We love our kids. We don’t want to see them suffer while they’re growing up and learning the life lessons we know they will need. So we protect them from the consequences of their actions, their poor decisions, their innate laziness or their desire to feel superior.
Also, we’re thrilled when they shine because they’re smart or athletic or budding comedians.
And that’s how we help spoil them and turn them into weaklings lacking character and grit.
Ramona’s son had always been the brightest kid around. She was so proud that he’d never struggled through high school or college to get good grades. She’d noticed that he avoided subject areas that were difficult; he got upset when he had to struggle with anything. So she tried to be helpful by encouraging him to follow interests that were easy for him.
When she didn’t immediately cater to his every whim, he verbally abused her; he told her she was a rotten and incompetent mom.
Later, in law school, when he had to struggle a little, she noticed that he always blamed his difficulties on poor teachers, bad case presentation and other students who cheated. He thought he was a victim of circumstances. He never applied himself diligently. Instead, he raged against them all and sometimes told them off in public. His struggles were never his fault; his anger was always justified and righteous.
After he passed the bar exam, he couldn’t keep jobs at two prestigious law firms in a row. He’d loudly and publically told off the managing partners because they hadn’t supported him enough.
He started his own practice but had problems getting and keeping clients. He was too busy to keep good books so he never made a profit. But he bought everything he wanted. He wanted to abandon the whole affair and have his mother support him. She was tempted to bail him out; she agreed with him that it wasn’t his fault. And, she fantasized, if she kept helping him, he’d finally grow up, learn his lessons and be successful.
But a friend recommended a book that caused her to step back and examine the course she had followed with him for decades. She saw, although she tried to avoid the bitter truth, that she’d helped him grow up weak and selfish. He had developed no grit or character – no inner strength, resolve, determination, perseverance or resilience. If things didn’t come easily to him, he raged against other people or forces that must be to blame for his suffering and failure.
What had Ramona done that encouraged any of his tendencies toward weakness?
Whenever he refused to struggle, she accepted his excuses and justifications, and allowed him to think that his reactions were normal.
When he had to overcome adversity in order to succeed, she took over and got him past the problem. Then she allowed him to think that her help wasn’t important and he could have done it himself if he’d really wanted.
Ramona had participated by loving her son in the wrong way.
She’d helped him avoid struggle, sacrifice and self-discipline. She’d helped him think he was entitled to easy and rapid success. If it didn’t come that way, he thought it meant he was stupid and he was never going to admit that.
Let their children be tormented for as long as it takes to teach the bully new skills of dealing with his frustration at not getting what he wants and for him to master new skills of communication and negotiation?
The principal and teachers at Sheila’s school were proud of their efforts to stop bullies. They had a team, including a psychologist, to deal fairly with students accused of bullying.
They were certain that:
Students became bullies because they’d been bullied at home.
Bullies had low self-esteem and weren’t aware of other ways of making friends.
Bullying was in retaliation for bad treatment and that if provocation decreased, so would bullying.
If other students stopped hurting the feelings of bullies, bullying would eventually stop.
Since bullying was not the fault of one person, negotiation and mediation, would eventually stop bullying.
The best way to stop bullying was through forgiveness, sympathy, compassion, understanding, education and compromise.
These educators were not going to let those poor, damaged kids who’d turned to bullying be harassed, taunted or abused, verbally or emotionally, or through unjust accusations.
Sheila’s mother met with the teacher, principal and school psychologist. They assured her that there was no evidence for Sheila’s accusations. Then they asked many questions about Sheila’s home life and psychological state. Maybe Sheila was going through something difficult at home. Or maybe she was simply jealous and suffering from some teenage turmoil because she didn’t fit in.
They suggested that Sheila try to make friends with the popular girls – be nice to them, ask them what upset them and try to change that, give them friendship offerings, open her heart to them or turn the other cheek if she was misunderstanding what they said to her. Maybe Sheila was simply too sensitive to the way high school girls naturally were.
