allow the “Big Lie.” When the children sense that there’s frustration and tension that sometimes boils over into anger, bullying, abuse or violence don’t deny their kid-radar. Don’t tell them everything’s fine and that they’re wrong. The most important verification they need is that they’re sensing and seeing reality. They must know that there is trouble and that they can sense it. For example, “Yes, you’re very smart, you can sense what’s going on and your radar is accurate. That skill will help you the rest of your life. Sometimes, I don’t tell you what’s happening or why, because I want to keep it private or maybe you’re too young to understand yet or I don’t want to upset you unduly. But I want you to ask me if you worry about anything.”
The most important assurance they need is that they can be fine. For example, “I know this can be scary and hard and you’ll have lots of questions. Over time, I’ll answer them as best I can as we work out our new living arrangements. But the most important thing is that you dedicate yourselves to having great lives. Never let anything get in the way of that. No matter how scared or upset you might get, overcome it. Make sure that you’ll look back on this tough time as just a speed bump in your lives. Make sure that you’re not bothered much by it. Your parents’ fights have nothing to do with you. You’re not the cause of them. You’re fine. We just don’t get along. Your job is to grow up and get independent and find someone you will get along with. And that this tough time isn’t a big deal in your life.”
Help them overcome uncertainty, insecurity, anxiety, fear and panic. Assure them that you’ll always care for them and take care of them, in whatever way you can. For example, “We’ll figure out how to be together and be safe and have good times. I’ll always see that you have the things and the opportunities you really need. It’s always hard when we’re in a transition or in limbo waiting to see what will happen and you don’t have control. Your job is to focus on what’s most important for you right now and that’s not the emotional turmoil you’re living in. The turmoil isn’t your doing. Your job is to take charge of what you have control over; your moods and attitudes and efforts, which means school. Make this turmoil as small and colorless in your life as you can. Don’t step into it; stay outside of it. This is good training for you in mental and emotional-control. These are the number one skills you need to learn in order to be successful later in life.”
Help them deal with mean, nasty kids who taunt, harass or cut them out. For example, begin with developing their inner strength, “Not having as much money as we did or having some other kids act mean because your parents are divorcing is not really important. You can be invulnerable. You may feel like you need to be liked or be friends with those kids now, but when you’re out of school, with 70 years of life ahead of you, you won’t care what those kids think. You won’t want to be friends with those kids. More important, you’ll see that they’re acting like jerks and you’ll decide never to care what jerks think. You’ll have the freedom to go anywhere and be with anyone so, of course, you’ll choose to be with people who love and like you, appreciate and respect you, and who treat you better.” Follow up by making sure the school principal stops this bullying.
Some other questions they might have are: Are all marriages doomed, will I choose the wrong person just like you did, will we kids be split up, can I stay at the same school, will my other parent move far away so I never see them again, whose fault is it, do I have to take sides, will I still have grandparents, will I still get birthday and Christmas presents, can I use guilt or my temper tantrums to manipulate you, will I still have to brush my teeth? Don’t give into them or give them everything they want because you feel guilty, want them to like you more or think their lives are too hard.
Don’t use your kids as your best friends, confidants or therapists. Don’t use them to comfort yourself or as pawns in a vicious struggle. They’re your kids; they’re not adults or lovers. Take your emotional pain and baggage somewhere else. You have to be a responsible adult, no matter how difficult that is. If you can’t, you should consider making safer arrangements for them. For example, “This is too painful for me to talk about. Sometimes I get tired and stressed out, and I blow up or lose it. I don’t mean to. When I’m like that, don’t take anything I say seriously. Suggest that I need a time out. Your job, children, is to look away and focus on your own tasks so you can have great lives as you grow up. No matter how hard it is, you have to focus on school and getting skills so you can take care of yourselves when you’re adults. That’s what’s important. Your future is what’s most important to me.”
The big message is about the wonderful future they can have. The big message is that they can/should/must decide to let this roll off their backs. Even though it’s happening to them, they can be resilient. They can move beyond it and create wonderful lives for themselves.
We adults make a mistake if we worry that when bad things happen, the children are automatically guaranteed to have huge problems later in life. Looking at them as too fragile and helpless to resist the effects of a difficulty, divorce or trauma is like giving them a terrible thought virus. It’s easy for them to catch that virus.
