21 Nov 3 Effective Ways to Deal with the Family Bully
It’s the holidays and many of us stress over spending time with our family. Turkey and traditions don’t always mix well with talk of religion and politics. No matter how much we love our relatives there is sometimes the sibling, in-law or cousin who knows exactly what to say to make us feel small and insignificant. They can push our buttons and seem to relish doing so. Just the thought of seeing that person can create a feeling of dread and leave us wondering how are we going to survive emotionally.
Bullying isn’t only relegated to school yards, the internet and the workplace but is a very real problem in families as well. Let’s be clear about who are bullies. Bullies are deliberately cruel or hurtful either by means of physical, emotional, verbal or sexual assaults.1 Another way of looking at it is that “bullying is one person controlling or harming someone else by use of power.”2
Being playfully teased is common in social dynamics but when it crosses the line to being picked on, we have an abuse issue. Bullies can use both subtle and covert ways as well as hostile and overt means to taunt. How you can tell the difference between having fun and being a target is by the way you feel. Are you anxious, scared or offended? Or, do you feel safe, secure and accepted? Thus, it comes down to how you feel from interacting with that person.
Most people would like home and family to be a safe refuge from the harsh realities of living in the modern world but that isn’t always the case. As we mature and leave our family of origin to create our own home, holiday visits can bring back a host of unwanted emotions like anxiety, sadness and fear. What are you going to do? Stay at home? Just skip it altogether? For some, that is an option, but what if you can’t stay away? Then, maybe you can reduce contact to the bare minimum by arriving late and leaving early or perhaps, sitting at the other end of the table. But what if the gathering is small and interacting is inevitable?
So that you can enjoy holiday celebrations when the family bully appears, let’s see what other options you have.
Here are the 3 Effective Ways to Dealing with the Family Bully:
1) Avoid Avoiding the Bully
Common wisdom when dealing with bullies is to avoid interacting with them whenever possible. Sure, if you can reduce your exposure to a toxic person, please do. But, avoiding the bully has it problems. Bullies can sense fear and weakness so you need to be stealthy about how you avoid them which can require more work than it’s worth. It also still leaves the bully in control. You are making choices based on the bully’s perceived power over you versus what works best for you and your life. You are accommodating the power struggle not overcoming it.
Instead, whenever possible, don’t be alone with them. You want to have witnesses to their behavior but you need to make sure those people are on your side. Consider bringing a dear friend with you to family holiday gatherings. Then, they get to experience your family and you have a playmate and emotional bodyguard.
2) Do Not Ignore Them
Some say “Just ignore it.” The logic is that if the bully doesn’t get a reaction, then they will move on to a new target. If you can keep calm and ignore the remark, do. But bullies are opportunistic and thrive on preying on perceived vulnerabilities. Some bullies just increase the pressure by becoming louder, more rude and obnoxious. They make even stronger inappropriate comments until a reaction is inevitable. You are only human and the bully knows that. If keeping quiet is not possible, expose it. The key is to be specific. Instead of saying, “Stop being mean to me!” or resorting to name-calling and yelling, say, “When I hear you say, ‘___’ I feel _______ (disrespected). Please stop saying that.”3
3) Use Humor
You don’t need to have a quick wit or a list of clever retorts. Instead, try laughing. Bullies feed off hurt feelings. If you are not hurt, then they aren’t winning. You can either laugh because you don’t care what they say, you know the truth about you, or you can laugh from a place of not “getting” the joke,4 or from thinking, “Wow, they thought that was funny! How lame are they.” If you think laughing would encourage more bad behavior, then instead calmly ask, “How is that funny?” or “What’s funny about that?” Then, pause and wait for a reply. Or say, “I didn’t find that funny. Please stop saying that.” Again, bullies feed on submissive, passive or vulnerable individuals, if you disrupt this expectation, they lose.
Impact on Your Mental Health
AbleTo helps people with chronic medical conditions or major life transitions cope with the stress, anxiety and depression that can come with complex situations. Whether it’s the holidays or daily life, we teach people practical, effective skills that have them feel better and live better.
A bully’s aim is to gain control through sarcasm, teasing, insulting, mocking, humiliating and name-calling (to name a few methods). Though hard to comprehend, it’s not actually about you. It’s about the bully’s pain, feeling powerless and needing to be in control. You are just a tool they use out of their insecurity, pain and feeling of inadequacy. By using the 3 Effective Ways to Deal with the Family Bully, you’ll boost your confidence and restore your power so that family visits are an occasion to look forward to and enjoy.
AbleTo can help.
There is a lot you can do yourself, but sometimes you just need personal support. Let our behavior coaches and therapists give you one-on-one tailored help.
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