They told accused clique of girls that Sheila had complained about them and encouraged them to be nice to her, despite her complaint.
Having been forewarned and directed at Sheila, but having no consequences to make them stop bullying, the accused girls escalated their attacks and got sneakier. Sheila was subjected to daily barrages of hostility, venom and meanness. When nothing happened to the clique, they got bolder and eventually beat Sheila up in the bathroom.
Unfortunately for them, a teacher happened to be in one of the stalls and heard the whole scene.
The school officials now initiated their program to stop bullies.
They encouraged Sheila’s parents not to talk with the parents of the clique girls.
They encouraged Sheila’s parents not to go to the media or to a lawyer.
They assured Sheila’s parents that the quieter the issue was kept, the more likely there would be a rapid resolution to the situation.
The principal and therapist had Sheila meet with the girls to mediate the situation by themselves. They told the girls that they thought the students could solve the hostility on their own and that Sheila was willing to compromise with them.
At that meeting, the girls pinched Sheila, punched her, pulled her hair and threatened her with worse after school. Then they told the principal and therapist that they’d apologized and promised not to do anything if Sheila would treat them nicer, but that Sheila had called them names, insulted them and refused to compromise.
It’s natural to respond to employees going through personal crises or enjoying tumultuous events, such as marriages and births.
But have you volunteered to serve as therapist to some of your most troubled employees? If so, have you asked the rest of your staff if they like your new role?
For example, Joe spent much of each day talking with people on his large team about their personal problems. He thought his tender ministrations could turn anyone into a stellar performer.
Joe was proud that he was a caring, people-person; a friend. He wasn’t an insensitive, bullying, abusive, slave driver. He wanted his team to be a family. He expected success as a result of his people-centered approach.
Most of the solid performers still on Joe’s staff were looking to leave. They felt harassed, stressed, abused and abandoned while he was doing therapy on those four underperforming employees. Joe’s peers thought he should be reprimanded because his department was a bottle-neck.
You probably wouldn’t have many second thoughts about dismissing an employee who’s extremely unproductive or behaves outrageously.
But what about an employee whose performance is mediocre, but not horrible? Or whose behavior is bad, but not outrageous? That can be a tougher call. But ignoring these problems can have a huge negative impact on productivity, morale and your career as a leader.
How do you know whether to let the situation continue or when it’s time to give him a last chance to straighten out before you remove him?
As his department head, you can see Carl’s problems and the unhappiness of your other managers. But you can also see the benefits Carl brings. He’s technically skilled and admired by people who don’t work with him. He’d be difficult to replace.
When Carl is gone, your credibility will increase and you’ll get lots of positive feedback. Other managers will heave a great sigh of relief. There’ll be a decrease in insubordination, tension and complaining. Sick-leave and turnover will also decrease. People will thank you and tell you more stories about how bad it really was.
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.
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?
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.
Many types of family bullying are obvious, whether it’s physical or verbal harassment, nastiness or abuse, and targets or witnesses usually jump in to stop it. The typical perpetrators are mothers and fathers bullying each other or the kids, sibling bullies, bullying step-parents or kids sneakily bullying a step-parent in order to drive a wedge between a biological parent and their new partner.
But many people allow extended family members to abuse their children or their spouses, especially at the holidays, because they’re afraid that protest will split the family into warring factions that will never be healed. They’re afraid they’ll be blamed for destroying family unity or they accept a social code that proclaims some image of “family” as the most important value.
Except in a few, rare situations, that’s a big mistake.
A rare exception might be an aged, senile and demented, or a dying family member whose behavior is tolerated temporarily while the children are protected from the abuse.
But a more typical example of what shouldn’t be tolerated was a grandpa who had a vicious tongue, especially when he drank. He angrily told the grandchildren they were weak, selfish and dumb. He ripped them down for every fault – too smart, too stupid; too fat, too skinny; too short, too tall; too pretty, too ugly; too demanding, too shy. He also focused on fatal character flaws; born lazy, born failure, born evil, born unwanted.
