Can Children Bully Their Parents?

Young little girl hugging her mother while looking at camera.

The notion of child bullies is nothing new. We often hear about kids bullying other kids, which unfortunately can lead to a number of significant consequences, including triggering self-harm, or worse, suicide for the bullying victim. Despite this, bullying has become so commonplace, especially within the last century or so, that the “playground bully” has become a veritable archetype in coming-of-age stories and school-based narratives. That being said, what motivates children to bully others? And what happens when this bullying is taken home?

Lesser known is the fact that children can actually bully their own parents. It’s hard to believe at first, especially when we consider the age and size discrepancies, as well as the difference in authority.  However, this happens more frequently than many of us may realize. Psychotherapist, author, and public speaker, Dr. Sean Grover has more than 20 years of experience working with both adults and children in his practice. In that time, he’s witnessed numerous cases of adults whom he feels were being bullied by their children. According to him, these parents and their children come from various cultures and communities. What connects them, however, is three commonly occurring scenarios which lead to this unique and harmful relationship:

Three Common Ties to Child Bullies

  • The parents were bullied by their own parents.
  • The parents, themselves, are narcissistic.
  • The parents had parents that were absent or neglectful.

These three characteristics appear to be the common threads which link such instances of dominance-reversal and parent-abuse together. Understanding them can help explain why kids may choose to bully their parents as well as why the parents have fallen into the role of bullying victim. Kids may act in such a way that is bullying to others for a variety of reasons. Among the most common, according to the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, are the experience of physical abuse or turmoil in the home, or a desire to stand out to others in a way that they have learned garners them the most attention. More often than not, bullies, themselves, have been or are being bullied, oftentimes by those who are bigger and stronger than they are. Unfortunately, their bullies are often found at home. When this situation is reversed, however, explaining this behavior becomes a bit more complex.

When Parents Have Been Bullied By Their Own Parents

One of the most common scenarios observed in parents who are bullied by their children is that they had also been victim to bullying by their own parents. In other words, this “culture” of bullying and abuse passes down from one generation to the next. The victims remain victims, only now the perpetrators of the abuse are the children.

Because these parents had been bullied when they were young, they may compensate by being overly liberal with their own children. These parents are effectively attempting to undo their own history of abuse by allowing their children the freedom they were denied. However, freedom in excess can be dangerous. After all, kids require guidance in order to grow and develop in a healthy manner. That being said, very recently, there has been a backlash against overly authoritarian parenting techniques of the past. Because of this, in an attempt to distance themselves from these methods, many parents today may find themselves falling towards the opposite ends of the spectrum and being too permissive.

Though their hearts are in the right place, they consequently leave their child’s behavior unregulated and undisciplined. This means that the child may lack a developed sense of boundaries or what kind of behavior is acceptable. Not understanding boundaries or not being checked when those boundaries are crossed contributes to repeat behavior, which ultimately leads to bullying.

When Parents Were the Victims of Neglect

Sometimes, however, the parents weren’t abused but instead were neglected by their own parents. This leads to a different set of challenges. For example, adults who have grown up with parents that were absent or neglectful may not know how to act as a parent themselves. Without a parenting model to go by, many adults find themselves overwhelmed by this new role. They might defer difficult or unpopular decisions, like those having to do with discipline or rule enforcement, thereby shifting the burden of parenting from themselves to their children.

Now initially, many children may jump at the opportunity to seize control from their parents, but in reality they are completely unprepared to manage themselves successfully. When parents don’t provide the necessary guidance a child needs to flourish, they will grow frustrated and, as a result, become abusive.

What Happens When Parents are Narcissistic

The third most common characteristic of parents who are bullied by their children are that the parents, themselves, are narcissistic. Essentially what this means is that these parents often don’t truly listen to their children and are more preoccupied with their own wants and needs. They will likely monopolize conversations, make frequent comparisons to themselves even when it’s not warranted, and they will react with opposition towards their children acting in a manner that is unique or individualistic. This is because these parents would like their children to develop in a way that is the most similar to themselves. While there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to recognize aspect of oneself in one’s children, kids are ultimately their own people. Not recognizing this can mean compromising a child’s need to express themselves and use their own voices.

From the child’s perspective, they may feel as though their parents are looking past them rather than at them. A desire for recognition, appreciation, and respect can lead to frequent instances of “acting out.” This is what evolves into bullying behavior. In an effort to break free from their parent’s self-absorption, these children will try to make everything about them, their choices motivated by anger and frustration. Narcissistic parenting results in a lack of emotional fulfillment for the children. Because these needs aren’t being met, a conflict arises between the parents and their kids who feel deprived. These patterns, left unrecognized and unchecked can ultimately lead to estrangement between parent and child.

Breaking the Cycle can Break the Habit

By recognizing these cycles of behavior and their causes we can properly address the problem of children bullying their parents. Therapists often help bring these issues to light and guide both parents and children in ways to alter their communication and behavior so that it is mutually beneficial, rather than conflicting or abusive. The past affects the present, and this holds especially true when we look at how our childhoods can affect how we raise our own kids in the present and future.

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