Actually, our responsibility is to protect them from that too common virus. For example, they might tend to worry that since a classmate is so traumatized because their parents are divorcing they’ll be messed up also. You might say, “No. You’re strong and wise and brave and you have me to keep reminding you that you’ll be fine. Stop bullying yourself. Take power over yourself. So choose to be fine; dedicate and discipline yourself. Choose to be successful, no matter what. That’s my wish for you.”
Tell them stories about ancestors or great people who overcame the same or even worse situations in childhood. For example, “Don’t be victims of what happens to you. Be one of the ‘Invulnerables.’ Did you know that a study of 400 great people born in the 19th and early 20th centuries found that most of these people had absolutely horrible childhoods? Yet they were not destroyed by what had happened; they were invulnerable. They became much stronger. They had great lives – including wonderful marriages. You too, my beloved children, can choose that path for yourselves. Please do.”
We don’t need more research and statistics to know that domestic violence is a travesty and must be stopped. For example, watch the graphic five minute video about the effects of that brutality and the work of one safe house helping women and children. Domestic violence is obvious – you can see the results of physical battering.
On the other hand, even though domestic bullying and mental and emotional abuse are more wide spread than overt beating they’re often hidden from view. Since harassment, bullying and abuse often fly below the bullying-radar of the targets and the public, I want to focus on it here. Targets who accept the bullies’ promises or threats or on-going torture often don’t recognize how bad it is; how demoralizing and defeating it is; how their souls are being eroded over time.
Of course, some men are bullied by women, but notice the patterns of the bullied women who have written these (edited) comments:
“Out of the blue, he started taking control over me (commanding me), which I am not liking. He is not letting me meet my friends or go out with them on weekends. He doesn’t let me wear dresses, saying his parents don’t like it. I am not allowed to do anything; no friends, no meeting people, no phones, nothing. These things were never an issue previously. I tried to work out things during last five months by listening to him and not meeting or talking to my friends. He just keep saying ‘Listen to me and things will work out; otherwise pack your bags and leave.’ He doesn’t let me go out anywhere without him. He doesn’t want to sort it out by talking. Whenever I try, he says, ‘I am not here to listen to you. You have to do whatever I say. I don’t want to hear a ‘No’. Now, I am always depressed and sad and smoke a lot more. I lost my smile. I lost myself in this relation. Shall I give up or keep compromising without any expectations in this relationship?”
“I have been in a four year relationship, and have a two year-old daughter with him. I have been feeling depressed lately and having second thoughts about us being together. He controls me. I can’t go any where without asking him first. Sometimes I feel like a little kid asking for permission, even if it’s to go to the store. My friends ask me to go out for a girls’ night and he gets mad if I mention it, so I stopped asking and him and just tell my friends I’m doing something that night so I can’t go. Now, they don’t even ask me anymore. When his friends are here he acts like he’s so cool and even yells at me in front of them. It’s extremely embarrassing. I feel alone. I tried leaving in the past and he won’t let me take the baby. So I stay because I don’t want to fight and I’m not leaving my child. What do I do? How do I make it an easy break up? How do we get out?”
“At first my husband was the sweetest man I ever met. He complimented me and had such great manners. Then slowly but surely he began changing into the worst thing I could ever imagine. The sick thing is I know I don't deserve it, but I can't leave. It's like he has some strange control over me. He constantly puts me down about my intelligence, appearance and my mothering abilities, which hurts the most. It’s such an everyday obstacle that I find myself questioning why I stay. It's gotten so bad I'm beginning to believe the things he says to me about how I'm useless and no one will ever want me but him. Every bad thing that happens, he takes out on me. Every single thing is my fault. I want to leave but I still find myself staying, feeling bad for him and his feelings. He can't even compliment at all without letting me know that I'm ugly and lucky he even loves me. I'm just so sad anymore. I don't even recognize myself. I'm not allowed to speak to my family or friends. I just don't know what to do anymore. I'm so lost.”
“My husband and I have been together for eleven years with four children. We go through the cycle of an abusive relationship. Every time we argue, I get called a ‘bitch,’ which I have asked him many times to not do. We kiss and make up. Then everything's fine and dandy again. He doesn't like to talk about our fights and says he will not name-call me again. But every opportunity he gets, he's right at it again. I guess I keep hoping he'll change, but I know he never will. I don't feel any love from this guy. He has fooled around on me and even went as far as marrying someone else while we were married. Just recently he took my wedding ring away and threatened to pawn it. He also promised my kids that he'll take them on a vacation. He doesn’t even work, so I ended up having to get funds just to take the kids on the vacation. Today, we fought again and he said sorry and he'll start today on not calling me a bitch. Then ten minutes later it happened again. I feel so stuck. I feel as my only way out is suicide. But I don't want to give him that satisfaction. All I did today was cry. And I don't even have anyone to talk to because everyone is sick of hearing me cry over him.”
