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 the 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 resort to manipulation, humiliation, and intimidation.

They also might engage in constant criticism, blame the target for things, 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 in a healthy way. Other times, it occurs because they want 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 and not intimate partners.

Effects of Family Bullying

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

For instance, 71% reported struggling with stress issues, 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, as well as muscle tension and pain.

Meanwhile, nearly 20% of those surveyed said that they had a mental breakdown because of the bullying and 17% indicated that the could not function from day to day.

The AOE indicates that the emotional strain caused by adult bullying could even lead to gastrointestinal changes, elevated blood pressure, and cardiovascular issues. What's more, 43% of those surveyed said that bullying among adults is becoming more accepted.

Watch for Warning Signs

Bullying perpetrated by adults is more subtle and manipulative than the tactics children use and it tends to happen more slowly over time through small manipulative or controlling actions and words.

What's more, this type of behavior can be confusing and cause you to doubt your perceptions. You may even question your memory or your judgments. For this reason, it can be helpful to write down the 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.

It's also important that you recognize the warning signs of bullying. This will involve looking at how your interactions with the other person make you feel as well as taking a closer look at their behaviors.

For instance, 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. Meanwhile, here are some telltale signs that your family member is bullying you.

  • Has unrealistic expectations of you or makes unreasonable demands
  • Blames you when things go wrong
  • Invalidates your thoughts and feelings by undermining, minimizing, or dismissing you or your thoughts
  • Creates chaos in your life by starting arguments, nitpicking, or making contradictory statements
  • Uses emotional blackmail as a way to control you or make you feel guilty
  • Acts superior or condescending and attempts to consistently one-up you or prove you wrong
  • Makes jokes at your expense or is sarcastic and demeaning in their interactions
  • Cuts you down or exaggerates your weaknesses and flaws as a way to make you feel inferior
  • Accuses you of being selfish, needy, or not committed to the family
  • Gives you the silent treatment or attempts 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.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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.

Also, be prepared for the fact that the person bullying you may not respond how you had hoped. In fact, things may not improve at all, but at least you have shared how you feel. Here are some other tips for being assertive with someone who is bullying you:

  • 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.
  • Stand your ground and believe in yourself even if you don't get the response you want.

Establish Boundaries

When it comes to a family bully, it's important to create firm boundaries between you and the bully. Here's how to set boundaries with someone who bullies you.

  • Know your limits and your values. When setting boundaries, it's important to understand clearly what you can roll with and where you draw the line. 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 your 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. Too many times, people neglect using boundaries because they feel guilty about doing so. But 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 when you share your boundaries with the family member, that you are direct and to the point. Be specific about the behavior that bothers you and then let them 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 stand by and accept that treatment any longer," then you have to communicate a consequence. So you might follow it 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. For instance, if you have set a boundary about name calling, you need to follow through with the consequence if it happens again. 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. Creating 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 ahead on how you are going to handle it. They also may try to use guilt or manipulation by calling you controlling. You need to 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.

Here's an example of how to establish a boundary with someone. Let's assume your partner's aunt repeatedly insults your cooking and humiliates you in front of your guests. If you find this behavior hurtful, pull her to the side privately and let her know that her comments hurt your feelings and that you would like for it to stop. 

You could say: "I am hurt and offended when you make fun of my cooking abilities. 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 anymore dinner parties. Be careful not to make a threat, but just state the consequences in a matter-of-fact sort of way.

Keep in mind, 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. So, you may want to limit your contact with this person, or refuse to have any contact with them until they can treat you with respect.

If you have to spend time with someone because of a family event like a wedding, a funeral, or a baby shower, make sure you 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.

What’s more, if the family bullying begins to take a toll on your emotional health, be sure you look for an in-person or online therapist that specializes in family issues.

A Word From Verywell

If you have a family member who is bullying you, it's important that you 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.

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Article Sources
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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

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