Single mom Joan didn’t know what to do.  Her teenage daughter, Mindy, was often so nasty to her that Joan would shake with rage, and cry with pain and frustration. Sometimes, Mindy would call Joan names, tell her how much she hated her, tell her that she was ruining her life, tell her to get out of her room and leave her alone, and demand that she never ask about school.  Even when Joan cooked Mindy’s favorite meals, Mindy would grab and gulp, and never say “Please” or “Thank you.”  Over the phone, Mindy would vent and yell at her mother.

Joan admitted that Mindy had always been that way and she’d always let her get away with it.  Sometimes Mindy was sweet, but then, for no apparent reason, she’d blow up and verbally attack her mother.

Joan could never bring herself to do anything “nasty” to her daughter no matter how negative she was.

What could Joan do to stop her daughter’s bullying?

First, we established that there was nothing really wrong or crazy about Mindy.  She had good self-control with everyone else and was always polite.  Next, we established that Joan wasn’t doing anything bad to Mindy.  Joan was simply Mindy’s punching bag.

Joan had told Mindy how much her behavior hurt. Joan had tried to bribe Mindy and she pleaded with her daughter to stop, but she never took effective action.  She never punished her or imposed serious consequencesJoan might threaten, but then she’d always relentMindy might apologize, but then she’d soon repeat her behavior.  Joan thought she might be letting Mindy get away with being abusive because she felt guilty that Mindy didn’t have a father.

Joan’s reasons for letting Mindy bully her were typical. Joan:

When Mindy went to college, Joan thought her daughter’s behavior would finally change.  But she was wrong.  On the phone, Mindy berated Joan even more.  When Mindy came home for Thanksgiving, she treated her mother even worse.  When Joan suggested that Mindy seek help just in case Mindy was feeling more pressure and stress, and taking it out on her mother, Mindy exploded.

By the time we talked before Mindy’s Christmas break, Joan was desperate.  She felt beaten beyond endurance and she didn’t think she could take much more.  She realized that her own daughter was toxic to her.

By then, Joan was willing to try a new approach:

  • Open a previously unassailable belief system to new data. Joan removed her old definition of “nasty” and replaced it with one that labeled her as being nasty to herself and to the person she hoped Mindy would become, if she continued to let Mindy act nasty to her.
  • Describe the new tactics. Joan would demand the “magic words” again, just like we do when little kids ask for anything.  Mindy would have to say, “Please,” and “Thank you” or she wouldn’t get anything.  Demanding and bullying would no longer be rewarded.
  • Demand high standards of behavior from everyone, especially, from our beloved children. Joan would not let her daughter harass, bully or abuse her; that behavior was no longer acceptable. She wanted Mindy to learn that we must treat best, the people we’re closest to and depend on most.
  • Don’t debate, argue or try to reason extensively about what’s fair or right. She’d simply state how she saw it, what she’d do and then do it cheerfully.
  • Have effective consequences for nasty behavior. Joan would let Mindy show her what consequences were enough, by how much it took for Mindy to change.  The first time Mindy yelled at her over the phone, Joan calmly said, I won’t allow anyone to talk to me that way,” and she hung up.  Despite her fears, she didn’t call back.  Mindy called a few hours later and said, “Don’t you love me?”  Then she started yelling at Joan for not calling back.  Joan said, “I love you so much, I won’t let you talk to me like that.”  And she calmly hung up again.
  • Be sweet, firm and cheerful as we apply consequences.
  • Read “cue cards.” Stay firm and calm by pulling out cue cards we’ve prepared and simply read them as we apply consequences.
  • “If you want something from me, make it enjoyable for me.” When Mindy was nasty, demanding her mother take her to the mall, Joan said, “I won’t be bullied, but I might drive you if you make me like going with you.”  Mindy said, “I won’t suck up to you.”  Joan sweetly responded, “Then I won’t take you,” and she turned cheerfully and left the room.
  • Be open to bribery. When Mindy was nasty at Christmas, Joan read a cue card she’d made, “Be nice to me, you may want something from me, like a Christmas present.”  Mindy said, “That’s bribery!”  Joan sweetly replied, “Yes.  I’m glad you understand.  I work hard for my money and I spend it only on people who are nice to me.”
  • Have them act like a guest in our home. Before spring break, Joan told Mindy that she’d packed up all of Mindy’s things into boxes she put in the garage.  She was converting Mindy’s room into a guest bedroom.  Mindy was welcome to come back as long as she behaved like a nice guest in Joan’s home.  Mindy was furious and began to yell, but Joan hung up.  Mindy later called back and said she’d act like a guest.  Joan was delighted and cheerfully said, “I’m so happy.  I hoped you would.  That’s the kind of relationship I want to have with you.  But you should also have a back-up plan just in case you forget, because I’ll only allow good guests to stay.  Three weeks is a long time and you may forget what the standards are and need to have somewhere else to go.”

Pushing the boundaries.

  • Joan expected Mindy to resist because Mindy had always been able to beat her mother into submission.  She’d still think she could do the same.
  • Joan was prepared and steadfast; she expected Mindy to be nice for a while, then to push the boundaries again.  She was right.  But this time, when Mindy pushed back a little, Joan immediately and sweetly imposed a consequence.

By the next summer, Mindy was treating Joan well.  She was polite, civil and sweet.  Joan was glad to have Mindy stay as a guest that summer, as long as Mindy had a job.  Joan didn’t collect any money, but she knew that if Mindy got lonely and bored, she’d probably slide back to her old, nasty habits.

When should we start requiring good behavior? How about, as soon as we can?  Of course we respond kindly to angry babies.  Of course, the process of teaching them new ways of getting what they want is initially very slow and speeds up the older they get.  So it’s really our good sense and close observation of each individual child’s growth and development that must guide us.

But the goal is always clear.  “We ask for what we want.  But we’ll get what we’re willing to put up with.”

For some examples, see the case studies in “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.

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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