He commands, bosses and embarrasses her in public. She submits because she wants to avoid bigger fights. She hopes that since she gave in this time, he’ll be nicer next time. But he’s relentless in arguing, bullying and abusing; he never stops. If he doesn’t beat her, the threat is there.
When she’s nice and logical – discussing, asking, compromising, begging, arguing, appeasing – she may get peace because he’s gotten his way, but it’s only momentary. Her good behavior doesn’t buy his in return. He never reciprocates by letting her have her way next time. Eventually, she submits completely and asks permission to do anything. He’s in complete control. When he’s mean, angry or out of control, it’s her fault because she isn’t perfect. It’s as if, “Since he’s angry, you must have done something wrong.”
Step by step, she’s isolated – cut off from friends, family and sources of her own income. She loses her old self; she loses her confidence and self-esteem; she becomes depressed, heart-broken and ready to give up.
It’s even worse if there are children she thinks she’ll have to support if she leaves. Eventually, she begins to think like a victim – she can’t see how to get safe house help, legal help or the police on her side.
These targets keep hoping they’ll find some magic wand to change him; he’ll become a loving, caring, nice and reasonable person. But that’s not going to happen.
Or they think that the most important value is making a marriage last even though it’s a marriage of torture. Or that what matters is whether he loves her or not, when what really matters is how he loves her.
Those abusive, bullying control-freaks always interpret their target’s kindness, reasonableness and compromise as weakness and an invitation to take more from them, to control more of their lives, to eat them alive.
Ultimately, these women get the worst that they’re willing to put up with. And eventually, the price they pay is slow erosion of their souls.
In a series of articles in the New York Times, “Poisoned Web,” Jan Hoffman details a sexting case gone viral in Lacey, Washington. What can you do for your son or daughter so they don’t get sucked into the black hole of a sexting catastrophe that could ruin their whole lives?
In this particular case, a middle-school girl sent a full-frontal nude photo of herself, including her face, to her new middle-school boyfriend. He forwarded the picture to a second middle-school girl he thought was a friend of the first one. The second girl, an ex-friend with a grudge, forwarded the picture to the long list of contacts on her phone with the caption, “Ho Alert! If you think this girl is a whore, then text this to all your friends.” The photo rapidly went viral. A lot of the analysis about the situation is nothing new:
Why do girls send nude photos of themselves to boyfriends they have or hope to have? The same reasons girls always have.
Why do guys prize and show these pictures as evidence of what studs they are? The same reasons guys always have.
Who or what is to blame? The same culprits get vilified: thoughtless, foolish boys and girls, teenagers, school officials, society, double-standards and technology.
Does technology make sexting worse? Yes, of course. Technology makes it seductively easy to forward pictures and comments. Also, technology makes the information global and permanent. Kids can’t move to another school or even another city in order to get away from the consequences of what they and others did.
In the past, many reputations and lives were ruined by foolish moments. Kids and adults have always been able to exercise righteous or mean or vicious inclinations, but it’s so much easier now.
The boy, the second girl and everyone else who forwards the picture have to face their own stupidity or meanness. And they may have to face their role in a suicide. An act of a moment can destroy a life. Also, they may have to face prison. We hope this will help them do better the rest of their lives. Humans have always learned some lessons the hard way.
Do today’s kids face overwhelming pressure? Many people make excuses for the foolish or nasty kids; as if the external pressures are overwhelming. For example, the article quotes, “'You can’t expect teenagers not to do something they see happening all around them,’ said Susannah Stern, an associate professor at the University of San Diego who writes about adolescence and technology.” This line of thought focuses on reducing all pressure and temptation.
But pressure was just as great throughout history as it is now – depending on the particular time in each society.
I would require all schools have assemblies and programs in which students and parents are required to participate. Law enforcement must be involved to present examples of what can happen to the kids who send pictures of themselves and to the ones who forward those pictures. This will increase awareness of the dangers of kids succumbing to pressure to do something foolish like sending pictures of themselves and of the penalties for kids who forward pornography.
