7 Ways to Deal With the Family Bully

wife and mother-in-law upset with husband

Contrary to popular belief bullying doesn't disappear along with the acne, driving courses, and ACT prep tests of the teen years. In fact, it continues into adulthood and can be found in just about any setting. Aside from online bullying, workplace bullying and even sibling bullying, bullying also occurs in families among adults.

Sometimes family bullying happens simply because the adult bully has never learned how to relate in a healthy way. Other times it occurs because the family bully wants to manipulate and control situations. If you are faced with a bully in your family, here are some suggestions on how to handle the situation.

Avoid Getting Emotional

When dealing with a family bully, remain calm and avoid acting out in anger or frustration.

You cannot control the bully, but you can control your reaction. Remain calm and try to disengage from any interaction with the bully.

Meanwhile, write down the incidents and include important details like the date, time, place, and type of incident. Doing so will help you identify any patterns in the behavior. What's more, this information will be useful down the road in avoiding further altercations with the bully.

Turn to Someone You Trust

Share the details of your experience with a trusted friend. The key is to find someone you can confide in.

Steer clear of gossip. 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. The important thing is to talk to someone who will keep what you say in confidence and not make the situation more difficult. Just remember, it is never a good idea 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 a Choice

When the bullying occurs, you have a choice. You can leave, fire back with a witty comeback or try to ignore the bullying. But do not give the bully what he wants by reacting negatively or emotionally. Maintain your composure and be respectful. Just because the bully 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.

Establish Boundaries

When it comes to a family bully, it is important to create firm boundaries between you and the bully. For instance, if your husband’s aunt repeatedly insults your cooking and humiliates you in front of your guests, tell her that her comments are insulting and you want it to stop. If she continues, consider not inviting her to your home. Make yourself clear and stick to the rules you set. 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.

Assert Yourself

Anytime someone bullies you, it is 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 or too sensitive. Do not 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. We are discussing your behavior." Then, restate what you want to change.

Remain Confident

Family bullies are able to quickly discern whom they can control and manipulate. Avoid looking nervous, insecure or defeated. No matter what happens when you set boundaries or assert yourself, stay strong. It’s also important to remain respectful and do not give in to any pressures from the bully.

Take Time to Recharge

Being around a bullying family member can be draining. 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.

What’s more, if the family bullying begins to take a toll on your emotional health, be sure you look for a counselor that specializes in the family issues. And most importantly, limit your contact, or refuse to have any contact with the family member until she can treat you with respect.

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  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