For good measure, he verbally assaulted his own children and their spouses – except for the favorite ones. He even did this around the Thanksgiving and Christmas tables when the parents and their spouses were present. He was always righteous and right.
I assume you’ve asked him to stop or given him dirty looks, but that only seemed to encourage him to attack you and your children more. Or he apologized, but didn’t stop for even minute. When you arrived late and tried to leave early, he attacked your family even more. He blamed you for disrupting the family. The rest of the adults also said that it’s your fault you aren’t kind and family oriented enough to put up with him.
What else can you do?
I think you have to step back and look at the big picture – a view of culture, society and what’s important in life. Only then can you decide what fights are important enough to fight and only then will you have the strength, courage and perseverance to act effectively.
Compare two views: one in which blood family is all important.
We are supposed to do anything for family and put up with anything from family because we need family in order to survive or because family is the greatest good. This view says that if you put anything above family, especially your individual conscience or needs, you’ll destroy the foundations of civilized life and expose yourself in times of need. In this view, we are supposed to sacrifice ourselves and our children to our biological family – by blood or by marriage.
We can see the benefits of this view. When you’re old and sick, who else will take care of you but kith and kin? In this view, the moral basis of civilization is the bond of blood and marriage. Violate that relationship, bring disunity into the family by standing up for your individual views and you jeopardize everything important and traditional.
In my experience, this view is usually linked to the view that men and inherited traditions should rule. Boys are supposed to torment girls because that teaches them how to become men. Girls are supposed to submit because that’s their appointed role – sanctioned by religion and culture. If men are vicious to women and children, if old people are vicious to the young, that’s tolerated.
Contrast this view with an alternative in which behavior is more important than blood.
Your individual conscience and rules of acceptable behavior are more important than traditions that enable brutality and pain generation after generation. What’s most important in this view is that you strive to create an environment with people who fill your heart with joy – a family of your heart and spirit.
If you choose the first view, you’ll never be able to stop bullying and abuse. Your children will see who has the power and who bears the pain. They’ll model the family dynamics they saw during the holidays. You’ve abdicated the very individual conscience and power that you need to protect yourself and your children. You’ll wallow in ineffective whining and complaining, hoping that someone else will solve your problem.
The best you can hope for outside the family, when your children face bullies who have practiced being bullies or being bullied at home, is that school authorities will do what’s right and protect your children from bullies. But how can you expect more courage from them than you have? Or why shouldn’t they accept the culture which tolerates bullying and abuse, just like you have?
Are you the biological child in the family or merely a spouse?
Is your spouse willing to be as strong as you?
Who’s the perpetrator – a grandparent, another adult or spouse, a cousin, a more distant relative?
Do you see the perpetrator every year or once a decade?
Do other adults acknowledge the abuse also?
Expert coaching and good books and CDs like “Bullies Below the Radar: How to Wise Up, Stand Up and Stay Up” and “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” will help you make the necessary inner shifts and also develop a stepwise action plan that fits your family situation and newly developed comfort zone. For example, see the case studies of Kathy, Jake and Ralph.
Keep in mind that while you hope the perpetrator will change his or her behavior, your goal is really to have an island with people who make every occasion joyous. You must be prepared to go all the way to withdrawing from family events or to starting a fight that will split the family into two camps. But at least you’ll be in a camp in which you feel comfortable spending the holidays.
Be prepared to be pleasantly surprised. Sometimes when one person speaks up, many others join in and the combined weight of opinion forces an acceptable change. Sometimes if you say you’ll withdraw, you’ll be seen as the most difficult person in the room and the rest of the family will make the abuser change or ostracize him or her.
Let’s analyze a worst-case scenario for loving, caring parents.
