… and the good news and bad news about dealing with kids who bully their parents.
All children have unique personalities and temperaments, but kids who bully their parents have very particular traits and three most prevalent styles:
1. The Defiant Bully
The most challenging of the bullying personality types, these in-your-face kids are exceedingly confrontational and oppositional. If you say, “Go right,” they will go left. If you say, “Sit still,” they will run. Impulsive, impatient, and reckless, defiant bullies want to live on their own terms. They reject every attempt parents make to manage their behavior. If you’re a single parent, defiant kids can be particularly aggressive: With only one parent to focus on, you’re likely to get a double-dose of defiance.
Self-righteous and puffed up with false confidence, such kids delight in debate—and are determined to win every argument. For them, being “right” takes priority over being respectful or getting along. When you try to stand up to their bullying, they may turn obsessive and harass you until you give in. Determined to get their way, they’ll stop at nothing. Kids who bully their parents are rarely satisfied.
Good News and Bad News About Defiant Kids Who Bully Their Parents
Defiance is not necessarily a problematic trait. Many artists, inventors, designers, and original thinkers have a healthy defiant streak. They pioneer new ways of thinking because they oppose conventions. They use their defiance as a creative force for inspiration and vision. In other words, when defiance is fused with ambition and channeled into creativity, it is progressive. Defiant kids who bully their parents have a lot of unbridled and unfocused energy. The challenge is to help them channel it into a positive outlet.
But in fact, every well-adjusted kid has a healthy dose of defiance. If children are too cooperative or accommodating, they lack definition and leave no lasting imprint on others. You don’t want your kid to agree with you all the time. You want her to have her own opinions and views.
Now here’s the bad news about defiance: It takes a lot of effort to help a kid with a defiant bullying style see any relationship as a two-way street—and the longer the pattern has been in place, the more difficult it is to reverse. It takes energy and commitment to help a defiant kid break old habits and foster new ones.
What Drives the Defiant Kid?
Underneath the bravado of defiance is a kid who, for some reason, feels unrecognized and undervalued. She lives with a fear of others forgetting her or leaving her out. No matter how much attention she gets, positive or negative, it’s rarely enough.
You’d never know how vulnerable defiant kids feel because they conceal their insecurities so well. And yet ultimately, defiance is a form of dependency. Here’s why: In order to feel whole, defiant kids must have something to defy. Pushing against someone or something gives them a false sense of strength. For example, imagine a kid leaning against a wall. He may appear secure but what happens when you take the wall away? He falls down. Defiance works in the same way: Without someone or something to defy, defiant kids who bully their parents can’t keep their stance.
What do defiant kids gain from their defiance? Defiance forms a protective barrier against interpersonal insecurities, providing a temporary identity for kids who feel uncertain about their individuality. Kids with a defiant bullying style are easily misinterpreted: Their defiance creates the illusion that they are strong and secure when actually it’s just the opposite. Spend enough time with defiant kids and you’ll sense their insecurities just below the surface.
2. The Anxious Bully
- Is your kid continually on the verge of a breakdown?
- Does she need constant comforting and reassuring?
- Are his angst-filled monologues wearing you down?
Anxious children tend to oscillate between clinging to their parents and pushing them away. Of course, it’s natural for kids to turn to their parents for comfort, but an anxious kid’s fretfulness is exhausting. Anxious children have little or no self-soothing skills. The moment they feel threatened or frightened, they run to their parents for reassurance. Once they receive comfort, they reject their parents again—and so the cycle repeats itself.
In their heart, anxious kids don’t want to be dependent on their parents, but they can’t break free of their reliance on them. They appear less outwardly aggressive than defiant kids, but their bullying—powered by constant neediness—is no less intense. Here’s the worst part: If anxious kids don’t learn to be self-reliant, their parents will become enablers. When this happens, the kids rarely leave home or find their own way in the world: Love that enables ultimately disempowers.
Good News and Bad News About Anxious Kids Who Bully Their Parents
The good news: Unlike defiant kids who outwardly rebel, anxious kids who bully their parents are too fearful to put themselves in dangerous situations, so they rarely engage in risky behaviors. Parents are more likely to beg them to leave their rooms and venture out into the world. But the more parents try to push them out the door, the more anxious kids will dig in. Hunkering down in a bedroom is far more satisfying than the unknowns that lie beyond it. For anxious kids, the familiar always wins over the unknown.
The bad news: Anxious children have trouble growing up. Anything chancy, anything that involves risk, increases their anxiety. As a result, they miss out on many opportunities for growth.
What Drives the Anxious Kid to Bully?
Parents of anxious kids often wonder:
- Was my kid born anxious?
- Am I doing something wrong?
- Is something that I don’t know about causing him anxiety?
These are great questions, but rather than getting caught in the old dilemma of nature vs.nurture, consider nature and nurture to get a clear diagnostic picture. For example, let’s consider your child’s age, temperament, and family history:
- Have you had difficulties with anxiety?
- Has your kid always been anxious, or did it come on suddenly?
If your family has a history of anxiety, it’s more likely that your child inherited this trait. Also, keep in mind that anxiety is contagious: Parents who are anxious, or families that are filled with conflict and angst, are more likely to produce anxious children.
But even if your child seems wired for anxiety, there are plenty of things you can do to break the cycle. First, let’s look for changes in his or her environment that could be generating anxiety:
- Have there been any modifications in family routines, such as moving, changing schools, or starting a new class?
- Are your child’s social insecurities ongoing or recent?
Sudden changes in mood or temperament usually have clear precipitating events, which are easy to spot and typically affect the whole family. Developmental shifts, however, many will overlook: For example, it’s common for many kids to develop off-the-wall anxiety as they enter adolescence. This stage, with its surge of hormones, massive psychological shifts, and physiological maturation triggers enormous insecurities in preteens and teens. Many kids who were calm, cool, and collected in elementary school suddenly turn turbulent in middle and high school. We refer to these responses to adolescence as normative developmental crises.
3. The Manipulative Bully
If you suffer fears and insecurities about your parenting, it won’t take long for a manipulative bullying child to home in on them, particularly if you are an anxious or guilty parent. Phony illness or injuries, elaborate plots, extortion, blackmail—these are the tools that the manipulative bully uses to extort his wants and needs from his parents by preying on their anxieties and generating self-doubt.
This can make the manipulative bully sound like a monster, destined to ruin a family. Of course, that’s not true: Just as with the defiant and anxious bullying styles, the manipulative bully is trying to manage his fears and insecurities, in this case by controlling his environment and everyone in it. Getting to the root of his fears, and helping him put them into words, is key to helping a manipulative bully develop better ways of relating.
Naturally, children’s personalities are too complex to fit into such tidy little categories. The bullying styles discussed here offer a lens through which to view your own child’s behavior. With a clearer understanding of his or her bullying style, you will gain a deeper understanding of the child’s inner life and be better prepared to steer your relationship in a new direction. Keep in mind that beneath the tough exterior of every bully is a scared child, constantly wrestling with insecurities and worries. Bullying is an expression of this internal unrest. By understanding what makes your bully tick, you will gain insight into the nature of her fears, better understand the forces that fuel her bullying, and become poised to take action to restore balance.