Parents have the major responsibility to preach, teach and police their children’s use of internet and wireless devices. This is our ounce of prevention. As the father of the girl who sent her nude picture said, “I could say it was everyone else’s fault, but I had a piece of it, too. I learned a big lesson about my lack of involvement in her use of the phone and texting. I trusted her too much.”
These steps will decrease the number of kids involved in sexting. But we’ll never stop 100 percent of kids’ foolish or mean or vicious actions. But that can’t be our intention. Our goal is to educate kids whose awareness of the potential consequences of their actions will awaken in them the ability to do better.
Our goal can’t be to educate or convert psychopaths or people who want to make a living off child pornography. Educational approaches aren’t effective with these people.
Remember, all tactics depend on the situation – the people and the circumstances. So we must design plans that are appropriate to preventing our individual children from sending pictures or forwarding them, and to minimizing the disaster if they act foolishly.
Don’t waste your time with nit-picky detractors and critics who have nothing better to offer. Some people will say that they can only do this because Most Precious Blood is a private school or that the program takes too much money or that other school principals and staff don’t have the time. Nonsense.
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).
Jane’s sister, Betty, seemed to have been born with a vicious tongue. She attacked everyone relentlessly. Holidays with the extended family were a misery for Jane and her family. Nobody, not even their mother, stopped Betty. Everyone was afraid to complain directly to Betty. If they did, Betty would turn on them even more spitefully before.
According to Betty, nobody’s children were good enough – they were all ugly, stupid, ignorant, mean or bad. They were too fat or too skinny; they ate too much or too little; they ate too fast or too slow. They dreamed too big for their non-existent talents.
Betty laughed joyfully when she pounced on someone’s mistakes, no matter how trivial or irrelevant. Their choices were always wrong, their clothes and manners were wrong. Betty always knew better and rubbed everyone’s nose in it.
Some of Betty’s reasons excuses and justifications for why she was so hostile were:
“Those are my feelings. It’s my honest opinion. You wouldn’t want me to repress how I feel, would you?”
“You're too sensitive.”
“I’m doing it for their own good. You’re too soft on them. They’ll never get better if you don’t correct them.”
“I had to take it when I was a kid. It’ll make them stronger and tougher.”
“They have to learn to take it. They’ll get it like that in the real-world.”
Of course, everyone can have a bad day and be grumpy. But with Betty, it was everyday and it was relentless, hostile and mean-spirited.
Bullies want us to try to argue with their reasons, excuses and justifications. The more we argue, the more we’re engaged without their ever changing. If we make a good point, they’ll change the subject and give another excuse or cite a different time when they were right. They’ll never admit that they need to change; that’s how we know they’re bullies.
Or, if we challenge them, their feelings will be so hurt that they’ll withdraw into a very loud silent treatment. And it’ll go on forever until we give up, admit we were cruel, promise never to attack them again and simply accept the abuse. That’s how we know they’re bullies.
What can Jane do? Remember, all tactics have to be designed to fit our specific situations, what we want to accomplish and the limits of our comfort zones.
Jane once asked Betty not to say anything to Jane’s children; Betty was hurting them and Jane had told them take it because Betty was their aunt. But Betty hadn’t changed. Finally, Jane decided that she wasn’t going to expose herself and her family to any more of Betty’s abuse. She’d end the unrelenting negativity, harassment, criticism, blame, shame and guilt-trips.
Once again, she asked Betty to stop talking the way she did and to find nice things to say. She asked Betty to be nicer, kinder and more polite to family than she would be to strangers. But Betty didn’t stop.
She told Betty she wanted her to feel differently but if she couldn’t, she still wanted her to take charge of her tongue and to repress herself; being an abusive bully is worse than repressing herself. But Betty didn’t stop.
She told Betty that if the brutality continued, she wouldn’t come if Betty was present. That would cause a rift in the family and it would be Betty’s fault. Betty didn’t stop.
Jane told the family she’d decided that she’d never let bullies treat her and her family the way Betty did. She had to take charge of keeping them safe from people who polluted their emotional environment. She asked them to choose the behavior they’d support even if that meant they all told Betty to change or they’d stop inviting her. Jane reminded them of what Mr. Spock said, “Never sacrifice the many for the sake of the one.” But Betty didn’t stop.