You were pretty good parents but one of your children has turned out toxic – not a psychopath but someone who acts like she (or he) hates you.
It’s not your fault, but she blames you for not giving her everything she wanted or wants now, she’ll be sweet one moment and then abusive, vicious and hateful the next, she harasses and bullies you relentlessly when she wants something; she tries to involve the rest of the family in her schemes and feuds. Or her boyfriend or husband hates you and she goes along with it and it gets worse every year. And they’re narcissistic losers; they barely have enough money and you know that they’ll leech off you forever if you let them.
But that’s not the worst-case. The worst-case is when that toxic child has children. Your daughter has let you play with your grandchild, let you grow to love him and vice versa. Of course he loves you; you’re the sane rock in his life. He’s safe around you – no craziness, no yelling and screaming, no lies and broken promises, and no anxiety, brutality or manipulation of his affections like in his interactions with his mother and father. You treat him with loving kindness and he can trust what you say. When he’s with you he’s not stressed out; not blamed, guilty and abused for everything he does wrong.
The worst-case is when your daughter starts blackmailing you emotionally. She won’t let you see your grandchild unless you play her games and give her everything she wants. She raises the ante every day. You know she lies to your grandchild about you and why he doesn’t see you. It’s worse if she’s divorced because then you get jerked around and thrust in the middle by her ex-spouse and his family.
You love your grandson. He’s important to you, you’re important to him and you hope you can be a lifeline to help him make a better life than the chaos he’s growing up in. But no matter what you do, it’ll be wrong and your daughter will blame and abuse you. There will be days when you want to run away, leave no forwarding address, change your names and fingerprints, get new social security numbers and telephones. But you won’t because of the hope you can help your grandson.
What can you do to stop the bullying and extricate yourself from a horrible situation?
Usually there’s little you can do legally. It’s hard to exercise “grandparents rights” if your daughter or her spouse won’t let you. You can consult a lawyer and learn to document enough evidence to show delinquency and neglect so you can get custody, but that’s a faint hope.
You have to make one of the hardest decisions for anyone; how much will you sacrifice in order to get any time with your grandson? Realize that no matter what you decide, your heart will be broken thousands of times until he’s independent and maybe even for your whole life. Recognize also that nothing you do will change your daughter – this pain and violence to your spirit will go on as long as she has any control over your grandson. Understand that she will trample any boundaries you think you’ve set.
There is no magic bullet that will cure her. You won’t bring her to her senses, help her to act reasonably and consistently, make her to keep her promises, convert her to see that the child is better off with you or get her away from a controlling husband. Even if you act reasonably, she won’t. You’ll never understand why she does what she does; she’s selfish, nasty and changeable from moment to moment. You’ll be embroiled in her painful games and anger as long as she controls your grandson. Each episode will rip you apart.
Suppose you choose to get as much time with your grandson as you can; what are the best things you can do to help him? Most people choose this path. After all, how can we give up, turn our backs and live with our broken hearts?
In a loving couple, most grandparents differ over how much time and money they’re willing pay and how much pain they can stand for the privilege of seeing their grandchild. Love each other and keep working with that difference, knowing that both your hearts are broken anew every day. Don’t let this drive a wedge between you.
Plant seeds in your grandchild. He sees the truth but he’s told by his parents that his vision is wrong. He needs to learn to trust his vision. He needs you to tell him that what he sees about his home and parents is true. He’s not crazy – he didn’t do anything to deserve it; it’s not his fault; it’s just the way it is. That won’t confuse him; that’ll reinforce his confidence and self-esteem. He needs to know who’s jerking all of you around and the price you all have to pay as long as he’s in their clutches.
Collude with him to lie to his parents. Strong children – survivors – sense what they need to do in order to stay safe in a chaotic and hostile world. For example; he can’t say he’s having too much fun with you; that he loves you too much; that he’d rather be with you. He already knows what he has to hide.
