Parents Most Likely to Be Bullied by Their Kids

Excerpt from WHEN KIDS CALL THE SHOTS, Chapter Three: How we become our kids’ victims

Over the years, as I listened to bullied parents’ stories, I began to recognize many common experiences. Though bullied parents come from difficult cultures and communities, I’ve identified the three most common scenarios that contribute to parents allowing their kids to bully them.

Of course, these are broad categories; parents are much more complex than the snapshot histories presented here. Yet, you may find them to be generally applicable—and food for thought.

The parents most likely to be bullied by their kids are:

  • Parents who were bullied by their own parents
  • Parents who had absent or neglectful parents
  • Parents who had narcissistic parents

Let’s consider each scenario, and see if they ring true for you.

Bullied by Their Own Parents

Many parents who are bullied by their children were themselves bullied by their own parents. The culture of bullying endures from generation to generation, only the roles change.

In defiance of their history, parents who were bullied by their parents may overcompensate with their own children. For example, adults who grew up in homes with overly strict parents tend to be too liberal and permissive with their kids. In a strange way, they set out to undo their history with their own kids by giving them the freedom that they were denied. These parents often made a vow in their youth: “When I grow up, I’m never going to treat my kids the way I was treated.” Determined that their kids will not suffer the way they did, they parent in opposition to their parent’s choices. This backlash against authoritarian parenting of the past is often at the heart of the bullied parenting dilemma that we find ourselves in today. For example:

  • If your parents were dominating, you might overcompensate by being too accommodating and permissive.
  • If your parents were critical, you might strive to be more of a friend than a parent to your child.
  • If your parents were inattentive, you might smother your kid with attention and become overly involved in his life.

Bullied parents’ hearts are in the right place. After all, they want their kids to have a better childhood than they did. Yet, their overreaching efforts to undo the pain of their own history will prevent them from providing the leadership their kids need for healthy social and emotional development.

Such parents tend to avoid any parenting decisions that may anger their child. In fact, they begin to fear their kid, just as they feared their parents. As the trauma of their own childhood is awakened, they stop thinking like adults and start thinking like children.

Meet Bradley the Bully

Hazel described her eleven-year-old son, Bradley, as a tyrannical bully. He yelled at her, called her names, and mocked her. A single mother with no support, she felt overwhelmed by Bradley’s aggressive behavior. One difficult night, he was so verbally abusive that Hazel actually called the police.

The police believed they were going to the scene of domestic violence. When they arrived and Hazel explained that her son was abusing her, they asked to speak with him. Then, when little Bradley came out of his bedroom in his pajamas, the police enjoyed a hearty laugh.

Bradley was threatening her? This tiny child? Was she serious?

If we consider Hazel’s upbringing, it’s clear why she was afraid: Bradley’s verbal abuse had awakened the trauma of her parents abusing her. As a child, no one had come to Hazel’s aid. Subsequently, when she began to relive the feelings of fear and powerlessness from her childhood, she did what she couldn’t do as a child: she called for help. To Hazel, it made perfect sense.

As you can see, parents who were bullied by their parents have to struggle through a mess of personal anxieties and emotional traumas that are awakened when they become parents. For Hazel to make new parenting choices, she had to understand how her parents’ abuse impacts her parenting today.

Absent or Neglectful Parents

Adults who grew up with absent or neglectful parents have a particularly difficult time being parents because they had no parental model to internalize. Even if they had a mother or father, they felt parentless.

Unsurprisingly, when they become parents, they haven’t a clue what to do. With no parenting model to follow or oppose, they feel lost and overwhelmed in their new role.

Desperate, they defer decisions and avoid unpopular parenting choices. They may even shift the burden of parenting onto the shoulders of their own kids, letting them make parenting decisions for themselves.

Though kids jump at the chance to seize leadership from their parents, they are totally unprepared to manage themselves. They can’t structure their day, set their own schedule, or plan for their future. Without the guiding hand of a confident parent, it’s only a matter of time before they stumble and become bullies.

No kid wants to parent himself.

Meet Max and His Missing Parent

Max put it succinctly: “How can I know how to be a dad—when I never had a dad?”

Raised by his mother and her sisters, Max never knew what it was like to have a father. Now as a dad raising two girls, he became flustered by the simplest of parenting decisions. He feared making the wrong choice or hurting his kids, so whenever possible he deferred to his wife. Eventually, his kids demanded answers from him. After all, he was their father.

Max’s situation went from bad to worse when his tween daughter, Tonya, began to bully him. Max had no clue how to respond. “I learned about fatherhood from sitcoms,” he said. “But those dads had scripts—I didn’t. And none of them had kids who spoke to him like Tonya spoke to me.”

After many therapy sessions, lots of journaling, and learning to apply the tools in this book, Max overcame his fears and provided the leadership Tonya needed.

Max’s breakthrough moment? He stopped letting his past define him. “I got tired of my story and decided to write a new one,” he said. “I decided to be the dad that I wanted to have when I was a kid.”

Max’s new confidence enabled him to put a stop to Tonya’s bullying and heal his past.

A Narcissistic Parent

Narcissistic parents are often hard to spot. They attend school events and parent/teacher conferences. They throw birthday parties. From a distance, they seem like ideal parents. So why are they bullied by their children?

Take a closer look and you’ll see the problem hiding in plain sight. They are terrible listeners and conversation monopolizers. Incessantly self-referential, rather than respecting and promoting their kids’ individuality, they try to make them mini-versions of themselves.

For children, nothing is more enraging than not being recognized by your own parent.

Kids often bully in an effort to break through a parent’s self-absorption. But narcissistic parents are too wrapped up in themselves to identify with their kids, steering conversations back to themselves, fixating on their own childhoods, telling endless stories about the past or forcing their kids to endure tiresome yarns about their own achievements.

The problem here is that narcissistic parents don’t live in the moment. This creates a profound sense of emotional deprivation in their children. And it fuels bullying. Every child has three basic emotional needs: to be listened to, to be recognized, and to be validated by their parents. Self-absorption prevents narcissistic parents from meeting any of these needs.

When adolescence hits, and kids begin to claim their own separate ideas and identities, narcissistic parents are likely to view it as a betrayal. Conflicts escalate.

Sadly, most relationships between a narcissistic parent and a bullying kid end in estrangement. Unless the parent changes his ways, the relationship is doomed.