The Harry Potter series has given us many vivid and compelling images. One of my favorites is the “Dementors.”
Bullies can act like Dementors. They can torment us and suck the joy out of any wonderful moment or out of our plans for a wonderful future.
Some people also have personal, inner Dementors that suck the joy and commitment out of their lives.
In addition to the pain caused by their harassment, abuse and bullying, external Dementors are like energy vampires who can suck our will and determination. They can make us see the world as a hateful place. At home, at school, in friendships or at work, people afflicted by these bullies seem to trudge through life, waiting for the next attack even though they never know when it will come.
Usually overlooked are our personal Dementors that can whisper loudly in our ears or mind at any moment. But they’re most often active around 2 AM. Since they’re part of us, inner Dementors know our every hesitation, weakness, sin, anxiety, fear and self-judgment. They know exactly how to put us down for maximum effect. They know how to best undercut us when we feel good or to cut us down by self-bullying, negative, self-talk.
Even though we can hear those Dementors at 2 AM in our parent’s voices, we eventually discover that it’s we who are holding ourselves back and destroying our lives. It’s like that scene from “Star Wars,” in which Luke Skywalker is being trained by Yoda and he must go into a cave to fight Darth Vader. He wins the fight and rips off Darth’s helmet only to discover his own face behind the mask.
What can we do at 2 AM?
Our personal Dementors tend to come when we’re at our weakest, in that state between sleep and waking. In that fog, we’re less able to gather ourselves and resist. So a good response, when we can’t fall right back to sleep is to wake up completely. Get out of bed, take a shower; wake up.
Our “Monkey Minds” need something to pay attention to all the time so give them something useful to do. When we’re fully awake we can resist more effectively. We can see the lies in all the put-downs. We’re not really that bad. We’re only that bad when viewed through eyes that don’t love us, that hate us, including the hostile eyes many people grew up with. We can talk back to those hostile voices, send them back to the people they really belong to and let our own versions rise up and pop like bubbles in soda.
When we can look at ourselves through eyes of love and understanding, we can connect once again with our strength, courage and determination to do better. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we can leap out of bed each morning and grab another chance to do better. No matter how many times we’ve failed, if we have another day, we can do better. We can use our caring for ourselves as a springboard to be at our best.
In his New York Times Op-Ed column, Charles M. Blow reported on the experience of his three children and the results of a study conducted by the Josephson Institute Center for Youth Ethics, which interviewed more than 43,000 high school students. He reports that the study showed:
“Boys who went to private religious schools were most likely to say that they had used racial slurs and insults in the past year as well as mistreated someone because he or she belonged to a different group.
Boys at religious private schools were the most likely to say that they had bullied, teased or taunted someone in the past year.
While boys at public schools were the most likely to say that it was O.K. to hit or threaten a person who makes them very angry, boys at private religious schools were just as likely to say that they had actually done it.”
In addition, he says that, “While some public schools have issues with academic attainment, it appears that some private schools have issues with tolerance. No person is truly better when they lack this basic bit of civility.”
Most of the discussion and argument will focus on whether or not his general conclusions are correct about most private versus public schools. And many people will base their conclusions on their personal experience in each type of school.
But the important point is not about the generalizations. Don’t get distracted by academic speculation about the generalizations. The important point is about the schools your children are going to.
If your children are going to a school that tolerates or encourages other children to think that they’re special and, therefore, that they can tease, taunt, mistreat, bully or abuse people who are different, that’s the situation you need to focus on.
Children need to feel that they’re special and that high standards of behavior are expected of them. The problem is caused by the idea that, therefore, they can scorn or torment other people who aren’t in their group or who are different.
Bullies will target any difference they can find. It’s not the difference that causes bullying; it’s the bullies who find the difference. Of course bullies will focus on race, religion, color, gender, sexual preference, etc. But we all also know examples of mean girls and mean boys who bully people they decide are too tall or short, too skinny or fat, or who have different hair color or hair style, or different clothes, or who aren’t as fashionable or faddish.
I’ve consulted with principals, teachers and staff of both public and private schools, who won’t ignore, tolerate or support bullying. And we have developed effective programs to stop bullying. In addition, I’ve seen both public and private schools in which principals, teachers and staff look the other way or condone or even applaud harassment, bullying and abuse. Some even think that building school spirit this way is worth sacrificing a few weaklings or sinners.
More than generalization to be discussed and disputed intellectually at a party, we’re hit home emotionally by what happens to our children. If one school, whether public or private, doesn’t stop bullies and it’s your children’s school, that’s the one that counts in your life.
But there is one generalization that cuts across all lines; we can stop bullies before we’ve analyzed in detail the reasons why a particular kid or group of kids selects its target(s) and long before we can teach them to have increased empathy and tolerance. The first step is always having clear, firm and immediate consequences for the perpetrators.
In his article in the New York Times, Erik Eckholm, points out that, “Alarmed by evidence that gay and lesbian students are common victims of schoolyard bullies, many school districts are bolstering their antiharassment rules with early lessons in tolerance.”
The article continues, “Rick DeMato, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church, [who] opposes the curriculum changes in the school district in Helena, Mont. [has led] angry parents and religious critics…[to] charge that liberals and gay rights groups are using the antibullying banner to pursue a hidden ‘homosexual agenda,’ implicitly endorsing, for example, same sex marriage.”
Stealth bullies win when they can change the subject to fit their agendas; when they can distract you from your subject and make the focus of discussion be something they want to discuss and over which they think they can win.