Make a safe place for his heart and his favorite stuff. With you, he can dream big and not get his dreams crushed or used against him. Keep your promises consistently. Let him express his frustration and anger. Anger is better than apathy or depression. You can express your helplessness. At your home, don’t let him use the tactics he sees at your daughter’s home. Appeal to his better nature. Be very gentle with correction and discipline; he gets yelled at enough at home.
Prepare him emotionally and spiritually for the future. The more he can ignore his crazy parents, the better. Keep a spark alive in him that by biding his time, one day he’ll get free. He has to stop the bully in his head. When he’s 18 (to pick a number) he can leave and make his own way. Remind him of all the great and wonderful people who escaped from cages and prisons. He owes your toxic daughter, his mother, absolutely nothing.
Prepare him economically for the future. For him to live free he must plan to become monetarily independent. Depending on his brains and talents, he has to develop a marketable skill, even if his parents don’t like it and he has to do it in secret. Help him do that now and when he leaves home.
Many children are too weak to overcome their toxic parenting. But there are always some who are invulnerable to horrible circumstances, some who keep that spark alive and get free from the cage or prison they’ve been trapped in.
Your heart insists that you try to help your grandchildren. For clear examples, read in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks,” the studies of how Kathy, Doug, Jake and Carrie got away from manipulative or toxic parents. Also, see the example of teenage Stacy bullying her mother.
In almost all cases where the child flies free, they never look back and neither do their grandparents. If they or you look back, you’ll be turned into pillars of salt.
Bullying is often, but not always, by older kids against younger kids and by bigger kids against smaller kids. Bullying can be physical, relational and verbal, and it’s always emotional. Mean girls are adept at gossip, put-downs and exclusion. Boys use relational and verbal abuse just as much as girls do. Boy bullies are masters of put-downs, excluding and leading malevolent gangs.
Check out summer camps and organized activities where the same kids go for an extended period of time. Usually the staff at summer camps and recreation centers is too busy and too swamped to stop school bullies on vacation. Often, staff tolerates or condones bullying. You’ll hear them say, “That’s just kid stuff. It’s a rite of passage. Kids need to learn to deal with bullying by themselves.” Oh, some staff might lecture or yell if they observe bullying and they care, but their attention will be drawn away by other concerns and the target will be left unprotected. There won’t be enough consistent oversight and you won’t know what’s going on.
Find out ahead of time if staff is trained to detect and stop bullies. Do they have a policy and training program? What specific behaviors are staff trained to observe? Have they ever sent a bully home? Do they train the kids how to witness and standup for each other. What’s the refund policy if you pull your children out because they’re being bullied? Express your concerns in writing so there’s a record.
Prepare your children to tell you what’s going on. Being a target of bullying is not their fault. Not defending themselves or not getting help will create long-lasting problems for them. Telling is not tattling. Convince them that the bullying will get worse if they don’t tell you.
If they’re sleeping over, have them send letters home, not postcards. Is there an increase in anxiety, stress and nightmares? Are they suddenly uncommunicative?
If your children are in a day activity, stay and observe it.
If there’s an incident or you’re suspicious, talk to the counselor, teacher and head of the organization in person or by phone. Follow up in writing. Don’t be put off by promises and platitudes. What concrete actions have they taken? A chat or lecture is not an action that will stop a real-world bully. Don’t accept, “Ignore it and it’ll stop.” Do bullies still have unsupervised access to your children after a lecture? The Golden Rule doesn't stop real-world bullies.
If you hear the administrators say that they’re trying to build the bullies’ self-esteem or increase their empathy, or if they think that the bully will benefit from therapy or counseling while they’re still at the activity or camp, or if they appeal to your understanding and sympathy for how difficult the bully’s life is get your children out of that place immediately. They’re more concerned with the bully than the victim. They’ll sacrifice your children in order to help the bully.