Jane decided that behavior was more important than blood. More important than victimizing her children by subjecting them to their Aunt Betty’s viciousness, was setting a good example by protecting them from abuse. She didn’t want them to experience the anxiety, stress and discouragement that had accompanied visits with Betty. That meant they didn’t see Betty any more. That also meant they saw the rest of the family only on one-to-one occasions when Betty was not present.
Over the years, the same conversations were replayed after extended family gathering except in Jane’s house. There, Jane and her family had a wonderful time; free from criticism, bullying and abuse; free from the endless re-hashing of Betty’s latest attacks.
Once Jane had cleared the abuse out of her family’s life, they were able to find friends they loved being with.
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 give in to or argue with bullies’ excuses, reasons and justifications. 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 adults getting over their early training and then stopping bullies. For more personalized coaching call me at 877-8Bullies (877-828-5543).
My personal and professional experience is that forgiveness doesn’t stop real-world bullies.
Most people think forgiveness consists of two things:
Some surge of feelings that makes us more kindly disposed toward a person who has injured us, whether intentionally or not. Words in dictionaries include:
A thawing or understanding, caring, sympathy, empathy, compassion, pity, pardoning, clemency, mercy, kindness and benevolence and
A letting go of anger, resentment, the desire to punish, vindictiveness and revenge.
Putting ourselves back into the same situation with that bully to show that we trust him not to take advantage of us or harm us.
Many people are addicted to those wonderful feelings of forgiveness. They feel morally superior and spiritually advanced.
Indeed, when our hearts open up, a bridge of good will and good behavior can be created. The other person may be genuinely sorry for their behavior and won’t do it again. If possible, amends can be made with a reciprocal flow of open-heartedness. Subsequent interactions can be founded on charity and caring.
There have even been documented cases in which parents have forgiven the murderer of their child, and the murderer was transformed and spent the rest of his life making amends and teaching others about the bond of caring that can exist between all humans.
We also want to see them make amends that require effort and sacrifice. It’s not enough that they apologize or promise they’ll never do it again. Talk is cheap; it’s too easy to say, “Sorry” one time. We want to see acts that make amends over time.
Also, our confidence is not about whether or not the bully has transformed and won’t hurt us again. We’re simply confident in our own abilities. Then we can stop obsessing on the incidents of abuse and bullying, and focus on what we want to do in our lives.
Our previous obsession with the pain of bullying was simply motivation, a strong reminder that we don’t want to experience that ever again. Once we’re sure ourselves, we no longer need to revisit the painful incident to remind us to be prepared.
But how about the idea of putting ourselves back into the same situation again to show forgiveness? Nonsense. Although we can see the spirit of goodness within each person, that’s not what we get to deal with in the physical world. We get to deal with their personality and ego.
Before we trust someone and allow them in our lives, we should observe them in many situations, time after time. We should observe their behavior, not the reasons, excuses and justifications for their actions. We should permit them to move closer by small steps.
Personally, if the pain caused by the bully was great, I don’t want them in my life again, no matter how much they want to continue and promise they’ve changed. We can go our separate ways. I can observe from a distance and after 20-30 years I might change my mind about interacting.
There are many processes we can use to reach that level of determination and skill.
Because I’ve seen so many sneaky, manipulative, toxic parents who, after a lifetime of battering and spurning their children, get old and want those children to serve them. The parents now admit they were wrong and insist that the children take them back and cater to their wishes. The emotional blackmail is, “If you were a truly forgiving person, you’d be understanding and kind, and care for us now.” But these toxic parents don’t stop bullying their children. They’re merely narcissistic, control-freaks demanding or blackmailing or using guilt to get what they want.
Why put yourself in harm’s way? Let these bullies practice being transformed on other people’s bodies. Watch them from a distance for 20-30 years to see if they’re sincere and can keep their promises.
But let’s go back and ask, “What if you’ve forgiven the murderer of your child, but the murderer wasn’t transformed by your forgiveness?” You’ve lost nothing. The murderer is still behind bars, I hope forever or awaiting the death penalty, and you’re still on the outside. Nothing will bring your child back so you might as well think only rarely of the murderer and think often of your child and how you want to live now.
Self-forgiveness is akin to this, but it’ll be the subject of another article.
You choose which way of looking at forgiveness you want; which criteria you’ll follow before you forgive. Which way gives us the kind of life we want: to feel spiritually advanced and get taken advantage of repeatedly or to keep bullies out of our internal and external worlds?
