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Why Some Parents Let Their Kids Bully and Disrespect Them

The reasons parents allow it, and one key solution to the problem.

Key points

  • Parents' relationships with their children mirror their relationships with others.
  • Parents with low self-esteem tend to get bullied and have more difficulty maintaining boundaries.
  • Steps to end bullying behaviors includes breaking your silence, gathering support, and setting limits.
Dean Drobot/Shutterstock
Source: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock

Recently, a mother, distraught about her daughter's bullying behavior, reached out to me.

“My daughter is out of control. She verbally abuses me, puts me down, and curses at me; I don’t know what to do. Please help!”

We met for a consultation in my psychotherapy office and I witnessed firsthand her daughter's verbal assaults and contempt for her mother.

“You’re such an idiot!”

“I hate you."

“Shut up, stupid. Don’t interrupt me!”

The mother couldn't get a word in. Finally, she broke down in tears and sobbed to her daughter:

“I’m sorry I let you down. I’ll try harder.”

I wish such a session were a rare occurrence. Unfortunately, kids who bully their parents seem to be everywhere.

Kids who bully their parents

Seven years ago, I wrote a book about kids who bully their parents. At the time, I thought I was dealing with a unique situation in my hometown of Manhattan. Since then, the book has been translated into four different languages, and has been the topic of hundreds of news articles, radio shows, and podcasts—as well as the focus of this blog page.

This issue is much bigger than I thought.

Why do some parents let kids bully them?

A generation ago, few children would have gotten away with such behavior. When did bullying a parent become acceptable? Let’s do a quick review: Previously here, I identified 3 possibly relevant parenting histories:

  1. The parents had been bullied by their own parents.
  2. The parents had had absent or neglectful parents.
  3. The parents had had narcissistic parents.

In another post, I delved into the most common personality types of children who bullied their parents:

  1. The defiant bully.
  2. The anxious bully.
  3. The manipulative bully.

In still another post here, I explored 3 mistakes parents often make which can worsen the bullying:

  1. Surrendering.
  2. Punishing.
  3. Negotiating.

Generally speaking, there are 3 types of parents most likely to be bullied by their kids:

  1. The guilty parent.
  2. The anxious parent.
  3. The fix-everything parents.

Now let’s take a look at the most likely reason why parents allow their kids to bully them.

The power of low self-esteem

Very often, a parent's relationship with their child mirrors their relationship with others. Parents who let their children bully them also tend to allow others to bully them, such as their spouse, friends, co-workers, or boss. Even strangers may target them. A key reason for this unfortunate dynamic is a deep-seated struggle with self-esteem.

When a person suffers from low self-esteem, their relationships are also bound to suffer. Some of the most common attributes of people with low self-esteem are:

  • They have trouble setting boundaries with others.
  • They are conflict avoidant.
  • They have a flight- or fear-based trauma response during confrontations.
  • They are quick to surrender to a bully’s demands.
  • They are likely to apologize for situations that they did not cause.

Time and time again, I've found that when self-esteem increases, all relationships improve. For parents, self-esteem issues likely predate becoming a mother or father. This means the struggle was self-esteem may have been present in their childhood.

Raising self-esteem to defeat bullying

The express lane to fixing your relationship with your child begins with fixing your relationship with yourself. When you stop criticizing yourself, you’ll stop accepting criticism from others. When you stop apologizing, you’ll stop fearing conflict and begin taking control.

Getting your own therapist is the most significant step to help break free of the bullying dynamic. By understanding and uprooting the sources of your low self-esteem you should be able to free yourself from its toxicity and start taking charge of your relationships.

To get the ball rolling, consider taking the following steps today:

  1. Break your silence. Stop letting shame control you. Tell your family and friends about your struggle with your child.
  2. Gather support. Hire a therapist or parent coach, join a support group, or get referrals from your school guidance counselor. Unite with your partner or spouse about changes your want to make at home.
  3. Start setting limits. Once you break your silence and gather support, it’s time to end bullying behaviors at home by holding your ground, setting boundaries and not surrendering to abuse. Of course, this will take time and practice, but your efforts will eventually pay off in all your relationships.