Family Bullying: When Your Enemies Are in Your Own Home

Sometimes, family can be our biggest enemy. Indeed, there are fathers, mothers, brothers or even fathers-in-law and brothers-in-law who criticize humiliate, and invalidate us. Do you recognize yourself as one of these victims?
Family Bullying: When Your Enemies Are in Your Own Home
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Family bullying is a form of relational aggression. It’s based on constant criticism, humiliation, contempt, and manipulation by parents, siblings, or other figures toward a specific family member. This kind of pooled dynamic is almost always led by one perpetrator to whom less powerful family members tend to attach themselves.

When bullying is mentioned, we almost instantly visualize a school playground or a work environment. However, there’s another scenario that’s often overlooked. That’s the family. Indeed, they also harass and bully. Furthermore, this kind of psycho-emotional assault can often be as or more damaging than experiences of school bullying.

Having an enemy in your home means not having any shelter or source of support. In fact, growing up as the black sheep or the ugly duckling is traumatic. Furthermore, these situations aren’t usually resolved by adulthood.

Having one or more bullies who share your genetic code means having to face uncomfortable situations, even if you no longer live in the family home. Let’s take a closer look.

The emotional impact caused by family bullying can lead to health problems and psychological disorders.

Cut-out figures of the family symbolizing family bullying
When one or several family members harass you, they feed your insecurities so you weaken mentally.

Family harassment

It’s often claimed that the most common way to avoid a bully is to get away from them but, as you well know, this isn’t always possible. After all, the child who’s bullied has to return to school every day just as the worker who suffers from mobbing must keep going to work. In a similar way, the person who’s the victim of family bullying has to spend many years in an environment from which it’s impossible for them to escape.

Moreover, these aggressive dynamics are often perpetuated even when the victim has reached adulthood. That’s because once the family bully or bullies has chosen a victim, they rarely give up their abusive and demeaning behavior. Even more worryingly, there’s usually an alliance or silence on the part of other family members.

This form of domestic violence isn’t new. It’s a reality with a long tradition that’s usually silenced in our society.

Family bullies: who they are and what they’re like

Family bullies might be the parents themselves or siblings of the victim. There’s also another common situation. It’s when someone starts a relationship and finds themselves in a situation where their partner’s family constantly criticizes and humiliates them.

As a rule, the family bully can be characterized by one or several types of rather specific traits. They’re as follows:

  • They use verbally aggressive behavior.
  • They show emotionally immature behavior.
  • They’re deceitful. They also lie to get others to harass the victim.
  • They’re controlling.
  • They’re vindictive.
  • They can be manipulative.
  • They may act out of jealousy and envy.
  • They’re arrogant and narcissistic.
  • They may experience noticeable mood swings.
  • They’re clever at misunderstanding everything, misrepresenting what the victim says or does, and humiliating them in front of the rest of the family.

The fact that these bullies are relatives doesn’t justify their harassing behavior. In fact, in these situations, it’s perfectly acceptable for the victim to keep their distance, break off all contact, or even make an official complaint against them.

How does family bullying manifest itself?

Family bullying can be confusing at first. When you’re small, you normalize certain dynamics. However, as you grow up, you become aware that the behavior of your father, mother, or siblings isn’t acceptable. You realize that they’re hurting you, intimidating you, and stealing what you have a right to. Respect and well-being.

The signs of bullying are extremely varied. Nevertheless, it’s essential that they’re recognized as early as possible:

  • They humiliate the victim for who they are, what they do, and what they say. In fact, they turn them into the ugly duckling.
  • They undervalue them.
  • They silence them and make them feel worthless. Indeed, they give them no importance at all within the family.
  • They criticize and show constant contempt toward them. In effect, they turn the victim into the black sheep of the family.
  • They create chaos. For example, they turn every conversation into an argument, assigning blame, and making false claims.
  • They use emotional blackmail and manipulation.
  • They use demeaning comparisons. For instance, saying Your brother is better than you.
  • They use behaviors of superiority, make harmful jokes, and demeaning comments.
  • They often accuse the victim of selfishness, claiming that they only have their own interests in mind.
Sad woman thinking about family bullying
The neglect, constant criticism, and psycho-emotional isolation shown to the victim have a devastating impact.

Associated psychological effects

The family bully acts like a territorial animal. They’re often motivated by jealousy or envy and seek to expel their victim from the family. Even if they’re a really close relative. Understandably, the mental and social impact is immense.

At present, more studies are appearing on the effect of domestic bullying. For example, the Central South University (China) conducted a study that claimed bullying between siblings causes extreme anguish and can lead to mood disorders.

We also know that the longer this situation lasts, the more impact it has on the victim. In fact, it’s common for many who’ve grown up in dysfunctional and abusive environments to engage in self-destructive behaviors.

How to respond to family bullying

No one has the right to harm you in any way. Therefore, you’re fully justified in defending yourself, responding as soon as possible, and even reporting such situations, regardless of whether the bully is a family member. Indeed, no figure should ever criticize, ignore, instill fear and insecurity in you, and make you feel worthless.

Setting boundaries, safeguarding your emotions, practicing self-care, seeking valid support figures, and keeping your distance from aggressive family members are key to your well-being. After all, your family should always be a nurturing environment, not a battlefield.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Liu X, Wolloh Ii MG, Lin X, Qiu X, Qing Z, Wang W, Liu F, Wu W, Yang X, Otake Y, Luo X, Wang Z, Lu D. The association between sibling bullying and psychotic-like experiences among children age 11-16 years in China. J Affect Disord. 2021 Apr 1;284:31-37. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2021.01.073. Epub 2021 Feb 4. PMID: 33582430.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.