You may be the target of a bully, but you don’t have to be a victim.
Bullies can go after you in many ways; physically harming you or threatening to hurt you; inflicting emotional pain through harassment, relentless criticism, taunting, put-downs, cutting out, manipulation, controlling, back-stabbing, spreading rumors, telling secrets, embarrassing you or generally mean behavior; cyberbullying.
In all these situations, the first step in defending yourself and in stopping bullies is the same and always has been. This is the first step, even before you use any programs that are designed to stop bullies in schools or at work.
For instance, we can go back to Homer’s “Odyssey.” At the end, after Odysseus and his son, Telemachus, have killed all the abusive suitors, they flee with two faithful servants to the mountain home of Odysseus’ father, Laertes. They know they will pursued by all the older men of the city, the fathers and uncles of the dead suitors.
In the final confrontation, hopelessly outnumbered, Laertes kills the father of the most evil suitor. Odysseus loses control of himself and goes berserk. He advances in a murderous rage to kill all the fathers and uncles.
Don’t give in to your racing mind – when your reasoning and logic might talk you out of following your accurate intuition, might discourage and depress you into giving up or might spook and panic you into doing something dumb.
Don’t give in to your lust or greed or laziness or any other of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Begin by commanding yourself. In Odysseus’ case, commanding himself meant not starting a bloodbath, which would lead to generations of vendettas that would ruin the country.
In the case of facing a bully, we must take charge of ourselves, gather ourselves and command ourselves. Even when we don’t know how things will turn out, we do know that we want to act bravely, resolutely and greatly. Therefore, command yourself and go for it; 110%.
If we give in to fear, anxiety, perfectionism and self-doubt, we’ll do nothing to protect ourselves – we’ll become victims of our own panic and terror. If we give in to anger and rage, we’ll explode, act unskillfully and do things we’ll regret. If we don’t command ourselves, we’ll lose confidence and self-esteem; we’ll get depressed and become easy victims of the predators.
We can become strong and skilled enough to resist being targeted by bullies and to stop bullies in their tracks. We can look at individual situations and plan tactics that are appropriate to us and to the situation.
When we command ourselves, we can overcome whatever confronts us. We will let nothing crush us; our spirits will remain strong. We can plan and take charge of our actions. We can act with strength, courage and skill. We can act with perseverance and resilience. We can get the help we need. We can succeed.
In her article in the New York Times, “The Playground Gets Even Tougher,” Pamela Paul points out that Mean Girls begin their nasty, vicious harassment, bullying and abuse on the playground and in pre-school. They don’t wait until fifth grade or junior high school.
In my experience, mean girls put down targeted kids for whatever reasons they can find – from poor, discounted, unfashionable clothes or the lack of the latest cell phones and bling, to race, religion, physical differences and hair color. Mean girls also form cliques that ostracize, exclude and cut-out their targets or scapegoats. Mean girl behavior cuts across all socio-economic categories – inner-city, rural, suburban and expensive, private schools. The movies, “Mean Girls” and “Camp Rock,” give some graphic examples.
Mean moms who ignore mean girl behavior at home, on the playground and in preschool. These moms have many opportunities to step in and teach their daughters how to do better in age-appropriate ways, but they don’t. I think of these as absentee moms, whatever their reasons – whether they’re simply uncaring or not paying attention or don’t want to deal with it or not physically present. Nannies can be even less responsible, especially if their employers don’t want to hear about it.
Mean moms who set a bad example by acting mean to their extended families, to their children and to helpless servers in all forms – waiters, checkout clerks, nannies, maids, etc. Mean girls imitate what they see and hear from their mean moms, not pious platitudes or empty commands thrown at them.
Mean moms who encourage mean girl behavior. They enjoy watching their daughters be popular, superior and controlling. They may think it’s cute and a sign of leadership potential, but whatever they think, they train their daughters to be mean.
Mean moms who protect and defend their mean daughters when they get feedback about mean behavior. Of course, one-in-a-million children will be sneaky enough to be mean only when their parents aren’t looking. Sneaky, mean girls can bully targets by acting as if the target did something to hurt their feelings and get their protective moms to get the target in trouble. Or mean girls will simply threaten a target by saying they’ll get their moms to get the target in trouble. Mean moms collude and often encourage this behavior. Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series is an example of a mean boy protected by his mean father.
