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Standing Up to Family Bullies

As September winds down, our focus shifts to cooler days and holiday get-togethers. For many, spending time with family is an exciting time. However, when your family includes a bully, these intimate gatherings create feelings of anxiety and frustration as you imagine encountering this person again. During family get-togethers, it’s not uncommon for someone to feel hurt by a family member’s rude or insensitive remark. Due to family history or dysfunction, bullied individuals may choose to ignore the behavior, further enabling the bully and leaving the person on the receiving end of the comment feeling alone, hurt and angry.

Frequently in these instances the person who received the comment will opt to speak about the ordeal with another family member rather than confront the rude, insensitive bully directly, talking behind their back. This achieves little but fosters drama, stress, and frustration for the entire family.

Do not allow this behavior to destroy your excitement about family gatherings. Instead of suffering a family bully’s rude comments every year, give yourself permission to stand up for yourself and confront the bully directly. I have prepared five suggestions that can help encourage you to stop taking on the victim role and focus on protecting and respecting yourself - all while responding directly without contributing to more drama.

1. Value your self-worth and refuse to be a victim. Before meeting up with family again, write a list of appropriate and inappropriate topics for family members to bring up or say about you. Being a victim weakens you, but feeling like a victor over your boundaries boosts your confidence to protect your values. For example, a family member notoriously comments on your weight but you’ve set a boundary on this topic. When the topic inevitably comes up, tell them your weight is none of their business but if they’d like to talk about something that matters, you’re there to listen. Afterwards, leave the room. Bullies hate to be confronted and abandoned.

2. Move on from painful, negative history. When someone brings up negative traits or embarrassing moments, they try to bring you down to their miserable level. If you stay silent and listen, you become their puppet under their control. Take back your control with the simple message that life requires us to learn from past mistakes and grow. The past stays in the past and does not define you today or tomorrow. Encourage them to let go of the past so they can move forward too.

3. Don’t accept the silent treatment. Sometimes to punish or control family members, bullies give the cold shoulder or silent treatment. Don’t get sucked into this emotionally immature expression of anger. If someone cannot communicate their feelings or needs, you shouldn’t take responsibility by over apologizing or enabling them by engaging in their dysfunctional passive aggressive tactics. Simply explain your preference of communicating with words. When they become capable of using their words to express their emotions, maybe the two of you can discuss whatever upsets them.

4. Protect yourself and your children from teasing. Many families have siblings that teased each other for various reasons growing up. Examples may include: the way they dressed, appeared in the morning, or the size of their nose. As a child, you may have accepted the badgering, especially if your sibling is older. However, sibling aggression can escalate and manifest into adult bullying. If you feel as though you must face bullies you’re related to every year at family gatherings simply because it’s always been that way, you indirectly communicate your powerlessness to them. As an adult, you are not powerless. Be calm, assertive, and willing to leave or make other arrangements when your family member disrespects you or someone you love.

5. Distance yourself from the family bully. No matter who acts as the family bully (even a parent), let them know you will no longer participate in their abuse. Here, you communicate this message in a powerful way: “Treat me with respect and dignity or I will remove myself from your presence.” This includes calls and visits. Above all, do not react to the bully because a reaction is exactly what bullies desire. When you ignore the behavior, you broadcast to your bully that you’re no longer affected by their abuse. This enhances their own insecurity, willing them to change their behavior around you.

Perfect families do not exist, but the majority of families love and support each other. If your family has a bully who manages to destroy your excitement of getting together with your family, it’s time to change your game plan. Stand up, hold your ground, and surround yourself with the friends and family members who do support you.


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