Negative, bullying, abusive self-talk can corrode your spirit, sap your strength, ruin your focus and destroy your courage. Looking at yourself with hostile eyes and talking to yourself with that old critical, perfectionistic, never-pleased voice can be demoralizing and debilitating. Constant repetition of all your imperfections, mistakes, faults, failures and character flaws can lead you down the path toward isolation, depression and suicide. Don’t believe it?
Think of some examples of relentless self-bullying:
The kids bullied at school who tell themselves that they’ll never be good enough, smart enough, pretty enough, successful enough or loved. They think it’s their fault they get harassed, teased, taunted and emotionally and physically bullied. They give in to bullies. If their nagging, hostile, abusive voices convince them that there’s no hope for a better future, they become the next Phoebe Prince, Tyler Clementi or other young suicides.
The people harassed at work who’re told they’re dumb, ugly, the wrong color, religion, nationality, gender or sexual orientation. They’re made the butt of jokes and threats; their work ideas are stolen; they’re belittled, ostracized, shamed and passed over for promotions. If their self-critical voices convince them to give up, their spirits will die. They won’t be able to summon the will, determination or perseverance to fight back. They’ll feel overwhelmed and unable to learn the skills they need to protect and defend themselves.
The kids who think the deck is stacked against them.Their parents have treated them badly or one or both have blamed or abandoned them. If they convince themselves they’re stupid and not loveable, they’ll give up. They’ll accept bullying; their own and from other kids. They shuffle through life, putting themselves down, defeating their efforts before they’ve really begun. They lose their fighting spirits; the spirit that will struggle against the conditions and vicissitudes of life in order to make great lives for themselves.
Kids who’ve turned off their engines look and act dull and listless; as if they’ve given up already. You can almost hear their constant inner, self-dialogue. They’re so distracted by the destructive IMAX Theater in their minds that they can’t pay attention to what’s happening around them. Their attention is captured by all the putdowns and listing of all their failures, the magnifying of the problems they face, the making of insurmountable mountains out of molehills, the diminishing of each skill or success, the magnifying of each imperfection. They’re not resilient; the smallest adversity defeats them. Happiness is fleeting; bitterness and depression is their lot. Anything good they get is never enough, never satisfying, never brings joy.
Alternatively, they use their engines, often ferociously, to blame their parents and try to beat them into submission, to extract material possessions and guilt, to vent their hatred of themselves and the world onto their parents or onto the one parent who stays and tries to help them. They bite every hand that’s offered to them. They fight against teachers and against learning a skill that might make them financially and physically independent. They explode with sarcasm and rage in response to the slightest nudging. What a waste.
All the help offered them seems to bounce off. They won’t accept what’s offered because that hyper-critical, judgmental voice knows better.
They have no inner strength, courage, determination, perseverance and resilience. They feel helpless and that their situation is hopeless. They may go down the path to being victims for life. Their self-confidence and self-esteem may be destroyed. Anxiety, stress, guilt, negativity and self-mutilation may be stimulated. They move easily toward isolation, depression and suicide. Nothing will help them until they turn their engines on again.
Compare them to the kids with great engines; always active and alert, always wanting to learn, willing to face and overcome challenges, seeking risk and reward, capable of overcoming adversity. They have tremendous drive to live and to succeed.
These spirited kids with great engines can tax your patience almost beyond its limits, but the reward is so apparent. They’ll make something wonderful of their lives. They won’t give up. They won’t be defeated by defeats.
Our job as parents with these spirited kids is clear: help them develop great steering wheels so they can direct themselves to fulfill the promise of their great engines in worthy endeavors. Whatever direction they travel, they’ll go with passion, intensity and joy. They’ll overcome setbacks by continuing on with renewed effort. As Coach John Wooden said, “Hustle can make up for a lot of mistakes.”
We know that attempts to improve their steering wheel won’t help. No lectures about being better, kinder, gentler people will help. The beginning of a new life for them is the miracle of starting their engines. Then they grab opportunities for themselves. Then we can help them with their steering wheels.
One of the favorite tactics of sneaky, stealth bullies is to set traps for you. When you fall into their snare, they’re gleefully smug, “Gotcha! See, I told you!” Their hidden agenda is to prove you’re wrong, dumb and bad and they’re right, smart and good. They’re not interested in truth or equal relationships; they’re interested in putting you down and dragging themselves up.
