Grown-Up Bullies

How to navigate pushy, mean or conniving parents at your kid's school

Posted Nov 07, 2013

By Jill Brooke 

Pressing the pause button on my TV career and becoming a stay-at-home working mom didn’t prepare me for mommy politics. In fact, office politics are just like mommy politics—there are bullies in every bullpen of life. The trick to managing these maternal Mussolinis is learning the art of saying no—calmly and effectively.

The Adult Bully:

As I wrote in my book, The Need to Say No: How to Be Bullish and Not Bullied,” it helps to tailor your strategy to the breed of bully. Only then can you wave your supermom red cape and declare “Ole” and make them go away or not want to cross you. 

Here are the 10 types of bullies I’ve encountered at various schools. 

Do any of them sound familiar?

1) The cutthroat competitor who slashes anyone who threatens herShe’s the type who calculatedly decides who her Bobby should be friends with, and excludes your child from play dates, even though they are the best of pals in school. She values country club memberships and pedigrees over curiosity and a loving heart. 

2) Parents who pick sports based on social status. They insist their child join the lacrosse team, even though the kid loves soccer. These parents like to drink Pinot Grigio and social climb with the lacrosse parents, thereby justifying their choice into bullying their child into a sport he hates.  

3) Parents who bully coaches to put their child at first base, even though the kid can’t catch a ball. After all, this parent made a donation to the team and has cash and cachet.

4) Moms who volunteer for the school play, bake sale, PTA and pressure teachers to cast their kid in school productions, even though junior is tone deaf and incapable of full sentences.

5) Parents who badger teachers for better grades for their kids since they are obsessed with Harvard. They are shameless, relentless, and persistent and to your horror, it sometimes works.

6) Parents who insist that you join the school auction committee and then treat you as their personal servant. So much for human equality.

7) Parents who diss everything you say the moment it comes out of your mouth. These parents also snub you at school pick-up. It's Mean Girls for adults.

8) Parents who tell you what committee to be on, what candidate to vote for, who you can be friends with, what color to paint your house. In another era, they'd be Putin's KGB.

9) Friends who shower you with platitudes of how nice you are, then expect you to do their bidding: bring the main course for dinner, help with carpooling, lend your house for a fundraiser, find a plumber when her sink leaks, babysit her dog when she’s on vacation. Of course, the second you need help, they vanish.

10) Parents who are stubborn as a bull and refuse to believe their darling child is like them, a bully. Were you surprised that Vivian Vosburg, whose daughter tormented Rebecca Sedwick and showed no remorse after the 12-year-old girl committed suicide, was later arrested after a video was discovered showing this clueless mom punching two young boys? Of course not because as Justin Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, points out, the laws of every state (except Montana) direct schools to enact bullying policies. If the parents aren’t responsive to school pleas, there is little that can be done. Though now with the blazing media heat of the Sedwick case, existing laws will be revisited to possibly punish parents.

How to Handle a Bully:

Yet, change takes time. So the best strategy in the interim is to try these techniques to deal with the bullies around you and your family. Remember that bullies need to establish dominance. They use exclusion as a tactic to lure lieutenants who are grateful for their attention. In groups, they will charm while snickering how others aren’t as smart or cool as the new recruit. They create the illusion of their power but deep down fear being challenged.

You need a win with a bully. So be like Sitting Bull and observe their weaknesses and then call them on it. Be like Sandra Bullock and use charm as a weapon by being funny, clever or entertaining so you create your own team of supporters.

Be like Bullet Point Jane and document facts not feelings about what bothers you before stating your case so you can be most effective. Bullies smell fear. Like animals, they are can sense it so before engaging with one, you must find a strategy to assert your confidence. It can be pressing your fingers together, thinking of hurtful words washing off of you as though you are wearing a raincoat, standing tall or uttering this helpful ancient bull mantra to find balance and strength. Repeat after me, “I am safe, healthy, wise, and strong.” It really works. 

Furthermore, understanding bullies is not agreeing with them. You can’t change them but change how they make you feel. The secret is saying your “no” to them confidently and calmly and watching the results.

Here are a few ways to say no effectively. 

  • “I see your position. I understand that is the way you are thinking. But no, I am not comfortable doing that.” Or you can say, "I think we will have to agree to disagree on that position." (Notice that you are not changing their position. You are just asserting yours).
  • “Because I am a perfectionist, I want to always do a good job. No, I can’t commit to another project at this time but maybe later.” Or you can say, "No, I can't at this time." (A value system has been established so your work and involvement becomes meaningful).
  • “No, I have a policy that I don’t comment on other people’s children because you never know what is going on behind closed doors. We all have our moments. Is there anyone’s child here who really is perfect? Please tell me. But by the way, did you hear the funny joke about...”   (This makes every parent feel comfortable with you even if they don’t say it out loud. However in your arsenal, via Google or books, find amusing stories to deflect gossip so you are still a welcome member of any group). 

Of course, what’s most important is knowing that these grown-up bullies will find other targets if you find your inner bull and fight back. Silence is a sound. You must speak up. Do you know what the difference is between a bully and a leader? Empathy. Lead by example. And remember these wise words:  

“No one can make you feel inferior without your permission.”

--Eleanor Roosevelt


Jill Brooke is an author, television correspondent, social critic and mom. Currently Jill is spearheading a campaign to help people learn proactive skills when dealing with bullies. You can learn more about Jill Brooke on her website, or by reading her book, The Need to Say No: How to Be Bullish and Not Bullied.