Standing Up to Bullies in Your Family

When I teach verbal self-defense, I frequently get questions not only about at-work relationships, but also about family bullies. The thing about family bullies is that the pattern of bullying is ingrained in the family expectations. That pattern began in childhood. You are not a child anymore; you are an adult with personal power now.

Yet, when around family, parents may still expect their children to “behave,” even if that child is grown up and doesn’t agree with the required behavior. Older siblings may continue to put down younger siblings, even though they have both reached the same developmental age (adulthood.) Siblings of any age difference may verbally insult one another, if that pattern was allowed in the childhood home.

If you hate going home because you will hear how your career is wrong, or your looks are wrong, or your choices are wrong, there is hope.

Katherine Hurst recently wrote about family bullies. Here’s what she said. 

Now a summary:

  1. Plan ahead. If you know that a family member is going to criticize something about you, have some responses ready. This will:
    1. Help you feel calmer, because you are prepared.
    2. Give you a chance to practice your tone, so you avoid getting emotional.

Responses should phrased as your perception. The tactic is called an “I message.” Example: Someone belittles your career choice.

Katherine Hurst recommends you say something like this: “We all have different goals and values, and I’m happy with my career choices, so I don’t feel the need to defend them.”

I would recommend you keep it simpler. “You have made this point before. I am happy with my career choice.” Then leave a big silence.

  1. Stand up without hostility. When someone says something that belittles you, a way to call attention to it – and set a boundary – is to say “What did you say?” or “Excuse me?” What this does is change the pace of the conversation and forces the offending person to choose whether to repeat what was just said. You will be pleased by how often this tactic will result in the answer, “oh, never mind…”
  1. Remove yourself from the situation. If you anticipate tension with someone in your family, plan on having a reason to limit you time with them. This may be:
    1. Stepping away to use the bathroom, or get some fresh air.
    2. Leaving the event entirely, if need be.

I would add that it helps to consciously put space between you and the bully, by sitting as far from them as possible, especially when you’ll be sitting for a long time, like over dinner or through a game or TV show.

  1. Setting boundaries. Katherine Hurst mentions this as a separate subject, but I see all of these tactics as boundary setting plans. What she calls setting boundaries, in her blog, is about committing to time and space. Her advice is to tell the host to expect that you must leave early (or arrive late) because of another commitment, thus limiting your time with a cruel relative. If people expect to stay in your home, decide on reasons that this will not work for you, and stick to it.
  2. Turn to someone you trust. Find a sympathetic ear, outside the family. This may be a friend or a therapist. That is a safe place to vent and process what happened, as well as how to plan for the next family event.
  3. Avoid getting emotional. If you expect that the bully will be a bully — and you are ready for it – you will be in a position to keep your cool. The bully is looking for a reaction. Your calmness and refusal to be bullied will, over time, make you less of a target for bullying. Prepare for the next time. Keep track of the behavior you are seeing. If you make notes, it will help you process what happened. Before you see the bully again, review their tactics, so you are ready for the next round.
  4. Remain confident. The more you are ready, the easier it is to seem confident in the face of bullying. Remind yourself that you are no longer a child in the family – you are an adult. The bully’s view of you is not who you are.

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