How to Handle Relatives Who Are Hurtful

Last week I read a few posts about dealing with family members who were rude, hurtful, and gossipy. It’s all too common, and makes me think of a letter I recently wrote to myself:

Dear Me,
This week was rough. People said unkind things to me and to those I love. I wanted to yell and say unkind things right back at them. But I didn’t. I wanted to lash out and confront them. But I didn’t. 

I’m confused. 

Am I letting myself down when I don’t react to their nasty comments?  Would I be seen as a bully if I said out loud what I was thinking inside? Am I weak when I say nothing and let others get away with saying hurtful things?

Love to you, yet still confused

I think many have wondered the same things. Why, when someone is rude or uses hurtful words without any care or concern for another’s feelings, do we think our only option is to either have a full-blown argument, which puts the relationship at risk, or stay silent and let the person get away with spouting nasty words?

I’m no different. I hate confrontation. Yet I’ve been known to angrily confront someone who said mean things to me. I’ve also silently walked away, truly hurt by another’s words, wondering if what they said was true.

Why Bullies Bully

Marianne Williamson once said, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us. … Your playing small does not serve the world.” 

I’m empowered by her words. We all have internal radar systems letting us know if someone is just speaking to hear themselves talk, or if they’re sharing painful, yet valuable information about something we’ve said or done. If you’re unsure, ask yourself, “Does the person who speaks unkindly usually speak that way to almost everyone?

The truth is people who routinely make nasty comments are usually so unsure of themselves that they tend to attempt to elevate themselves by putting others down. 

Once you accept that, you have to decide what you want to do next. Do you want to continue listening to what I call “garbage words?” Or do you want to stand tall and represent your true self, as Marianne Williamson advised? 

I believe the choice is obvious. It’s not simple, but it is obvious. We have to stop being around people who speak unkindly, whether they’re family or not. It just isn’t emotionally healthy for us, or for our children.

Finding The Courage to Cut Off Contact

As soon as a decision is made to stop all contact with someone—fear arrives. We become afraid we’ll get sucked into an argument as we announce, “Because of the way you talk I can’t be around you.” One way to avoid getting sucked in is to phrase things by only speaking about you. 

An example might be, “I don’t like the way you’re speaking to me and to the ones I love. If you continue to say things like this, I can no longer be around you. I am not telling you what to do. It’s your life. I’m simply making a choice for myself. I know you’ll say nasty things about me now, and when I’m not around, and that’s fine.”

This takes tremendous courage. Ambrose Redmoon said, “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.” IMHO, taking care of you and setting an example for your children is more important than fear in any situation. 

One last point. When someone uses mean and hurtful words, they’re usually deeply wounded themselves. They were either treated that way as a child or they’re using nasty words as a defense mechanism, a personal shield to protect them from feeling their own pain.

Not only is it important to stop being around those who use nasty words, it’s important not to use mean, nasty or hurtful words as you raise your children so they aren’t wounded either. I believe all children deserve that. Don’t you?

It’s possible the childhood wound that created an adult who bullies may come from having commands yelled at them. Read I Taught the Kids Not To Listen to find alternatives to that kind of parenting.

Sharon Silver is the author of Stop Reacting and Start Responding and The Authentic Parent Series. Go to to download two free chapters from her book and learn about other Proactive Parenting programs. Find Sharon on Twitter and Facebook.


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