Bullied by Her Own Child — ‘Please Help Me’

Divorced from her son's father, this mom is short on patience, too — 'change how your respond,' advises one pediatrician

I’ve watched parents raise children for 30 years (and raised four of my own), so I know how hard it is.

Here, I share a question that came to me as a pediatrician, along with my answer to this parent — in the hope it may be helpful to others.

Dr. Meg,
I trust you can give me advice. I have a nine-year-old son — his father and I divorced in 2010. His father was diagnosed as a narcissist and does not have nice things to say about me when he has our son, alternate weekends and holidays (my son tells me everything).

The problem I’m having is that my son treats me with disrespect and speaks to me like a disrespectful adult would talk to another adult. It angers me so much and is one of the main reasons I yell at my son. I don’t know how to deal with this situation. A few months ago, my ex tried to punch me in front of our son — which shocked both my son and myself. It also fuels my belief that he has nothing positive to say about me while our son is with him.

I don’t want to stop him from seeing his dad, as children need both parents in their lives. I have no doubt that my ex loves our son dearly. Please help me. Some days I want to sit in a heap and cry my eyes out from frustration and sadness. I’m not that young anymore so my patience is not as it used to be, and menopause is also part of my life now — I’m 54. Thank you for your help.

At A Loss

Dear At A Loss,
Regardless of the label your ex-husband was given, he is a bully.

Here’s the problem: You can’t change his behavior, but you can change your response to it. Bullies get away with being mean until someone says, “Stop it!” You have, apparently, said “Stop it” through your divorce. The problem for you now is that he is teaching your son how to be a bully, too — and you are the target. This isn’t your son’s fault. He is being trained to bully. Again, you can’t change what your ex says or does with your son (unless you go to court and get a good lawyer), but you can change how you respond to your son when he is with you.

Here are a few suggestions:

1.) Recognize why you allow yourself to be bullied (even by your nine-year-old). Many women allow husbands to mistreat them because they can’t love or care for themselves. The fact that your husband mistreated you tells me that you will allow your son to do the same. He has a good teacher in his father and if you don’t refuse to let him bully you, it will only get worse.

2.) When your son does disrespectful things to you, you must not yell but refuse to allow him to continueThis means clearly stating the rules in your home by saying: “When you are at Dad’s, you will hear him say mean things, but in my house, you cannot say mean things to me or about me. If you do, then you will no longer [fill in the blank], and give firm, tough consequences (no video games, no friends, whatever motivates him to stop).

Related: Guess Which Parent Teaches Kids the Most About Trust?

3.) Realize that you lose all your power and influence when you yell. Whatever you need to do to stop yelling at your son, do it. If you need time out in the middle of a conversation, take it.

4.) Find a good counselor or doctor who can help you help yourself. Menopause can be a beast for some women, so you need a good physician to help you. Also, that physician may point you to a good counselor who can help you find the internal strength to refuse to be bullied by your ex and your son. If you don’t, your relationship with your son will get worse.

Related: The Parenting Style That Helps Kids Most

I know it feels now as if there’s nothing you can do to help yourself out of this situation. That is not true. There is good help, but you need to be willing to care enough for yourself to get it. Please do.

Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for more than 30 years. She is the author of the book “Hero: Being the Strong Father Your Children Need” (Regnery Publishing, May 2017), along with a number of digital parenting resources and online courses, including The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids.