When Kids Bully Parents

A troubling new trend exposed

by Michael Levin | Updated 21 Jul 2015 at 6:15 PM

When I was a tyke, my mother’s nickname for me was Tito, then the Generalissimo of communist Yugoslavia. (She wasn’t calling me Tito after Tito Jackson for my singing and dancing abilities, I’ll tell you that.) So maybe I was a bit of a tyrant myself, and any bullying I get from my four kids is my just desserts.

Of course, if parenting were easy, all of us would do it well. And all children would grow up happy, content and, in the words of a famous talk-show hostess, ready to take on the day.

But parenting is often a brutally difficult, complex, and unrewarding job. You don’t get a medal for doing the right thing as a parent, whether it’s resolving a dispute between siblings or stocking the refrigerator. If anything, the stakes keep rising and the challenges mount in complexity.

For all the focus on keeping kids from bullying each other, not too many people are talking about kids bullying parents.

But a most troubling reality for parents is the phenomenon of kids bullying parents. It’s hardly something parents discuss openly at PTA meetings, backyard barbecues, or even family therapy sessions.

The insouciance or downright rudeness of “kids today” is nothing new; you can probably find references to it in the Bible. As it says in Deuteronomy, “[A]nd they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones.”

Yet for all the focus on keeping kids from bullying each other in schools today, not too many people are talking about the degree to which kids bully parents.

All that’s changing with a new book by Sean Grover, “When Kids Call the Shots: How to seize control from your darling bully — and be a parent again” (AMACOM, 2015).

Grover exposes what he perceives, based on his experiences as an educator working with students and their parents, as the breadth, depth, and root causes of children bullying parents.

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This isn’t one of these parenting books with a simple, easy-to-apply, one-size-fits-all solution. That’s because the problem of rude, bullying children is all too often rooted in the undeveloped emotional lives of the parents.

So if your kid is bullying you — it’s happening against the backdrop of whatever childhood issues you may not yet have faced.

Grover makes the surprising (and depressing) point that most parents bullied by their children were themselves bullied by their parents. So they’ve essentially trained their children, by their words or actions (or non-actions), to pick up the work of bullying that their parents left off.

You can’t modify a child’s behavior without modifying your own. That makes for some uncomfortable self-examination on the part of the parent.

Authoritarian behavior doesn’t work with kids today, if it ever did, Grover writes.

If you were raised by overly rigorous parents, the natural tendency is to be too much of a softie with your kids.

“Because I said so” has no more meaning to kids than if you say it in English or Sanskrit.

The key to getting kids to stop bullying you is to recognize what you’re doing with them — and why you’re doing it.

Often, parents zig where their parents zagged. If you were raised by overly rigorous parents, for example, the natural tendency is to be too much of a softie with your kids.

Your parents may have gone a little too far setting boundaries, but if you fail to set appropriate boundaries for your kids, you’re basically inviting them to bully you.

Related: 12 Lousy Things Moms Say to Other Moms

The term “bullying” in Grover’s book is sort of a catch-all for all forms of unacceptable kid behavior. The solutions he offers — self-examination, therapy, and other means of digging in and finding out why you’re having such a bad time of it — will resolve a host of problems.

The last thing most parents want to do is go back and revisit their own childhoods. Digging up those bones is painful and, without a skilled therapist or guide, potentially fruitless or even self-defeating.

Nonetheless, there’s nothing like having kids to reveal your blind spots as a human being.

John Bradshaw once wrote that the most dangerous thing for a child was the unlived inner life of the parent. So if you are getting the short end of the stick from your little ones, or not-so-little ones, Grover’s book is an excellent first step into the attic of unresolved issues, unsettling memories, and unhappy times.

The main point: The route to a happier, bullying-free home runs through your own psyche. Read this book before the next time you give your kid a timeout.

Maybe they will thank you. One day. When they have children of their own.

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  3. dads
  4. moms
  5. parenting
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