Check out supervised areas like pools and water parks where your children go but where there can be different kids each day. You have much less control here. Usually staff is focused on physical safety. You may have to go a number of times despite your children’s protests. You’ll probably have to analyze the situation and train them how to escape bullies and get help. Help them identify lifeguards who will protect them. Teach them how to elicit those lifeguards’ help.
Check out unsupervised areas like parks and malls where your children hang out. Are you afraid of the other kids who hang out there? Do your children know how to get a police officer and what to say to get that officer on their side? Are you available in emergencies?
Make sure your children go with a larger group of friends. Let them go only if you trust the group to stay together and protect each other. Of course, your children think that the most important thing in their lives is being accepted by their friends or the crowd they want to be liked by. But that’s not your primary concern. First and foremost, you’re not your children’s friend; you’re their protector and your better judgment counts.
Let them earn the privilege of going places without you in a step-wise way. When they’ve proven to you that they know how to stop bullies or to escape in a fairly safe situation, then and only then, give them a little more freedom that’s age-appropriate. Encourage them to make those steps, but don’t give in to nagging. Whining and complaining aren’t evidence of good decision-making.
Verbal harassment, bullying and abuse; put-downs, lack of respect and cutting out can destroy confidence and self-esteem. Disparaging and demeaning remarks; ostracism, backed by righteous, sneering, superior judgments can be devastating to children. But they’re no less severe when done by adults to adults.
A Mother’s Day article in the Wall Street Journal by Amy Henry, “What Cards Never Say on Mother’s Day,” complained about the lack of respect that dedicated, full-time mothers often get from other women, “even after four decades of feminism.” The article had some suggestions for dedicated mothers who still struggle to get respect from working women.
While the article was accurate in pointing out the problem, I think it totally missed the solution.
Bullies have used the put-down tactic forever. Remember all that cutting out with nasty, sarcastic comments, especially through junior and senior high school? Girls master this technique and boys wield it effectively also. If you’re not in the “right” group you’re scorned and shunned relentlessly. Even current celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and Taylor Lautner talk about being the targets of this type of bullying in their school days.
Of course putting-down and cutting out rotten. But it’s not only kids who do it. As Amy Harris points out, working mothers often give no respect to women who stay home to be full-time mothers of their children.
Don’t waste time analyzing why people put-down others. That path won’t get you anywhere. Don’t waste time wanting laws to prevent people from putting down others. A legal solution also won’t get you anywhere except in the case of public statements about people in certain protected categories.
The real solution lies in you. When other people don’t respect you, look at the source and the possible consequences. Don’t take it personally, but also don’t let it go by without saying or doing something in return.
So, what can you do? First, you have to be strong in your own judgment of the path you’ve chosen. Being a full-time mother is a wonderful path. Work is necessary, but for most of us raising children is our most important and fulfilling task. I hope your children will grow up wise enough to appreciate your dedicated mothering when they’re adults. Not because you made a great “sacrifice” but because you made a wonderful, life-affirming choice and the children you love could reap the benefits.
Instead of taking other people’s judgments personally, go through the world testing other people to see if they rise enough in your estimation for you to keep them on your island. I hope you find wanting anyone who puts you down for choosing to be a full-time mother. Their choice to put-down mothers shows their lack of good sense. Don’t allow the judgment of people without good sense to be important to your confidence or self-esteem. Don’t let their judgment cause you self-doubt or negative self-talk. And don’t let them stay in your life. Instead, surround yourself with people who champion mothers.
I also said that you shouldn’t let their put-downs pass. Stopping bullies begins when you understand that real-world bullies don’t take your politeness or minimizing or ignoring them as a sign that you’re morally superior or inviting their friendship. Relentless bullies aren’t stopped by minimizing, ignoring, begging, bribing or appeasement. Dedicated bullies take the Golden Rule as a sign that you’re weak and also as an invitation to prey on you more. Doing nothing when you’re the target of relentless bullies is like holding up a sign saying that you’re a victim.