Suppose you’re the parent of a child who’s bullied by a mean girl, what can you do? If you’re convinced that your daughter was not a provocateur who tried to get the other girl to react and get in trouble, should you talk to the mean girls, their moms, teachers and principals?
Know your daughter; will she assert and defend herself? Since she might not talk about the meanness, you have to watch carefully on the playground and look for signs after school. Mean girls are bullies who try to assert themselves over less assertive and less aggressive children. Don’t ask your daughter to suffer or “rise above” because a mean girl and mean mom don’t know any better or have difficulties in their lives.
You might encourage your pre-school or kindergarten daughter to stand up for herself, but you should give plenty of encouragement and specific direction. Even though your daughter is young, champion her inner strength, courage and perseverance. She might be a target but she doesn’t have to become a victim. Never believe mean girls’ opinions and don’t give in to their demands.
Intervene rapidly when your daughter seems unable to defend herself. Don’t let the behavior continue. Say something strongly and firmly to the mean girl. Girls who were merely experimenting with a mean behavioral tactic will stop and not repeat it. That’s a test of the girl – nice girls stop when you set a behavioral standard but mean girls don’t. Mean girls think they’re smarter than you and that they have their own mothers’ protection.
If the mean girl doesn’t stop, test the mean girl’s mom one time. Calmly detail the behavior and listen carefully for the response. Is the mom appalled at her daughter’s behavior or does the mom blow it off or explain it away? Just as in sports and childhood, your daughter might have been provocateur and then looked innocent when another girl retaliated. So it’s natural for the other girl’s mother to try to discover the whole context and behavior before the incident. But does the other mom immediately get defensive and angry, and twist the facts in order to blame your daughter? Does she insist that her daughter is never wrong? Is the mean girl’s mom too busy with her own life to educate her daughter or has she turned her child over to a nanny who won’t correct the child?
If these attempts change the girl’s behavior, you weren’t dealing with a hard-core mean girl and a mean mom. But mean girls and mean moms aren’t stopped by the easy tactics. Now you have to cut off after school activities including parties, despite the ramifications. Also, get the pre-school teachers and principals involved. Some will be helpful; they’ll keep it confidential, they’ll monitor to get their own evidence and then they’ll intervene. They’ll get the mean girl out of your daughter’s class, they’ll break-up the clique, they’ll stop the behavior at school and they’ll have proactive programs to talk about mean girl behavior. Depending on the age of the girls, they’ll teach witnesses what to do. Unfortunately, unhelpful, uncaring, lazy, cowardly teachers and principals will look the other way or condone or even encourage mean girl behavior. They’ll put you off with excuses. Don’t let this happen. Remember, principals fear publicity and law suits.
Teach your children what’s right and also how to defend themselves. Don’t convert your daughter into a victim. Don’t sacrifice your child on the altar of your ignorance, fear or sympathetic heart. Protect and defend your child even though there may be a high cost socially.
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.
“Fighting for Girls: New Perspectives on Gender and Violence,” edited by Meda Chesney-Lind and Nikki Jones, cites recent studies to show that violence by girls has decreased. In a New York Times article, “The Myth of Mean Girls,” Mike Males and Meda Chesney-Lind also state that our common perception that there are mean girls and that girls can be violent, “is a hoax.”
Well, that just gives new research studies a bad name, or at least those conclusions. As Mark Twain said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
In the real world, not the world inhabited by academics and researchers, mean girls thrive and their violence toward other girls is no only verbal and physical, it’s now also done in cyberspace. If you track only physical violence on police blotters, you miss the other damage done by stealth bullying mean girls.
Every woman who’s interviewed me on radio and television describes the mean girls they encountered when they were young … and also some they see in their adult personal lives as well as at work. A lot of my coaching is to teach women how to defend themselves against mean girls who now masquerade as adult friends or who are still mean in parent groups at schools, boards of housing associations, book clubs, neighborhood associations, church groups and as mothers protecting their mean daughters.
Get active as a citizen. Organize a core group of active parents to pressure legislators to pass laws requiring schools to have policies and programs to stop bullying. Media pressure will help.
