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My family is abusive: How to deal with bullies in your family

Colleen E. Crane MSW, LCSW is a licensed clinical social worker based in Bozeman, Montana. Colleen is currently in private practice and specializes in working with adolescent girls and women.

Dealing with abusive family dynamics

One of the things that I hear often as a therapist is the struggle many clients have dealing with abusive parents or siblings.
Woman upset with sister

There is almost always this sense of guilt when it comes to dealing with family members who are bullies. If we would not put up with it in our personal lives, then why do we put up with it in our families? This is a difficult question to answer for many who have had to deal with abuse dynamics for years. Here are some tips to start putting a stop to the abuse.

Just because they are family doesn’t mean they can’t be wrong

Passive-aggressive behavior, manipulation, sexual abuse, verbal abuse and domestic violence have no place in a family. However, often in families where this type of behavior does exist, it is excused. This is not OK. When family members use these tactics on others it plays a big role in how you function outside of your family. Many clients I have worked with that have come from families like these talk about not being able to trust others or form healthy intimate relationships. When abuse has been a part of your family dynamic, you need to be aware of how it can affect all aspects of your life.

It’s OK to create space

One of the hardest things in dealing with an abusive family is creating space between you and family members. Often in families where there is abuse, there is also enmeshment, meaning it feels like you can’t take personal space. If you feel guilty for taking space, don’t! In order for you to heal and understand yourself better, it is very important to create healthy boundaries with family members who don’t feel that boundaries are necessary. You don’t have to answer your phone, email or text. Take space. How long should this space last? Only you can answer that question.

Should I confront the abuse?

Note: The most important thing you can do when you are dealing with a bully in your family is to reach out for help. Work with a mental health counselor, reach out to your friends, develop connections within your community. By creating healthy relationships, you will not feel so guilty about getting rid of the bad ones.

The answer is: It depends. Are your family members going through counseling? Are they willing to take responsibility for their actions and make amends to develop a healthy relationship? If the answer is no, sometimes it is better to not confront the abuse. This can be very hard to do; however, if someone is not willing to take responsibility for their actions, then they are not going to be able to hear you, either. If you feel you need to get these emotions out, try writing a letter that you never send. When you are ready, take that letter and rip it up or burn it if necessary. Often the physical act of writing and then letting it go creates a sense of peace.

More on putting an end to abuse

Is it emotional abuse?
How to safely leave an abusive relationship
Lessons for surviving sexual assault

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