Almost every woman I’ve ever talked to who was taught by a well-meaning mother that she should feel sorry for the inner emptiness, low self-esteem and inner pain of the nasty girls who hurt them that she should ignore and rise above the catty remarks and hatred, now regrets their passivity. They feel keenly their lack of empowerment and bear the scars of their supposedly virtuous martyrdom. They wish that their mothers had trained them to fight back skillfully; verbally or physically.
There are many tactics you might try in response to put-downs; depending on you, them and the situation. Some mothers form their own cliques of supportive mothers. Others write responses on cue-cards and memorize them for delivery at the right moment. Some responses are sarcastic put-downs directed toward the women who don’t appreciate mothers or who aren’t satisfied and even joyous with the opportunity to raise children. Others merely comment on lives wasted at work. Others use pity: “I’m so sorry that you’re the kind of person who’s not fulfilled and doesn’t set a better example for your daughter (or son).”
I want to recognize an important truth that we often overlook. We know that we’re doing the right thing successfully when some people (“jerks) don’t like us and scorn our work and its value. People who put-down full-time mothers fall into that category. Don’t care what they think; don’t desire their respect. Instead, get them off your island and let them know it.
My last post focused on children, teenagers and adults facing moments of choice when they’re targets of or bystanders-witnesses to harassment, bullying and abuse. People who repeatedly turn away from that call to step up usually develop terrible long-term consequences including increased stress, insecurity, discouragement and depression; increased blame, shame, guilt and negative self-talk; and loss of self-confidence and self-esteem.
The valor of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger focuses us on a different but just as critical a set of choices our kids and teens face as they grow up.
In a Wall Street Journal article, Jeffrey Zaslow, co-author, with Captain Sullenberger, of his book, "Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters," Captain Sullenberger faced a number of difficult situations when he was growing up. He responded to these moments with powerful choices that led him to be prepared to act effectively in the moment when both engines of his Airbus A320 on US Airways flight 1549 went out and he ditched the plane safely in the Hudson River.
His youthful choices led him to develop the character and skill he needed when a moment of truth was thrust upon him and lives were at stake. Some of the choices he made long before he captained that flight:
Act when someone is helpless in the face of danger. For example, when he was 13 he watched the news about Kitty Genovese, a New York woman who was stabbed to death while her neighbors ignored her screams and didn’t even act to call the police. Sullenberger decided then “that if I was ever in a situation where someone such as Kitty Genovese needed my help, I would choose to act. No one in danger would be abandoned. As they’d say in the Navy: ‘Not on my watch.’”
Work hard to protect people’s lives; don’t be a bystander. Sully says that after his “father killed himself in 1995, ‘His death had an effect on how I view the world. I am willing to work hard to protect people’s lives, not to be a bystander, in part because I couldn’t save my father.’”
Be prepared. Study how things can go wrong and plan ahead to overcome potential problems. In order to see what went wrong and to figure out what to do better, he examined many plane wrecks in person and read many transcripts of cockpit vice recorders taken just before crashes. The lessons he chose to learn: “Be vigilant and alert.” He saw that Charles Lindbergh’s “success was due almost entirely to preparation, not luck.”
Develop the right mindset. He says, "In so many areas of life, you need to be a long-term optimist but a short-term realist… You have to know what you know and don't know, and what your airplane can and can't do in every situation."
Compartmentalize. Focus on the immediate task; don’t be distracted by extraneous thoughts. “Sully says his family did not come into his head. ‘That was for the best. It was vital that I be focused; that I allow myself no distractions. My consciousness existed solely to control the flight path.’”
Captain Sullenberger is justly praised for what he did as an adult on the day he saved 155 lives. And I see a hero in the 13 year-old boy who started and continued to make wonderful choices in response to the difficult situations he faced; preparing himself for the moment when the duty to respond was thrust on him 40 years later.