…and some expert advice on stopping the cycle.
Susan Newman, PhD
Parents often make excuses for their children’s outrageous behavior, whether it’s a preschooler’s tantrum or a teen’s sullen refusal to do what he or she has been asked. Children who become unmanageable or verbally abusive to their parents are, in fact, bullies, although most parents don’t think of these behaviors in that way.
Maybe they should.
Sean Grover, a New York psychotherapist, mustered the courage to call such children exactly what they are—bullies—and figured out how frustrated parents can take charge again and restore positive parent-child relationships.
Here’s what he had to say:
Sean, you have worked with children and parents for more than 20 years. What prompted you to write, When Kids Call the Shots: How to Seize Control from Your Darling Bully—and Enjoy Being a Parent Again?
Grover: Years ago, when I started to feel I was being bullied by my own child, I read every parenting book I could get my hands on. I found a lot of generic advice that doesn’t fit all parents, or quick solutions that didn’t last.
I realized that parenting books rarely address a parent’s unique history, culture, and parenting style. When I stopped trying to fix or change my child, and explored my own role in fostering her bullying behaviors, I found the answers I needed. Her behaviors were a direct consequence of my own insecurities.
The greatest impact on how we parent is our personal history. It amazed me how few parenting books took that into account. Obviously, I can’t provide therapy to all the parents who are being bullied by kids. So in the book, I use worksheets, journaling, and insight-oriented exercises to help parents understand their history and discover how it affects their parenting choices.
When we think of bullying, most of us couple the word with “school.” We worry about our children being bullied in a school setting. How does a parent recognize that they have a bully in the house?
Grover: The collision course between parents and children is nothing new. All children go through test periods. Parents are always in the position of making unpopular decisions and saying no to things kids want to do.
When a child tests a parent’s authority and the parent sets a limit, the child learns to control himself. Setting limits and boundaries is essential to a child’s healthy emotional development. When those limits and boundaries aren’t set clearly, you’ll soon find yourself at a tipping point for bullying.
Testing can be described as nagging and pestering. Bullying, on the other hand, is aggressive, hostile, and mean. It involves verbal assaults, physical aggression, putdowns, and unrelenting abuse. And it feels terrible.
The bullies in the schoolyard are no different from the child bullying her parent at home: Both will stop at nothing to get what they want. They lack empathy and are trapped in their own narcissism. They will threaten, blackmail, and terrorize you until you give in. Until they are taught limits and boundaries, the parent-child relationship is doomed.
The question most parents ask when their child of any age rebels or become difficult is: What happened to my sweet, affectionate, obedient child? How does pushing the limits and seeking independence cross the line to bullying?
Grover: Never let your kid disrespect you. Never let your kid talk down to you. Establish a culture of mutual respect in your family. Help your kid to express frustration constructively. Children have more feelings than words, so they need strong leadership from their parents to learn how to express themselves in words effectively and use frustration as fuel for personal growth.
A little bit of defiance is expected in children. It’s how they learn to be assertive and establish a solid sense of self and identity. You don’t want your kid being too cooperative or too accommodating. He or she will become a pushover or a target for bullies, and is more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression.
What immediate steps can a parent take when immersed in a standoff with their child?
Grover: Bullying is a symptom of an unbalanced inner life. When your kids act up, ask yourself: What’s really going on here? Are they tired? Are they hungry? Are they frightened? Perhaps they are having social difficulties at school or suffering from undiagnosed learning problems that create much psychic tension and devastate self-esteem. Try to locate the source of their anxiety, then address it directly.
In heated moments, don’t become reactive. Hit the pause button. Maintain your leadership and never bully back. If you bully back you are establishing a bullying culture in your family.
When to comes to raising children, modeling is king. I’ve heard it said that children absorb 10% of what you say and 90% of what you do. If you’re losing your patience, yelling, and threatening, you’re going to eventually be on the receiving end of that behavior from your kids. You may not see it when they are young, but as they get bigger and feel more powerful, it will resurface with a vengeance.
Why do parents give in to bullying from a child?
Grover: The true cause springs from parents’ own histories—how they were parented, their childhood experiences, and the modeling that their parents provided. These are the true causes. Were they bullied as children by their own parents? Did they grow up with an absent or neglectful parent? Did they have a narcissistic parent? These are questions parents want to explore.
I also look at what’s going on in parents’ lives: Are they in an unhappy relationship? Does their partner have a different parenting style? Are they suffering parent burnout? It’s hard to parent well under those conditions.
Self-care and child care go hand in hand. Often the best way to turn a bullying situation around at home begins with taking better care of yourself.
Three parenting styles are most likely to trigger bullying in children.
The guilty parent. Something has gone wrong—a divorce, an illness, a financial hardship—and now the parent feels guilty. To ease their guilt they give their kids too much freedom and not enough limits. This always backfires.
The anxious parent. This is a parent who is always worrying and expressing anxiety. Children experience a parent’s anxiety as, “I don’t believe in you,” “I don’t trust you,” or “you’re not a capable person,” and this triggers a lot of anger and resentment toward the parent.
The fix-everything parent. These parents can’t stand to see their children frustrated and constantly step in and solve problems for them. Such parents have good intentions and are often heroic, but the outcome is horrendous. The child remains dependent on the parents and unconsciously resents them for it. They are never satisfied. In fact, the more you give them, the less they appreciate you. Children have a natural drive for independence that needs to be encouraged. The fix-everything parent discourages it and therefore dwarfs the emotional development of their own child. Children of fix-everything parents have a tendency to age but not mature.
In your book you provide a training ground for new skills and a road back to sanity for parents bullied by their kids. What can parents do to counter the bullying and reverse patterns that may already be set?
Grover: Parents committed to working on themselves rarely fall victim to continued bullying. Mindfulness is not a word often associated with parenting. Neither is self-mastery. But without either it’s impossible to have a healthy relationship with your child. Parenting will always be an emotional and psychological workout.
After exploring your personal history and exposing the fears and insecurities that foster bullying in your child, make a concrete plan of action that begins with assembling an anti-bullying support team. Too often, bullied parents are ashamed of the situation. Breaking the silence and involving others for support is crucial.
Make sure you and your partner are united. Conflicting parenting styles are often at the heart of behavior problems at home.
Enlist friends and family. Children respond positively to adults other than their parents when these behaviors are confronted. Look for models and mentors in adults that your children look up to.
Involve school officials. Talk to guidance counselors and teachers. If your kid is into sports, talk to the coach. Let them know you are struggling and enlist their support.
Seek professional help if the bullying continues. Look for resources in your neighborhood that offer parents support or ask friends for a referral.