Dear LetterBalm: My dad is a malicious bully. He’s verbally abusive to his family and friends and has belittled and mocked me all my life. I’m in my 40s now, and, with the help of therapy, I am beginning to understand why he does what he does. My shrink has helped me realize that I have the power to stop him. She suggests standing up to him and cutting him off verbally when he starts in. I understand all this, but I’m feeling insecure and a little scared. He’s pretty intimidating. What can I say to him to deflect his hurtful words?
–Sticks and Stones
Your therapist made an excellent suggestion. Bullies thrive on intimidation; their noise and bluster help them keep the upper hand. You are in a prime position to bring your dad down a few notches (and, maybe, be a bit of a hero to your long-suffering family). Ms. L.B. suggests you practice phrases in front of a mirror. Learn some breathing exercises to keep you centered and calm and not prone to raising your voice – the last thing you want is to get into a shouting match with a veteran intimidator. Keep in mind the adage: All cruelty springs from weakness. In the actual situation, wait for a moment of quiet and try any of these on for size, then decide whether you leave the room or hang up the phone immediately:
- I won’t allow you to speak to me like that.
- If you can’t speak to me politely, I will stop this conversation right now.
- That’s very rude, and you need to back off.
- Your behavior is unacceptable, and I’m leaving right now.
- If you can’t be respectful, I’m ending this conversation immediately.
- I reject your cruel and malicious behavior towards me.
- Your behavior is shameful, and I won’t listen to you anymore.
- You have hurt your entire family and a legion of friends who don’t deserve it. You need to back off.
Dear LetterBalm: Now that the weather is getting warmer, my 10-year-old son is anticipating riding his bike more. But he and I are at odds because he’s adamant that he won’t wear a helmet. He says only motorcyclists wear helmets, that he’ll look like a dork on a bicycle and kids will laugh at him. I’ve told him that he won’t be allowed to ride his bike until he wears a helmet every time. But I hate to be the mean mom. How can I talk to him to convince him that it’s actually cool to wear a helmet when you’re riding your bike?
Good for you that you’re stepping up and taking a stand as a parent. Bike safety has a no-nonsense tradeoff a 10-year-old can understand: Observe the rules and you can ride your bike. But Ms. L.B. thinks you should use this as a teachable moment. You can use the helmet issue to remind your son to stand up for himself in the face of peer pressure. So what if his friends talk trash about his helmet? He has to learn to think for himself and develop confidence. Besides, he can always tell his friends that he’s in good company because helmets are good enough for soldiers, police officers, fighter pilots and baseball and football players. Talk to your son alone when he’s not distracted by video games or an annoying sibling:
Aaron, we’ve been having some disagreements about your wearing a helmet every time you ride your bike. I know you don’t want your friends making fun of you and thinking you’re a dork. I think you should look at other people who wear helmets: soldiers, fighter pilots, police officers, firefighters, and lots of athletes like skiers and baseball and football players. They’re pretty brave and strong, and they don’t worry about what other people think. Honey, this isn’t the only time you’re going to have to stand up to other people. There will be lots of times. I hope you’ll be brave and strong, too, and stick up for yourself. How about we go to a bike shop and get you fitted for a helmet? I’ll bet the people there are very cool about bike safety. With their help, you can choose a great helmet and decorate it, too.
Dear LetterBalm: My husband of 10 years is the keeper of our finances, and I’ve found out we owe thousands of dollars in back taxes. Over the years, he under-reported our income. I’m so mad at him – he’s made things difficult for our family. I’m also mad at myself that I didn’t pay more attention to our money and just let him manage everything. He’s apologized, and we’ve engaged a financial planner/manager to advise us. The problem is my mother who never liked my husband and is criticizing him unmercifully. She’s told the whole family about our situation and won’t stop hammering him, really abusively. I need to resolve this fast. Help!
–Wife of a Tax Cheat
Your story is a cautionary tale of how women shouldn’t leave everything to their husbands and should insist on an active role in family finances and investments. Take a deep breath and stop blaming yourself – you and your husband have made up, and you are rectifying the tax problem and putting your house in order. Since this is tax filing deadline day, Ms. L.B. will gift you with her favorite money mantra: Don’t discuss financial matters with anyone who isn’t involved. If you hadn’t told your mother about your tax difficulties, you and your husband would be spared her vindictive judgment. Resolve to keep private matters private, O.K.? In the meantime, have a confidential talk with mom, just the two of you over a cup of coffee:
Mother, you’ve been pretty vocal about our tax difficulties lately, and the whole family knows. Herman made a mistake and we’re rectifying it with expert help, so you needn’t concern yourself with this anymore. But there is something I must say: I want you to stop criticizing Herman. Just stop. It’s hurtful, cruel and unfair, and after my being married to Herman and loving him more than ever, rather pointless, don’t you think? I realize I never should have said anything to you about our taxes in the first place, and you can rest assured I won’t be discussing our private matters in the future.