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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An article by Hillary Stout in the New York Times, “For Some Parents, Shouting is the New Spanking,” focuses on the damage to children done by parents’ shouting and, therefore, the need for parents to control their tempers. Although I agree that a steady diet of shouting and bullying isn’t a good way for well-meaning, devoted parents to act, the experts in the article miss the real source of the problem and, therefore, the real solution.

Those experts point out that the proper way to be a good parent is “never spank their children,” “friend our teenagers,” “spend hours teaching our elementary-school offspring how to understand their feelings,” “reminding, nagging, timeout, counting 1-2-3” and “have a good interaction based on reason.”

I disagree with their basic assumptions about good parenting and their solution that parents should control their tempers.

Of course, repeated sarcasm, criticism, beatings and abuse are bad parenting.  I’m talking here to frustrated, well-meaning, devoted parents; not abusive bullies.

Good parenting sometimes involves spanking, has nothing to do with “friending,” is not focused on teaching children to merely understand their feelings and is not usually about good interactions based on reason.  Reason is only a small part of being an effective parent, especially when the children are young.

Children are exquisitely adept at knowing your true limitations and which buttons to push.  It’s a survival skill for them.  They know exactly how many times you’ll yell before you act.  They distinguish between yelling and threatening that won’t be followed up, and the “Mom” or “Dad” look and voice that means you will act.  And they perform a precise calculus based on how much they’ll get the next time versus a punishment and your guilt this time.  They know when they can get unreasonable and stubborn, and win.  They also know that if you blow up and yell now, they’ll win later.

Winning those battles won’t increase their self-esteem.  Pushing their parents around will make them insecure.

What leads to repeated shouting is frustration.  Those parents have so limited their allowed responses that they’re no longer effective – the kids know that they don’t have to do what the parents want and nothing serious will happen.  Those parents have taught their children to be stubborn and unreasonable in order to win.  See the case study of Paula as she stops being bullied by her daughter Stacy in "How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks."

Those parents’ lack of creativity and effectiveness increases their frustration until they blow up and shout.  Then those parents feel guilty, apologize, give the kids more power and set in motion the next cycle of not getting listened to leading to more frustration and further shouting.

The solution is for parents to take charge and be parents – speak and act straight.  Decide – as age, stage and specific kid appropriate – what decisions you make and when the child simply must obey, and what decisions the kid gets to make and within what limits.  In your areas, it’s nice if the child understands your needs and reasons, but you’ll never convince a two or sixteen year-old by reasoning that your way is best and they should be happy not getting what they want.

Sometimes you must be firm about your sense of urgency, which is not matched by theirs.  Sometimes, your needs and wishes must be taken into account.  You’re not their slave or servant all the time.  They don’t get what they want every time.  More important than helping them understand their feelings is teaching them how to deal effectively when they’re feeling demanding or angry or frustrated or needy.

And some kids seem to want to be punished sometimes.  Really, they do.  And they feel much better afterward.  When you’ve gone through the sequence of reminding and timeout without effect, a spank is sometimes the best thing to do.

Your frustration and shouting is a message to you that you’re not being effective.  You need to do more than merely learn the latest technique; you need to change the limits you place on yourself.  That will open up other ways to making them do what you need when you’re under pressure.

Good parenting means that you can say, “Here’s the way it is.  I need to move fast and I insist that you do the same.”  Or “You don’t vote on this decision and we’ll talk about it later.”  Of course, you will talk about it later.  Or “I’m not taking you there today.  I need to unwind right now over a latte.  I love you.  Now go read and leave me alone for a while.”  Of course, most of the time we devoted parents will take them to places they want to go.

Don’t reason more than once with a five year-old who doesn’t want to brush her teeth, “You’re making a bad decision,” as those experts suggest.  Simply say, “In our family, we brush our teeth, so you will.”

It’s not, as those experts say, that “Yelling parents reflect a complete inability to express themselves in any meaningful, thoughtful, useful or constructive way.”  It’s that yelling parents aren’t allowing themselves to express the right thought, which is that “I, the parent, am drawing the line here and you will do what I want.  I have good reasons.  I hope you understand now and I know you’ll understand later.  But even if you don’t understand, you will do what I want now.”

In addition to what I learned professionally, we have six, now-grown children who taught me that well-meaning parents yell when they’re irritable, anxious, pressured, overwhelmed and frustrated because they don’t know how else to make things work for them