Stand Up to Hurtful Family Members

From the WebMD Archives

By Hayley Krischer

While one of the simplest ways to deal with bullies is to avoid them... that's not always possible. Sometimes they live in your house. Sometimes they're even related to you -- by blood.

Dysfunctional family dynamics are often written off as "That's just the way my family is." But you don't have to let yourself be manipulated, or tolerate abusive behavior. Instead, hold your ground with these strategies:

Good: Don't Play The Victim

Your older sister has been tormenting you for years about the way you look. (The size of your nose. Or your butt. Or the way you dress.) Sometimes she even smacks you, though she says she's "just playing." You've learned to accept her hurtful words and behavior over the years; after all, what else can you do? She's treated you that way since the day you were born.

The hard truth? According to a study published in Pediatrics, aggression between young siblings can escalate into adult bullying. If that's the case for you, well... now that you’re an adult, you can defend yourself. “Don’t play the game,” says Janice Harper, Ph.D., a cultural anthropologist specializing in conflict. Instead, take the Dog Whisperer's approach when it comes to your pack... uh, family: Be calm and assertive à la Cesar Millan. "Let the [bullying] family member know you love them, but that you won’t be a target," Harper says. "Don’t engage in self-defense, and don’t engage in counterattacks.” Example: Your sibling says, "Everyone in the family knows you've always been spoiled rotten." You say... nothing. You don’t respond. You just stay calm and keep doing what you were doing.

Better: Don't Accept The Silent Treatment

According to Harper, one of the most common forms of family bullying is shunning -- better known as the silent treatment or the cold shoulder. “Shunning is cruel, unnecessary and pointless,” she says. Don’t mistake it as a break from the abuse -- and don’t let the bully get away with it. Instead, keep speaking to the bully at family functions, including him or her as best you can and ignoring the fact that they're pretending to ignore you. Attempt to talk to them and resolve the conflict, but if they refuse to respond-- or try to shift accountability to you or someone else -- move on and don’t engage. This isn’t a return of the silent treatment; this is you allowing the conversation to end on your terms.

Best: Protect Yourself

First things first: Shunning and bullying are abuse. “Any family member who encourages others to shun you is not only abusing you, but damaging your relationships with other family members,” says Harper. The longer the shunning or bullying persists, the harder it is to break the cycle. The strongest tactic? Distance yourself from the bully -- even if he or she is your parent. “Let them know you will not participate in your own abuse,” says Harper. Use your words to create a strict boundary: "I’m not going to tolerate this behavior. I’m not going to be around you until you treat me with dignity and compassion." Don’t call. Don’t visit. Don’t bad-mouth them to others. And though this might sound odd, don’t defend yourself. Why? Because bullies need you to react to their behavior in order to keep that behavior going. “[Reacting] only leads to arguments,” says Harper. “You have to protect yourself emotionally.” So stand your ground -- and in the meantime, surround yourself with the friends and family members who do support you.

WebMD Feature from Turner Broadcasting System


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