Are You Being Bullied by Your Grown Kids?

It might be role reversal but it's still a boundary invasion.

Posted Nov 03, 2020

Maybe it’s too much togetherness in a pandemic-instigated intergenerational household, suggests one of my formerly empty-nest clients. "She's always telling me what to do and, worse, what will happen if I don't, whether it’s taking the vitamin supplements she swears by or insisting that she drive instead of me, when it's my car! Either way, according to her, I'm doomed."

Says another client, "Bad enough to hear your mother’s words coming out of your own mouth, worse to hear your own from your daughter: “I’m only saying this for your own good, because I love you.”  

They feel nagged. Infantilized. Intimidated, some of them; bullied, say others. And it’s not just their daughters, and it’s not just about their health and well-being. Increasingly, it’s about politics; “My son is the same kind of bully as the President. He starts in on me as soon as he walks in the door. This weekend he took my Biden yard sign down and put it in the garbage. He took my absentee ballot and said he’d mail it, but when I checked online, they hadn’t gotten it, and when he said he didn’t do anything with it, I know he was lying.”

It’s also about money. “They want to know much more about my financial affairs than I want to tell them. I’ve assured them that I have enough to live the way I do, that I won’t ever be a burden to them, and that whatever’s left after I die will be divided equally among them. They watch every gift or loan I make to one or the other and allude to the fact that they’re keeping track. I recently set up small trusts for the grandkids and they’re furious about my not consulting them first. They have good jobs and comfortable lives; it’s not like they need my money. They just want me to do what they want me to do with it.”

Workplace bullies are so commonplace they’re hardly worth talking about unless they cross the line and you can make a case for harassment, although says a friend who’s happy to be working remotely, “A jerk in the office is even worse on Zoom but at least you can mute him.”

But in fact most bullying begins in the home. Spouses sometimes bully each other, parents often bully children. More often, big siblings bully younger ones just because they can, but most older sibs grow out of it, a maturation process helped by parents or other adults (or even bigger cousins or family friends) pointing out how hurtful or frightening such behavior can be.

But if no one calls the bully to account, the behavior will continue. And even the best-intentioned intervention will fail against bullies who lack empathy for their victims; in fact, they have an almost unerring sense of who may be the likeliest target.

Grown kids who bully their parents are buoyed by their beliefs that they know better than we do what’s good for us, their desire to be seen as fully capable adults by parents who may still not view them that way,  their fears about our aging and eventual death, and their parental roles in their own households, where they often engage in similar behavior.

Bullying is a boundary invasion, and you recognize it as such by the same internal alarm that goes off when someone gets too close to the line between the two of you, that psychic or even physical space that defines where one of you ends and the other begins. Confronting bullying begins with naming it, which is most effective when it’s framed with a statement about how it makes you feel.

True bullies lack the empathy necessary to imagine or care about the feelings of others. But even they may be able to hear your clear, non-apologetic request or even demand that the behavior stop.

Still and finally, the setting and enacting of a consequence, repeated as often as necessary, is what ultimately will stop bullies in their tracks: "If you don’t stop bullying me about (my health, my finances, my living arrangements, the man I’m seeing, the sell-by dates on what’s in my refrigerator, etc.) I will simply stop talking to you.” And then do it... every single time, until they get the idea. Bullying that begins in the family can stop there, too.