6 Ways to Deal With the Family Bully

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Contrary to popular belief, bullying doesn't always disappear along with the acne, driving courses, and standardized tests of the teen years. In fact, it can continue into adulthood and can be found in just about any setting.

Aside from online bullying, workplace bullying, and even sibling bullying, bullying also can occur in families among adults. Any adult in a family can be a bully and any adult can be a target.

In your family, the person bullying you might be a sibling, a parent, an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent, an adult child, or even one of your in-laws. If you're faced with a bully in your family, here's what you need to know to confront the situation.

What Is Family Bullying?

Most of the time, family bullying takes place in the form of relational aggression, but it can, in extreme cases, escalate into physical bullying too. Oftentimes, though, family bullies use manipulation, humiliation, and intimidation.

They also might engage in constant criticism, blame the target often, call them names, and refuse to value or appreciate them. A family bully may even engage in gaslighting or attempt to isolate the target by turning other family members against them or using the silent treatment to shut them out.

Sometimes, family bullying happens simply because the adult who bullies has never learned how to relate to others in a healthy way. Other times, it occurs because the bully wants to manipulate and control situations.

It's important to note that family bullying is not the same thing as domestic violence, which occurs between dating, cohabitating, or married partners. Although the intention is the same and there is some overlap in types of behaviors, family bullying involves adult family members who are not intimate partners.

Effects of Family Bullying

Much like traditional bullying or cyberbullying, experiencing family bullying can have a lasting impact. Adults who are bullied experience a number of physical and mental consequences as the result of bullying, according to a survey conducted by the American Osteopathic Association (AOE).

For instance, 71% of family bullying targets reported struggling with stress, 70% indicated that depression and anxiety were a concern, and 55% reported a loss in confidence. Other effects of adult bullying included sleep loss, headaches, muscle tension and pain.

Nearly 20% of those targeted by family bullies said that they had a mental breakdown because of the bullying; 17% indicated that they could not function from day to day.

The emotional strain caused by adult bullying could even lead to gastrointestinal changes, elevated blood pressure, and cardiovascular issues. Another disturbing finding: 43% of those surveyed said that bullying among adults is becoming more accepted.

Warning Signs of Family Bullying

Adults' bullying tactics are more subtle, manipulative, and controlling than those children use. Bullying tends to happen more slowly over time through small actions and words.

Experiencing this type of behavior can be confusing and cause you to doubt your perceptions. You may even question your memory or your judgment. It can be helpful to write down bullying incidents, including how they made you feel. Doing so will help you recognize that what you're experiencing is real and not something you're imagining.

Recognizing the signs of bullying involves looking at how your interactions with the other person make you feel. If you feel hurt, confused, frustrated, misunderstood, anxious, worthless, or like you're walking on eggshells any time you interact with this person, chances are high that you're being bullied.

A family member who is bullying you may:

  • Have unrealistic expectations or make unreasonable demands
  • Blame you when things go wrong
  • Invalidate your thoughts and feelings by undermining, minimizing, or dismissing you or your thoughts
  • Create chaos in your life by starting arguments, nitpicking, or making contradictory statements
  • Use emotional blackmail as a way to control you or make you feel guilty
  • Act superior or condescending and attempt to one-up you or prove you wrong
  • Make jokes at your expense or be sarcastic and demeaning in their interactions
  • Cut you down or exaggerate your weaknesses and flaws as a way to make you feel inferior
  • Accuse you of being selfish, needy, or not committed to the family
  • Give you the silent treatment or attempt to get other family members to turn against you or shun you

If these things are happening in your family, it's normal to feel that your power is being diminished. You also may feel like your emotional or mental health is suffering due to the bullying.

If that is the case, it's time to start questioning the health of the relationship. Not only should you consider limiting your contact with this family member, but you also may want to get outside help such as a counselor or a mental health professional to help you learn how to interact and cope with this family member.

You also can contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for confidential assistance from trained advocates. They can help you process the bullying you are experiencing.

How to Respond to Family Bullying

If you are being bullied by a family member, there are steps you can take to end the behavior or protect yourself from its effects. Most importantly, look for an ally (within or outside of the family) to support you through this difficult experience.

Assert Yourself

Anytime someone bullies you, it's important that you learn how to stand up for yourself. Being assertive means that you are honest about how you feel without acting aggressively, engaging in name-calling, or being a bully yourself. Be specific about the problem without getting emotional.

But be prepared for the bully to challenge your perceptions or tell you that you are being unrealistic, selfish, or too sensitive. It's important not to own these accusations; they are just another attempt to control you or manipulate the situation.

Try to say something like: "We are not talking about my emotions right now. We are discussing your behavior." Then, restate your point.

  • Use I statements like "I think" or "I feel" instead of phrases like "You always" or "You never."
  • Maintain a positive body stance, which means making eye contact, standing up straight, and keeping your face neutral.
  • Rehearse what you want to say with someone you trust, like a friend or a counselor.
  • Refrain from discussing negative emotions and feelings and focus on being honest, direct, and straightforward.

Also, be prepared for the fact that the person bullying you may not respond how you had hoped. Things may not improve at all, but at least you have stood up for yourself and shared how you feel.

