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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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.

Imagine that you see the fear, stress, anxiety and pain on your children’s faces and on your spouse’s face; you feel the pain and anger in your own heart.  You hate being there; you hate exposing your family to the negativity and abuse.  The rest of the adults try to shrug it off saying, “It’s only dad.  He really does love us.  His life has been hard.”  Or they insist, “Don’t upset the family, don’t force us to choose sides, family comes first.”

What can you do?

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?

Once you’ve decided that you will stop accepting intolerable behavior, your action plan will have to be adjusted to the circumstances, for example:

  • 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 her article in USA Today in December, 2008, “Teach children ways to cope with bullies,” Barbara Cavallo writes, “Parents can help children learn effective techniques that include meditating, reading inspirational stories and performing simple physical exercises to cope with stressful situations such as bullying.” Those are good activities, but I disagree that they’re enough.  I suggest alternative tactics to cope with bullies and to relieve stress.

Yes, meditation, reading inspirational stories and performing simple physical exercises are useful and good for the soul.  But, if children’s energy is totally turned inward, you’ll be teaching them to be merely passive or to follow a faddish idea about saintly behavior.  You’ll help your children handle their stress better by teaching them to deal effectively with the bully, not by withdrawing to make themselves feel better or more virtuous.  The best antidote for stress is strong and firm action to change the situation.

Not getting or not showing hurt feelings is a great first step, but usually not enough.  As I point out in “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids,” bullies don’t take your acquiescence as kindness.  They take your giving in as weakness and an invitation to grab for more.

How about helping children and teenagers convert fear and pain into know-how, even if fueled by the energy of anger.

Schools have never been safe.  I remember a biography of Harpo Marx (remember the Marx Brothers?).  He went to school for one day.  The kids threw him out the window (first floor).  He came back in.  They threw him out again.  After the third time he didn't go back in.  And never did again.

Schools are testing grounds for the real world.  They present us with situations in response to which we can develop strength of character, resilience and skill.  Imagine growing up on a farm, in an Indian village or in the middle ages.  Not safe.  I grew up in New York City.  Not safe.

There are no safe environments.  When I was growing up, that was the lesson I always got from reading great hero stories.  And each tale challenged me to prepare myself for similar dangers.

All bullies are not the same, but their patterns of behavior, their tactics, are the same.  That’s why I’ve found ways to stop them.  If we don’t stop bullies, they’ll think we’re easy prey.  Like sharks, they’ll simply go after us more.  Sometimes, fighting is the key to success.

When children have learned how to stop bullies in their tracks, they will have developed strength of character, determination, resilience and skill.  They’ll need these qualities to succeed against the real world bullies they’ll face as adults.

Growing up, I saw that for myself and my brothers.  I also saw that with our six children.  And I see that with my clients.

Begin with the books “How to Stop Bullies in their Tracks” and “Parenting Bully-Proof Kids,” and the10-CD set.  You will probably also need practical, pragmatic coaching and tactics designed to resolve your specific situations.