Have you ever seen a child bully or boss around his parents? A child who talks down to them, disrespects or even mocks them? Embarrassing, isn’t it?

A generation or two ago, it would have been unthinkable for children to bully their parents. Today, nearly everyone knows a parent who is bullied by his or her child. Pay a visit to your local playground or stroll through a shopping mall. You’re bound to see the bullied parent dynamic in action.

On the surface it looks like an angry child harassing a parent who’s just too tired to say no. Underneath, there is much more going on. You’re likely to find a child who has learned how to exploit his parents’ insecurities to get what he wants.

And here’s the worst part: the longer a parent surrenders to the temper tantrums, threats and manipulations, the harder it is to break these bullying tendencies. As parents cede power, children grow more aggressive. Sensing a leadership void, they begin to lose respect for their parents and decide to fill the parenting role themselves; they start to parent their parents.

Over the years, I have listened to hundreds of bullied parents in my office. Though they hail from difficult cultures and communities, their child’s bullying is shockingly similar and equally as dismal. So, which parents are most likely to be bullied by their kids? Good question. They actually fit into two broad categories:

  • Bullied by their own parents. Parents who were raised in homes with punishingly strict parents tend to be too liberal and accommodating with their own children. They set out to undo their painful childhood by giving their children the freedom and permissions that they were denied as children. By failing to address their child’s bossy behavior, and constantly gratifying their demands, they enable bullying and instill an unhealthy sense of entitlement and privilege in their kids. This backlash against authoritarian parenting of the past is at the heart of the bullied parent dilemma we find ourselves in today.
  • Absent or neglectful parents. Adults who experienced absent or neglectful parents often have a difficult time parenting. They had no parental model to internalize, no example to follow. When faced with tough parenting choices, they defer difficult decisions to their partner or even to their kids. They are more comfortable being a friend rather than a parent. Though this may sound appealing, it induces much irritation in children. Deep down they want their parents to be parents, not playmates.

To end the bullying nightmare in your home, you’ll need a new parenting toolbox. Start with these simple steps.

  • Come to grips with your own history. In my book and workshops, I spend a lot of time asking parents to reflect on their childhood. For example, did your own parents have light qualities? Did they have dark qualities? Reflecting on how you felt about the way you were parented helps you form an empathic attunement with your child. You will understand him or her better.

    Also by considering your parents’ choices, you can begin to make more conscious decisions about the kind of parent you want to be. Rather than parenting in opposition to your parents’ choices or repeating their mistakes, you will be empowered to move your parenting in a fresh new direction.

  • Make new choices. Giving into bullying is easy; standing your ground isn’t. When faced with a parenting dilemma, the right choice is rarely the easy one. Setting limits and boundaries, putting aside time for homework and computer hours may not sound exciting, but are essential to soothing the bully in your child. Even though children may resist it, they crave structure. Structure calms anxiety, contains worries, and helps children to better navigate their feelings and impulses.
  • Increase self-care. Nearly all bullied parents live in a world of perpetual self-neglect. You can see the fatigue in their eyes and sense their exhaustion. They are suffering from parent burnout and don’t even know it. They don’t exercise, eat or sleep well; they don’t spend quality time with friends. If this sounds familiar, jot down this phrase and hang it on your fridge: self-care is child care. Parents who don’t take care of themselves are terrible role models. After all, who wants a parent who’s whiny and plays the victim all the time?
  • Get support. Turning around a bullying situation is going to be a battle, so you’ll need extra troops. Reach out to school officials, family, friends, and mental health professionals. Break the silence on your situation. Gather an anti-bullying team and expand your support base. Along the way you’re likely to discover that your situation is not unusual. In fact, many parents silently struggle with the same issues. You’ll feel relieved to know that you’re not alone, and also pick up helpful strategies along the way.
  • Find ways to enjoy spending time together. If you’re constantly nagging and badgering your child with demands, it’s only natural that he or she will nag and badger you back. Nothing sours a relationship more than relentless negativity. If you find yourself constantly trading insults with your kid, it’s time to hit the pause button. Stop cataloging complaints, put away the to-do lists, and find a way to have fun. Enjoying time together is the single most powerful intervention you can make to get your relationship back on track.

If you’re a bullied parent, don’t fret. We all are sometimes. We give in to our children’s demands now and then to purchase peace, or we look the other way to avoid conflict. But if you give in too often and bossy behavior starts to take root, the sooner you pull the plug on it, the better — for your own sanity and your child’s. When parents take control, everyone benefits.

© 2015 Sean Grover

Angry child photo available from Shutterstock