Is it Natural For Kids to Bully their Parents?

Excerpt from WHEN KIDS CALL THE SHOTS, Chapter Two

It happens all the time. Parents arrive in my office in a state of shock, wondering how their sweet, adorable child morphed into a domestic tyrant.

To gain a better understanding of the origins of this bullying behavior, let’s look at some basic child psychology and see how developmental phases come with built-in power struggles and test periods that have the potential to turn into bullying.

Little Monster Psych. 101

In each developmental phrase, children wrestle with new skills and abilities. Learning to walk, use language, or write—these are mighty struggles for little folk.

If a phase goes well, after a period of intense struggle and sustained effort, a breakthrough finally occurs. The breakthrough comes in the form of a personal victory that changes everything. In an amazingly short period of time, the child discards his old way of doing things and determines to keep moving forward. For example:

  • The baby who has just fed himself with a spoon no longer wants to be fed.
  • The wobbly child who just learned to walk has no further interest in crawling.
  • The teenager who has just gotten his driver’s license abandons his bike in the garage.

Each time your kid masters a new skill, he makes a leap in maturity. He loves the feeling of mastery and experiences a rush of joy and confidence in his own abilities. He is stronger and more powerful.

And of course, when children reach these personal milestones, their parents are their clamorous cheerleaders. Kids soak up parental applause and admiration; it motivates them to keep striving for greater mastery.

Here things start to get a little more complicated.

The Drive for Independence Promotes Conflict

With mastery comes a yearning for greater independence. In other words, kids will begin to reject their parents’ support. For example:

  • The baby who has learned to feed herself forcefully pushes her parent’s hand away.
  • The toddler who has learned to walk cries out when his parents try to assist him.
  • The teenager with the driver’s license doesn’t want his parents in the car.

Inexperience and impulsivity complicate a child’s drive for greater independence. Children don’t know their limits; they don’t know when to stop and when to go, they don’t always know what’s good for them and what’s not. One thing they do know, however: they don’t want their parents hovering over them.

Since no kid is prepared to live without adult supervision, eventually every parent has the unpopular job of going against her kid’s will. It’s impossible to be a good parent without saying no from time to time.

Here is where the battle of wills begins.

How Frustration Gives Way to Bullying

As a rule, children don’t like hearing the word no, especially from their parents. The moment parents prevent their kids from getting what they want, kids are perplexed.

Why are my parents ruining my fun?

Can’t they see I’m enjoying myself?

Why are they getting in my way?

They don’t understand that their parents are protecting them. It feels like restraint, and they don’t like it.

The Bully Impulse

It’s human nature to rebel against restrictions. No kids want a parent standing between them and what they want. In other words, nature puts kids and their parents on a collision course. That’s why, eventually, all healthy children must enter into battle with their parents.

This fight is natural and necessary. It’s how children can begin to define themselves as different from their parents. They have their own wants and needs, their own interests. If children are too accommodating or too compliant with their parents, they will lack confidence and self-definition in life.

In every developmental phase, children instinctively battle against their parents’ restrictions.

  • The small child fights her parents as they strap her in her stroller.
  • The toddler runs away from his parents at bedtime.
  • The teenager brawls with her parents over chores and curfews.

As parents impose their will on their kids, sparks fly. These clashes are an unavoidable and important part of parenting. Every good parent eventually scuffles with his kid in a battle of youthful rebellion.

Testing Moments

After parents set a restriction, we enter into a crucial moment. The child begins to test how far he can push his parents to give him what he wants. It’s his will against theirs. The old-fashioned standoff commences. The kid thinks:

If I scream for it, will dad give in?

If I cry, will I get my way?

If I make a scene, will mom surrender?

It’s impossible to look away from a testing moment when it happens in public. You wonder to yourself:

Who will back down first?

Who will win this battle?

Who will compromise?

When parents stay firm, refuse to concede, or give in to demands, many kids will push the conflict to another level.

Here we reach a tipping point.

When Testing Turns to Bullying

From preschool to high school, test periods are the prime clashing points in all parent–child relationships. They are trying times, when kids flex their young muscles and test their parents’ tenacity.

When your kid begins to bully you, do you…

  • Surrender and give him what he wants?
  • Hold your ground?
  • Bully back?

Okay, let’s pause here and take a moment to remember that parents are human. They have good days and bad days. On good days, they are good-humored and flexible, and they have boundless patience—or at least enough patience. On bad days, they are grumpy; they lose their temper and sometimes act like children themselves.

As kids battle their parents, parents do battle with themselves.

Do I surrender?

Do I punish?

Do I negotiate?

How important are these test periods? How you manage them ultimately determines whether your child will become your bully.