During conversations at the dinner table, there’s usually one family member who crosses the line from constructive criticism to bullying. Especially if it’s not directed towards you, you may overlook or feel out of place pointing out this offensive behavior. However, stepping in could make things more comfortable for everyone. Here’s when to speak up to the bully in the family, and how to minimize the blowback.

Is This Bullying?

The biggest barrier to speaking up for yourself or someone else is doubt about whether this situation warrants protest in the first place. Verbal bullying always merits reproach, and it includes:

  • shaming, hostile and aggressive teasing
  • judgemental remarks regarding one’s identity
  • excessive negative judgement and criticism

These are relatively easy to notice, especially if they come repeatedly from a certain family member, or target the same vulnerable family member. Passive-aggressive bullying, on the other hand, may go unnoticed. This more subtle form usually involves a level of manipulation, and the perpetrator may maintain plausible deniability: behaving normally and with manners on the surface, while passing targeted, hurtful judgement where they can get away with it. Examples of this behavior include gossiping behind someone else’s back, making condescending gestures and facial expressions, deliberately bringing up embarrassing incidents, etc. At a gathering of loved ones and friends, it can be difficult to call someone out on cruel behavior. Our instinct may be to overlook or make excuses for the offensive behavior. However, if the behavior makes you or someone else feel uncomfortable, then you may have grounds to confront the bully.

Should You Step In?

When you identify either verbal or passive-aggressive bullying directed towards someone else, it can be a challenge to decide whether or not to get involved. It’s important you first talk to the victim about what they want. Sometimes, it’s best to stay out of the conversation and just offer support to the victim if possible. The victim of a family bully may want to confront the insensitive family member themselves, or avoid a big scene. If the victim feels helpless, frightened, or angry, and wants support from you, then you should consider confronting the perpetrator. Don’t feel like you shouldn’t get involved because the bullying doesn’t directly affect you. You’re not just a bystander. You’re a part of the family, and if you can successfully mediate a conversation between the conflicting parties, you may create a more enjoyable and harmonious environment for everyone.

De-Fusing Tense Situations

Dealing with a bully in the family may feel more intense than with a random person, since there’s objectively more at stake. However you proceed, this conflict involves people you love on both sides, and you’ll want to prioritize keeping the peace. As opposed to any other situation, a chronically insensitive person in the family may still be someone you love, respect, and even depend on in daily life. You’ll want to de-escalate the situation as carefully as possible:

    • Confront the bully in private.
    • Offer to include the victim in the conversation, if they are comfortable with it.
  • Ask the bully to think of an alternative path of action, for next time, and suggest an apology to the victim(s).

If you feel able, you are encouraged to step in. It is also okay to step aside; limiting exposure to the bully allows you to take care of the victim and yourself, enjoying the holidays the best you can. Written by: Merusha Mukherjee