For example, suppose you complain about your date or spouse’s public or private sarcasm, put-downs and nasty, mocking humor. If he’s a stealthy, manipulative bully, he might change the subject by saying that you’re hypersensitive and you over-react, or that you hurt his feelings by complaining. If he can get you to focus on whether you’re hypersensitive or have no sense of humor or on making him feel better, then he wins and you lose. You’ll never get him to stop making those remarks.
Or suppose you’re angry that he hit you. If he’s a stealthy predator, he might complain that you didn’t communicate that in a supportive way or that you over-reacted or that you started it and you provoked him or that he felt put-down by your anger, which reminded him of his childhood. And that’s the only thing he wants to talk about. If he can get you to focus on your poor communication or his hurt feelings and past trauma, he wins and you lose. He’ll never have to talk about your pain when he hit you and, since he has a good excuse for hitting you (his past trauma), he doesn’t have to change.
Therefore, you must take charge of the agenda. Make him focus first on his sarcastic put-downs or on his hitting you. And you have to be satisfied by the result before you’ll discuss his agenda. If he doesn’t satisfy you, don’t go on to his agenda. Go as far away as you can.
What does this have to do with the anti-bullying policies and programs we started with?
The initial agenda in those schools is stopping harassment, bullying and abuse of kids or adults. The reason given by the bullies to justify their verbal, emotional and physical attacks was that their targets were gay or lesbian. I pay more attention to the actions than to the excuses and justifications. The agenda is stopping the bullying and violence. The agenda is stopping the negativity, pain, anxiety and depression bullying causes. The agenda is stopping the targets’ loss of self-confidence and self-esteem, and the increasing number of bullying-caused suicides.
Some people want to make the agenda be a torturous and emotionally-charged discussion of whether schools can be allowed to promote a pro-gay and pro-lesbian agenda. And whether parents or educators control what’s taught in schools.
If those stealthy bullies can get you into those discussions, you’ll never stop school bullying. They won’t have to stop their children from bullying and abusing other kids. They feel that bullying and violence should be condoned or at least tolerated because the bullies have good reasons to torment their targets. Since, they think, being gay or lesbian is a sin, if one of the targets becomes a victim and commits suicide, the world is a better place.
So keep the focus where it should be: anti-bullying programs that stop bullies. When I’m called in to help schools develop effective programs, I always challenge dissenters to come up with a better program to stop bullies before we talk about areas that would distract us from the main agenda.
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.
Praise, defend and give the best presents or position in the Will to their favorite child.
Put down the rest of the children or designate one as the scapegoat.
Ignore the faults of one child while continually criticizing the other children.
Cater to the whims of the favorite child and blame other children who resist.
Of course, I’m not talking about the situation where one child has an illness or disability that requires lifetime care, although even in this case, parents can use the rest of the children to serve the needs of the most needy. Some parents even decide to have a second child as an organ donor. I’m talking about the situations in which the children are basically okay, but one is selected as the favorite.
In some cultures the favored child is the son who will inherit everything while the daughters are raised to serve the ruling male. You can hear them say, “If only you did what your brother wants, we’d have peace and be a loving family.”
Other families label one sister as the “good child” who is held up as a paragon of virtue or success impossible for the other daughters to reach. You know who the “bad” or “failures” daughters are. You can hear the parents say, “Ah, if only you were as loving, kind and good as your sisters.”
Sometimes, one child is favored because mom and/or dad think that child is the sensitive one. His feelings count more than everyone else’s. Therefore, they say, we must organize our schedules and plans around the wishes of that child. “After all,” they say, “We wouldn’t want to disappoint your brother or hurt his feelings.”
The situation is even worse when the favorite children know they can get away with anything and use the power to bully and torment the other children. You recognize all those sarcastic remarks that have hidden meanings and can drive you crazy.
But no matter how hard you’ve tried, no matter what good deeds you’ve performed or sacrifices you’ve made, eventually you realize that nothing you do will ever be good enough. The favorite daughter’s wish that they could do more or slightest effort will be counted and praised more than yours.
These situations are tough because they’re based on hidden feelings and attitudes, and because they’ve been going on for decades. It feels natural by now; “It’s just the way we do it.”
Some typical steps people use to get free from the domination of the family by one sibling are:
Inner commitment to break the pattern even if that means going your own way. Stop your negative self-talk; it’ll create self-doubt and destroy your confidence and self-esteem. It’s not your fault. It’s about them and their decision to favor one child over the others. Your goal can’t be to change their behavior; that’s often impossible. Your goal is to stand your ground so you can create your own island of good cheer if you have to.
Give people a chance by telling them, in private, what you plan to do. Line up allies if there are any to be had. Plan specific actions so you can support each other effectively.
Plan tactics carefully. Pick your fights selectively; don’t fight about everything. You know what’s likely to happen. What will you say or do in response?
Stay calm. Ignore the little snide comments and put downs that used to drive you crazy. Don’t argue about the details or the old family history. Don’t debate who is more worthy or who has suffered the most. Simply state your needs, standards and decisions.
Expect the bullies to spin the story their way, lie and go behind your back to create alliances and pressure groups. Prepared to be blamed, labeled and shunned. Prepare to be cut out of the Will.
Be persistent. Have real consequences, like not attending or like leaving early. Words, arguments and logic don’t count; only actions count. Stand your ground.
Prepare to be surprised. Often, families will accommodate the most stubborn and difficult person, whether they’re right and fair or not. You may have to be more stubborn than anyone else.