For example Micky and Donald comment in the blog post, “Repeated Bullying Tolerated by School Officials,” (http://www.bulliesbegoneblog.com/2008/03/24/repeated-bullying-tolerated-by-school-officials/) “Just out of curiosity are you a single parent?” I don’t know them and their hidden agendas, but I’ll use their comments because their typical of that type of stealth bully. They never ask, “Just out of curiosity.” They’re always setting traps and they always have hidden agendas.
They’re waiting to pounce with, “I told you so! You’re over-reacting because you’re a single parent. Normal people wouldn’t make such a big deal out of their daughter being tormented, bullied and abused.” They think the bullying behavior was mild or negligible or normal and that we should ignore it, which to me means that they’re just like the school officials who ignore the torment, harassment, bullying and abuse.
But they won’t be straightforward and declare their opinion. They won’t get into a discussion in which they might be proven wrong and have to change their ideas. For example, they won’t say that they believe you’re over-reacting because you’re a too-sensitive, single parent or because your mommy and daddy were bad to you or because you’re afraid of the dark. That’s too open for them and doesn’t have the payoff they want.
Instead, because they’re sneaky, manipulative, controlling bullies, they’ll simply, almost innocently ask a leading question, “Are you a single parent?” or “Were your mommy and daddy were bad to you?” or “Are you afraid of the dark?”
They’re hoping you’ll say “Yes.” Then they can sneer and pounce – “See. I’m right. You’re merely over-reacting because mommy and daddy were bad to you” or “You’re only over reacting because you’re a foolish single parent.”
They feel safe and smug. Since they didn’t declare their opinions openly, if you say No” to those questions, they won’t have to admit that their theories or opinions were wrong. They won’t have to change their beliefs. Their harassment, bullying and abuse won’t stop. They’ll simply move on and try to lead you into another trap.
Pin them down to expressing an opinion before you answer the question. You might ask directly, “What’s your point about whether I’m a single parent? Tell me directly what you think.” Or, “What’s your point about whether or not mommy and daddy were bad to me years ago? Tell me directly what you think.”
Be persevering. Wait for an answer. Then follow-up with a statement about their belief and whether your evidence will change their opinions. “So you think I’m overreacting because I’m a single parent? So if I’m married, will you change your opinion and will you accept that I’m not overreacting?” Or, “So you think that people get upset about bullying because their mommies and daddies were bad to them? So if my mommy and daddy were good to me, will you change your opinion and will you accept that I’m not overreacting?”
Laugh at the hidden connection. “That’s really silly to think that only single-parents get upset when heir children are bullied. You sound like a person who thinks bullying is fine.”
Simply ignore the question. You don’t have to answer every question that someone asks you.
Reverse the question onto them. “Oh, so you think we should ignore the pain inflicted on that defenseless target. Were you a bully when you were younger? Were you bullied when you were younger? Were you afraid to fight back?”
Laugh at the entrapment. “Oh, you really got me with that question. You look smug, superior and righteous. As if that means you’re smart and right. How childish and silly to play that game at your age.”
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.
In his post on the Wall Street Journal Blog, “Should Parents Crack Down on Teasing?”, John J. Edwards III asks if parents are cracking down too much on teasing. Comments ranged from the need for children to learn to fight back to the need for children to learn empathy and tolerance. Also, there was no clarity about what criteria to use to judge whether teasing was beneficial or bad or wrong.
When two people agree to tease and they stay within the limits and boundaries, teasing can be a lot of fun. And even allow things to be said in a friendly way that might be hard to say or hear in other ways.
But when only the “teaser” wants to tease, and the “teasee” doesn’t want it, then it’s bullying. Whether the teasing is racist, sexist, focused on disabilities, or because someone is small or smart or different, or the teasers simply enjoy having a scapegoat, or it’s done through cyberbullying – it’s still bullying!
The effects on the “teasee” can be very damaging if the “teasee” doesn’t rise up and stop it. When the “teasee” stops it, he or she grows much stronger in character, courage and skill.
Within our family, we helped the kids see the limits beyond which teasing became hurtful. When teasing was outside our family, we helped the kids see a continuum from fun teasing, through teasing you might ignore or tolerate, to learning to stop bullying and bullies. Sometimes you have to move up the scale to fighting back. If you do, make sure you’re effective. I wrote about my experiences in my book, “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids,” and there are other examples in the book and CDs, “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks.”
True bullies will interpret our empathy, kindness and tolerance as weakness. They’ll think we’re easy prey. Like sharks, it’ll encourage them to attack us more. The bully will show you how far you need to go to stop them. Get out of your comfort zone and stop them.