Establish Boundaries

It's important to create firm boundaries between you and the bully. If a family member is bullying you:

  • Know your limits and your values. These realizations will help you develop appropriate boundaries. For instance, maybe you don't mind a few jokes or occasional teasing, but you draw the line at name-calling.
  • Listen to your emotions and feelings. Take some time to think about how your family member's actions make you feel. These feelings and emotions will provide you with clues on what you want to change or what you can no longer tolerate.
  • Value yourself and your needs. Don't feel guilty about setting and enforcing boundaries. Your wants and needs are valid and so are your feelings. You don't have to tolerate bad behavior just for the sake of the family
  • Make self-care a priority. When you establish boundaries, you are taking care of your emotional, physical, and mental health. There is nothing wrong with that. Establishing boundaries with someone who is prone to bullying helps you make caring for yourself a priority.
  • Be direct and clear about your expectations. You may need to practice beforehand, but make sure that when you share your boundaries, you are direct and to the point. Be specific about the behavior that bothers you and then let the bully know that you are not going to tolerate it any longer.
  • Communicate consequences if your boundaries are crossed. Once you have established a boundary, such as "I feel hurt when you call me names and I am not going to accept that treatment," communicate a consequence. So you might follow with, "The next time you call me names, I am going to end our conversation."
  • Honor your commitment to the boundaries. It's very important that you follow through on your boundaries. You can give a warning if you want by saying something like, "Please stop calling me names. If you continue, I am going to leave."
  • Recognize that you are in charge of your boundaries. This means you can change them if you want. If you find that a boundary is not working for you or it's too difficult to enforce, then by all means change it. Boundaries are for your benefit and you may need to tweak them from time to time to make sure they still fit your needs.
  • Be prepared for some resistance. Many times, a family bully will test your boundaries to see if you are serious. Be prepared for this to happen and plan how you are going to handle it. The bully may try to use guilt or manipulation by calling you controlling. Ignore these accusations; they are just another attempt to manipulate the situation. Your mental and emotional health is important and there is nothing wrong with taking steps to protect yourself.

An Example of Boundary-Setting

Let's say your partner's aunt repeatedly insults your cooking and humiliates you in front of others. If you find this behavior hurtful, privately let her know that her comments hurt your feelings and that you would like her to stop. 

You could say: "I am hurt and offended when you make fun of my cooking. Please don't do that again." You could leave it at that and see if it happens again or you can communicate a consequence.

Then, if it happens again, remind her that you don't appreciate her insults and that you may not invite her to any more dinner gatherings. Be careful not to make a threat. Just state the consequences in a matter-of-fact sort of way.

She may never change her behavior, but you do not have to tolerate it just because she is family. Anytime family members continue to cross the line in their treatment of you, you need to limit the amount of contact you have with them. It will be hard to do, but in the end it's better for your mental health.

Avoid Getting Emotional

When dealing with a family bully, remain calm and avoid acting out in anger or frustration. Remember you cannot control the bully, but you can control your reaction. Remain in control of your emotions and try to disengage from any interaction with the bully.

It's also important to remind yourself that you have a choice. You don't have to stay at an event or tolerate the mistreatment. You can leave, stand up to the bully, establish a boundary, or try to ignore the bullying. But do not give the bully what they want by reacting negatively or emotionally.

Maintain your composure and be respectful. Just because the person bullying you is behaving inappropriately does not give you license to behave that way too. Make every effort to maintain your dignity and choose how you want to respond.

Turn to Someone You Trust

Sometimes it can help to share the details of your experience with a trusted friend. The key is to find someone you can confide in. Steer clear of gossip, but look for someone who will support you when a bullying incident occurs.

Some people opt for telling another family member instead of a friend, but be careful in doing so. Sometimes family members feel they need to fix the situation and will end up creating more problems in the process.

Try to talk to someone who will keep what you say in confidence and not make the situation more difficult.

Also, don't try to handle the bullying alone or force yourself to keep silent about the bullying. Telling just one person can help you feel less isolated and alone. What's more, it helps to have someone listen to what you are experiencing and validate your feelings. Just be sure to pick someone you can trust.

Make Time to Recharge

Being around a family member that bullies you can be draining and impact your health in negative ways. If you have to spend time with someone because of a family event like a wedding, a funeral, or a baby shower, plan to take time for yourself afterward. Go for a walk. Read a good book. Get a massage.

Do something that will help you de-stress and get rid of the negative energy that a bully brings into your life. If the family bullying begins to take a toll on your emotional health, look for a therapist that specializes in family issues.

A Word From Verywell

If you have a family member who is bullying you, it's important to take steps to protect your emotional and mental health. Bullying behaviors don't end without some type of intervention.

That said, you cannot control another person's behavior or choices, so you will need to learn how to be assertive, set boundaries, and take care of yourself. And in some cases, you will need to cut ties with the person bullying you. This may be a difficult decision to make, but in the end, the important thing is that you're taking care of yourself.

2 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kowalski RM, Toth A, Morgan M. Bullying and cyberbullying in adulthood and the workplace. J Soc Psychol. 2018;158(1):64-81. doi:10.1080/00224545.2017.1302402

  2. American Osteopathic Association. Bullying in America: Survey finds nearly one third of Americans (31%) have been bullied as an adult.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.