No Escape: When the Bully’s in the Family

In honor of October’s status as  National Bullying Prevention Month, dozens of non-profit groups have been working to raise awareness of bullying and how to prevent it. It makes sense that the vast majority of the activities focus on educating parents, teachers and students about school bullying and cyberbullying. These two forms not only interfere with learning and emotional development, but have sometimes even led to suicide as in Amanda Todd’s recent case. Fortunately, many organizations are making important contributions toward teaching children the prosocial behaviors necessary to transform the schoolyard, if not yet the Internet, from a traumatic place into a safe, supportive one.

But what if the bully lives with you? What if it’s a sibling or parent? Worse, what if there are multiple family members who join forces against one family member to the point that there really is no escape from the abusive behavior?

In April 2008, I addressed this topic on another blog, referring to work by psychologist James R. Holmes examining the family influences on bullying. Holmes examined the existing research to tease out factors that contribute to bullying behaviors at school and found that most of them have their origins at home. It’s not really surprising that he found “boys who bullied others as adolescents were more likely in their 30’s to have children who were bullies.” There are certainly genetic components, which include  temperament and intelligence or attention problems. But there are environmental components too, says Holmes. These would include behaviors that occur between parents and children or perhaps between siblings.

The upshot, says Holmes, is that “bullying is associated with families in which people do not treat each other with respect or families in which children are not taught to respect the rights of others.”

Of course, parents can’t teach what they never learned. Holmes points out that the effects of poor family management and discipline can extend back several generations. More than having a parent who bullied, having grandparents who also bullied is an even stronger predictor of bullying for an adolescent.

After first writing about this topic, I found the online responses to be both sad and illuminating. Nearly 100 posts described the personal experiences of people who had been on the receiving end of bullying from family members at home. Sometimes it was the bully who commented, as in this instance:

When I was a child and teen I did act in a bullying way to some of my sisters. Often it was teasing gone too far. Mostly it was a case of intolerance, boredom and abusing my power as the eldest.

Sometimes my sister annoyed me just by her presence. She was often sulky and sullen and humorless. I annoyed her just for entertainment and to get a laugh from other siblings. I didn’t physically hurt her, but I verbally teased and niggled. Sometimes I just gave her hateful looks. Over time it wore her down. My parents didn’t intervene as they thought ‘kids will be kids.’ Plus a lot was done out of their sight.

These days I am a lot more self-aware and feel very badly for the way I behaved.

It’s worth highlighting the reference to the lack of intervention by parents. As you might expect, similar observations were made by many who had been on the receiving end of bullying. Also common were references to the mental health issues bullied siblings now faced as adults. This isn’t surprising considering that childhood is a crucial period of development for the brain and that a healthy and resilient neural structure depends heavily on positive social interaction. As one reader describes it:

My parent’s way of dealing with it [was] to ask me to just ignore it and to ask my other siblings to also just ignore it so that tension within the family is minimized and that we remain a family—this is after they tried to talk to the bullying sister and were met with denial and hostility. It has caused so much hurt and anguish in my life. After 10 years of bearing it, I began to experience panic attacks and nightmares as family events approached . .

Sometimes parents not only fail to intervene, they may also become an active part of the problem, particularly if there are multiple family dysfunctions:

I’ve been bullied all my life by my family. My brother beat me to a pulp every day and my mother took savage pleasure in stopping it by punishing me instead of him. She herself takes her temper out on me frequently. My sisters have now started picking on me online . . .

It can be tempting to blame the victims in these cases. Certainly, many of Amanda Todd’s tormentors continued to lash out at her for “weakness” even after her death. Almost like predatory animals, we tend to pounce on the fragile, blaming them for succumbing to their circumstances. It’s not only that the weak are easy prey, but seeing weakness in others can also make us feel uncomfortable. If there can be chinks in someone else’s armor, perhaps that means we are vulnerable to finding chinks in our own. This is not a conscious thought, of course. When spoken aloud it often comes out in terms such as, “I’ve had family issues, but I came through them fine. Why can’t that person?” Rather than seeing ourselves as fortunate that we had optimum circumstances to develop resilience, we see our resilience as something we’ve managed to work up on our own, and therefore everybody else can too if they’d just grab hold of their bootstraps with both hands. This is a misconception that all too easily gets in the way of our compassion for others whose circumstances are different.

That said, resilience can be strengthened: The really good news is that we aren’t stuck forever with the vulnerabilities we carry with us out of childhood. Research is zeroing in on influences that can promote resilience and is finding that supportive relationships are key to this process. In other words, the weak need the strong to give them a compassionate hand up rather than kicking them off the ladder.

The anti-bullying programs that have been leveraged over National Bullying Prevention Month have gone far in raising awareness of bullying behaviors in schools. Amanda Todd’s tragic death this month has made us all keenly aware of the issue of bullying behaviors online. The way forward in both of these venues, it would seem, is to raise awareness of bullying behaviors where they first take root: Home, sweet home.

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