When you first hear the word “bully“, your mind might immediately think of high school and of kids being ostracized or physically hurt. However, the sad truth is that bullying can occur at any age and in any context. It's not just strangers who can abuse you in this way. Have you ever felt intimidated, ridiculed or targeted by a family member and wondered if this is a form of bullying? You're not alone. Bullying and manipulation in toxic families is shockingly common, and it can cause significant psychological wounds.
So, what should you do if you're being bullied by a toxic family member? Whether it's a parent, a sibling, an uncle or someone more distant, the same key strategies can help.
Let's take a closer look at how to regulate and process your emotional responses. Plus, we will explore some of the moves you can make to protect yourself in this particular type of abusive dynamic.
As noted above, family bullies come in all shapes and sizes. A bully can be a physically violent father, a snobby aunt or a jealous sibling. Though their motives may vary, most bullies are acting out as a result of difficult experiences in their own lives. Therefore, it can be helpful to keep this in mind rather than assuming that you've done something to “ask for” the bullying.
In some cases, bullying will be a transient problem that resolves when the person does some personal work on their own problems. However, when you experience sustained bullying, try working through the following seven steps.
Spontaneity is not your friend when it comes to dealing with toxic family bullies. Instead of reacting on the spot, reflect on the types of remarks that tend to rile you up, and give a serious thought about what you want to say in response.
For example, suppose you have an older brother who always makes fun of your job and belittles the importance of what you do. You might plan to say something like “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.”
Do your best to focus on “I” statements. In other words, ones that focus on your thoughts and feelings, not on claims about the bully. Not only will this kind of forward planning allow you to present yourself more confidently when you meet the bully, but it will also reduce anxiety about being in their presence.
Standing up for yourself is tricky. You don't want to lie back and take abuse, but it's vital that you avoid meeting hostility with more hostility. If you start shouting or become aggressive, the exchange may escalate to a more emotionally (or even physically) hazardous level. It can be tempting to lose your cool, but the long-term consequences mean it's worth taking a deep breath before responding to a bully.
One way of standing up for yourself without aggression involves just looking straight at the bully and saying something like “I'm sorry, what did you say?”. This remark immediately makes it clear that you think what has been said is out of line, and proves that you are not going to be passive. However, it isn't overtly angry. “Excuse me?” can have a similar effect. In many cases, a bully will back done once they realize that you're not an easy target.
Removing yourself from the situation isn't always easy (e.g. at a family dinner where you're beholden to someone else for a ride home), but you can usually at least take a break from being around a bully.
Even a quick moment in the bathroom can help. There you can curse under your breath, clench your fists, or do anything else that helps you release anger.
You can also try a brief moment of mindfulness, inhaling and exhaling while visualizing anxiety or rage leaving your body.
In addition, always remember that you do have the right to leave the situation entirely, even if those around you find it awkward or unexpected. Yes, some people might be hurt or angry, and bullies might even threaten you. But they are responsible for their own emotions, and it's not your job to meet their needs at the expense of your own well-being.
Don't stay somewhere where you're being abused.
When coping with a toxic family bully, the concept of boundaries is extremely important. While some bullies (e.g. those at work) only have intermittent access to you, some family members can easily reach you any time or expect hours of your company. So, figure out what you can tolerate, and then draw lines accordingly.
For example, if you're being asked to a party at which a cruel, toxic family member will certainly be in attendance, tell the hosts ahead of time that another commitment prevents you from spending more than 2-3 hours at the party.
Similarly, if there's pressure to allow a large group to stay at your home, generate a plausible reason why that won't work this year.
If this type of choice constitutes a shift in your behavior, do anticipate some pushback, and not just from the bully.
Bullying puts a lot of psychological pressure on you, so please don't try to go through it alone. Find a close friend you can genuinely trust with sensitive topics, and explain exactly what's going on. This will give you emotional release as well as a valuable source of potential advice.
You may be tempted to choose another family member as your confidant, and that could work in some cases. However, be very careful about this, as the person may try to fix the other family member by approaching the bully and this has the potential to make things worse.
Further, don't forget that telling a therapist is always an option. Even if you haven't been to therapy before or don't think you need long-term help, having the space to talk in confidence can be hugely cathartic. Plus, your therapist will help you enhance or retain your self-esteem in the face of bullying behaviors.
Yes, you will definitely feel strong emotions when someone bullies you, especially when that person is a family member. It's also important that you don't try to repress or deny these feeling; this can cause them to explode out of you when you least expect it. That being said, you'll be in the best position if you can avoid being emotional in your interactions with the bully. In other words, don't lash out in anger, sadness or frustration.
Save your emotions for later, when you can talk to the aforementioned trusted friend or have time to vent in a journal. In addition, consider using a journal to log the time, date and details of what happened between you and the bully. This can help you discern particular patterns in the bully's behavior. It also gives you concrete details to come back to if you ever need to report or discuss the bullying in more depth.
Finally, there are certain things you can do to discourage bullying without ever even having to engage with the bully directly. As you probably already know, bullies usually have inner weaknesses, and they're attracted to people who seem manipulable or insecure. If you do your best to seem assertive, clear-headed and confident when the bully is around, they may think twice about approaching you again (though do your best to also look out for other family members who might become the new target).
While we're discussing confidence, remember that the bully's behavior does not reflect something about you or your worth. Don't be tempted to view yourself through the bully's eyes. Also, try not to fall into the trap of assuming that this person's cruel remarks are true. Focus in on all the positive things you know about yourself and that others emphasize. This is what reflects the truth about you. Find out more about being truly positive about your life, click here now to get your free guide.
(And if you ever feel in danger or at serious risk, please contact the relevant authorities or a specialist.)