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3 Mistakes Parents Make When Their Kids Bully Them

1. Never surrender.

Jo millington/Shutterstock
Source: Jo millington/Shutterstock

“You promised!” he demands. “You said I could have it when you got home.”

You tell him to wait until after dinner. He stands in front of the TV. “I want it now. Right now!”

You close your eyes and take a breath. Maybe you count to 10. But your kid turns up the volume: “You lied to me! I waited all day for you! I hate you! You’re stupid!”

Okay, freeze-frame: This testing moment has just tipped into a bullying moment. You’re being verbally assaulted and degraded by your own child.

What do you do?

3 Common Tactics That Backfire

Typically, parents choose one of three responses in such moments: surrender, punish, or negotiate.

1. Surrender. Not every battle is worth fighting; surrendering and giving your kid what he wants is sometimes a good option—especially if you’re looking to buy yourself a bit of peace. But when testing turns into bullying? Never give in to a child’s demands. To do so would be tantamount to rewarding abusive behavior. That’s a teaching moment that delivers the wrong lesson!

Every time you surrender to your child’s bullying, you send this simple message: Bullying works. So the next time she’s frustrated by your restrictions, she will bully to get what she wants: After all, you have taught her that if she pushes hard enough, you’ll surrender.

2. Punish. When your kid bullies you, it’s difficult not to become reactive and bully back. Possessing the strength of character to resist mirroring a child's aggressive behavior is not a skill that rarely comes naturally. As with any form of self-mastery, you must cultivate it.

Losing your cool, hollering, and coming down on your child with harsh punishments are forms of counter-bullying that create a culture of bullying in the family. Parents who win battles with their kids by leaning heavily on punishment achieve a bitter victory: There’s a winner and a loser. Someone is happy—and someone isn’t.

Children who receive constant punishment become contemptuous and resentful—and then more serious behavior problems may emerge. For example, kids may:

  • Become defiant and oppositional, directly or through silent resistance.
  • Turn their frustration inward and fall victim to depression or anxiety.
  • Bully more intensely, escalating conflicts and disrupting the entire family.

3. Negotiate. Okay, your kid is having a meltdown. Being a mindful parent, you take a moment and consider your options. You try to understand his perspective: He waited all day for you (and for his cake). Then, when you finally got home, instead of greeting him, you collapsed on the couch, turned on the TV, and ignored him.

You get it: He’s upset, and he has a right to be. So you decide to cut a deal: You offer half a slice of cake now, and the other half after dinner. Now consider:

  • Is negotiation the best choice in this moment?
  • What if he makes a counteroffer?
  • Suppose he continues to bully and demands the whole slice?

Negotiation is a popular choice in modern parenting. And the notion of finding common ground with your child during conflicts is not a bad idea. You give a little, he gives a little, and everyone is happy. Right?

Yes and no.

When testing turns to bullying, negotiation is off the table. When you negotiate with a bully, you set the stage for ongoing conflicts. Like surrendering, it rewards bullying and trains your child that bullying works. The next time your kid is frustrated by your restrictions, he will return to bullying because bullying leads to negotiation, and negotiation leans to getting what he wants.

Another flaw with negotiation: Kids might begin to think that everything, even good behavior, is negotiable. Rather than doing something for themselves and the good feelings it produces, they may only do it to get a reward. For example:

  • Your daughter demands to get paid for making her bed.
  • Your son expects a reward for doing his homework.
  • Your kids ask for cash for good grades.

Good behavior should never be a bartering point. Negotiating for rewards replaces personal achievement—and kids miss out on self-esteem. Rather than developing self-reliance and autonomy, they remain immature and tethered to their parents for gratification.

3 Immediate Steps You Can Take

You just learned that surrendering, punishing, and negotiating all fall short in the long run. These tactics offer some short-term relief by managing the symptoms of bullying, but don’t address its causes.

Before we look at the deeper issues, let’s consider the three most important steps you can take in bullying moments: de-escalate the conflict, validate feelings, and praise strengths.

1. De-escalate. In bullying moments, parents too often react impulsively and escalate conflicts. They yell or punish, which increases the tension and worsens the bullying. It’s vital to maintain composure and leadership in such moments. Don’t become reactive or fall back on knee-jerk responses. Stand your ground without drama.

If the conflict escalates, hit the pause button: Take a time out and give everyone a chance to cool off. When kids are in a state of intense frustration, you can’t reason with them. If you try, you’ll only increase their frustration.

You and your child will benefit greatly from a quiet moment to gather your thoughts and regain your equilibrium. If you can, leave the room or take a quiet walk. Get some fresh air. It will give you both time to calm down. Find some peace in yourself before you try to make peace with your child. Once things have quieted down, you can mindfully consider what action to take.

2. Validate Feelings. You can never go wrong by validating your kid’s feelings:

  • “I understand that you’re frustrated. I am, too.”
  • “I can see you’re upset. Give me 10 minutes of quiet to think about this.”
  • “Let’s have something to eat first. We’ll both feel better.”

Kids respond positively when you acknowledge their feelings. They immediately start to calm down.

During the break, ask yourself: “What could be causing my kid’s bullying? Is he tired? Hungry? Feeling neglected? Has it been a long day for everyone? Maybe he’s spent too long playing a computer game or surfing the Net?”

Bullying is an effect; there’s always an underlying cause. Consider what could be making your child so irritable. Help him speak his mind, then validate his feelings.

  • “I understand that you’re angry; you have a right to be.”
  • “Your feelings are hurt. You’re mad that I won’t give you what you want.”
  • “Instead of fighting, let’s try something new: Tell me why you’re so mad.”

Encourage more mature communication. Feeling understood by you will defuse his frustration and reframe the moment.

Remember: Give kids what they need, not what they want. Learning to communicate effectively while frustrated is more important than anything that your kid is craving in the moment. Surrendering, punishing, or negotiating robs kids of the opportunity to wrestle with their frustration and master it.

Make it clear that bullying never works:

  • “I’m not going to respond as long as you’re yelling at me.”
  • “Bullying is not going to get you what you want.”
  • “You can do better than this. You’re too smart to be a bully.”

3. Praise Progress. Once you both reach a decision, stand your ground. Don’t revisit it lest your child tests you and pushes for more. Along the way, be sure to praise your kid’s strengths:

  • “I appreciate how you are talking to me right now.”
  • “I know this was hard for you. I’m proud of the way you expressed yourself.”
  • “You’re doing a great job. You’re really maturing.”

Reinforcing your kid’s strengths will boost his confidence and make mature communication more rewarding than fighting.

Excerpted from WHEN KIDS CALL THE SHOTS: How to Seize Control from Your Darling Bully—and Enjoy Being a Parent Again. To order your copy, visit