Get active in your school and school district. Form a core group of active parents to make sure your district administrators and school principal actively enforce policies and a school-wide program to stop bullies. Involve all teachers, staff and students in recognizing and stopping the first signs of bullying. Immediate and firm action is necessary. If principals and teachers turn a blind eye, saying “that’s just the way some girls are,” they’re colluding by creating a safe space for mean girls and boundary pushers. The end of school and summer are great times to get these programs started so you’re ready at the start of school in September.
Prepare your daughters. Well-meaning parents are the number one risk factor for creating helpless girls whose confidence and self-esteem will be destroyed by mean girls. Don’t tell your daughters to feel sorry for their abusers and to “rise above” whatever these vicious predators say or do. Don’t expect pious sentiments to prevent stress, anxiety, negative self-talk or depression. Don’t let your daughters be whipping girls or scapegoats. Teach your daughters how to stop the mean girls. If you don’t know how, you need coaching.
Prepare your sons. Tell them about the real-world. Remind them that 10 years from now they probably won’t see any of the kids from high school. Teach them not to take the mean, nasty, vicious comments personally or as a prediction of the future. Their job is to grow up and find a woman who values and appreciates them. Mean girls don’t represent everyone.
Don’t believe studies that supposedly prove that mean girls are an insignificant factor. Don’t believe that if your daughter ignores their meanness or treats them with caring and friendship, they’ll stop being abusive. Real bullies, mean girls and mean women, take offerings of sweetness and friendship as weakness and an invitation to prey on you more.
As Azar Nafisi, author of “Reading Lolita in Tehran” and “Things I’ve Been Silent About” said, “My parents did not bring me happiness. They armed me for the battle of life.”
Self-bullying perfectionism can suck the joy out of success and ruin our lives. It’s one of the worst forms of negative self-talk.
We know that harassing, abusive, inner voice that focuses only on what we didn’t do perfectly according to some old standard that was shoved down our throats when we were children. It has the most horrible, bullying tone when it picks on our emotions, spirit and flesh. It’s all-or-none when it reminds us of the 1% we didn’t do perfectly according to our parents’ standards for us. It’s full of should ‘a, could ‘a, would ‘a.
It makes us 100% responsible for every problem; it points out how we never do enough, give enough, say enough. It’s demeaning, smug and sarcastic. It stacks up every mistake we ever made or failure we ever had. Of course it knows every hot button and self-hatred trigger we have. It can generate blame, shame and guilt in an instant.
The effects of perfectionistic self-flagellation are obvious – increased anxiety, stress and depression; a sense of failure even in the midst of success and happiness; a foreboding about the future that leads to desperation and panic; insecurity, self-doubt, lack of confidence and low self-esteem. Especially debilitating is the internal argument with the side that puts us down relentlessly and the side that tries to defend us – usually weaker and defensive, especially when we’re tired or getting sick or alone and lonely.
Perfectionism guarantees inner emptiness, pain and self-loathing. No matter how much we succeed, no matter how much we’re praised, it’s never enough to heal our inner wounds. That inner voice always reminds us that we’re imposters, failures who’ll be unmasked eventually. We’re like hamsters spinning our wheels; afraid that if we slow down, disaster awaits losers like us.
Nit-picking perfectionism turned outward can help us succeed by harassment, bullying and abuse of others. But turned inward, it’s an incapacitating method of judging our self-worth.
Whether people in our childhoods were simply mean, nasty and rotten; whether they thought they had to protect us from the character flaws they saw in us; whether that was the only way they knew how to express love and caring, or how to motivate us doesn’t matter much now that we’re adults.
Once we’ve overcome the internal war over perfectionism and how to motivate ourselves, we can decide what we think about them and how we want to interact with them now, if at all. We set the standards of acceptable behavior and how people talk with each other – about what and when. We’re in charge of our adult personal spaces.
Those relentless, childhood put-downs and bullying by our parents, siblings, classmates or other people led us to split into two warring sides. One side took on the perfectionistic, self-bully voice; we continue beating ourselves down long after we’ve left those people or even after they’re dead. The other side argued and defended us against the attacks. It champions our success and tries to affirm our strength and a wonderful future that’s possible. It often asserted itself by making us mutiny against what those tormentors told us to do; whether that’s really good for us or not.
When we accomplish this, our paths open up. Our internal self-talk stops being negative and becomes encouraging and strengthening. We develop realistic goals and expectations. We motivate ourselves by desire for the future we want instead of by avoiding the pain of old wounds lacerated. We decide what’s good enough. We and can enjoy our success and happiness.