Bullied by your child?

It is our immature behaviour that teaches our children to behave badly

boy aiming using his toy

If our children are pushy, bossy, intimidating, self-centred and if they constantly bully us, it only means that we as parents are in some way cooperating with their bullying, and putting forth a stimulus which says, ‘Come wipe your shoes on me, I’m a doormat’. A bully cannot dominate you if you refuse to give in. But if you do give in at some point, then you are teaching him that if he wants to get his way he simply needs to get meaner and nastier and bully you till you break. You are systematically training the one who is bullying you, teaching him exactly what he needs to do to get his way with you.

Check out what role you could be playing in being subjected to bullying by your own child. Is it because you are ‘nice’ to a fault, and come across as over-accommodating to everyone? Is it because you are someone who clowns around and entertains others to get a few laughs but loses his respect? Is it because you are ‘everyone’s fool’ or a ‘sucker’ and your child has seen you allowing everyone to take advantage of you? Is it because you are needy of approval and your child has sensed your vulnerability? Is it because you do not have the demeanour and skills to command respect because of which your child has not learned to respect you?
Remember we teach people how to treat us, and if we want to be treated better, we need to teach them verbally and non-verbally how to treat us better.

It depends on your demeanour

Parents who are ‘passive pushovers’ are so because when they were little children, their strong-willed parents taught them to be unassertive by either rewarding their submissiveness or punishing their assertiveness. A young child believes that his survival and fulfilment of his needs depends on his parents. He thus adopts strategies to ensure the same—in this case submissiveness. He learns submission for his survival due to his parents’ controlling demeanour.

However, just as we learn passivity from our parents’ demeanour with us, we also learn aggression and bullying if parents are too mild-mannered and submissive. When the child views unassertive parents who are unable to protect themselves from others, and thus cannot even ensure their own emotional and social survival in the midst of an aggressive or even assertive world, then the child decides to take on the task of his own survival. He then adopts the instinctive law of the jungle—the survival of the fittest, i.e. the more aggressive his demeanour, the more his chances of ensuring his survival.

Consequences of being Mr Nice

Gaurav had an aggressive father. His father would not tolerate assertiveness and was intolerant of opinions different from his own. Gaurav’s mother, however, controlled her son through her teary-eyed guilt-provoking submissiveness. Gaurav learned to be Mr. Nice Guy for his survival. When he became a father himself, his son Saahil, gradually noticed in him the fear of hurting others and of rejection. Saahil picked on this trait of passivity. He saw his father as a man who was emotionally and socially dependent on the world, and who could not hold his own in the big bad world. He started using intimidating tactics to test whether his father could resist them. To begin with, Saahil did so to know how much he could depend on his father for his own survival, but later he realised that he could push his father to greater limits and get away. Then two things happened. The first thing is that it become clear to Saahil that he needed to be self-reliant to survive in the world, as no one could protect him. If the father could not protect himself from his own son, how could he protect the son from the world? The second realisation was that the father was weak and that Saahil could push him around and have his way.

Saahil grew into a teenager who on one hand was disrespectful to the father and on the other hand who fought with his father to provoke him to stand up for himself. Saahil was crying out for help regarding his relationship with his father. He hated himself for bullying his own father and getting away with it and blamed the father for it all. Deep inside him, Saahil wanted his father to set boundaries to help him relate more respectfully. Fortunately, Gaurav was open to family therapy, where he gradually gained insight into the cause of the pained father-son relationship and changed his stimulus in the relationship from sick submissiveness to healthy assertiveness. Saahil soon learned to respect the boundaries drawn by his father, and became a more confident and assertive boy himself, as he was now learning from a healthy role-model in his father.

Need of approval damages too

Sania was free-thinking daughter of ambitious and controlling parents. Her free-thinking spirit was met with disapproval by both parents. As she chose to do her own thing, she was left craving for parental approval and unconditional acceptance as a person. When Sania became a mother herself, she continued to be driven by her need for approval and acceptance. This made her an anxious mother as she strived hard to be the perfect parent.

The pursuit of perfection often made her over-demanding on herself in her role as a mother, resulting in her being frequently highly-strung and irritable with Suraj, her son. Feeling guilty for her irritability, she would then compensate by being overly indulgent towards Suraj. She swung from striving to be a ‘good mother’ to viewing herself as a ‘bad mother’, and with her swinging from anxiety to guilt, Suraj swung too.

He soon realised his mother’s vulnerability, and played on it. He realised that if she needed his approval for her emotional nourishment, then she probably could not be emotionally available for him, leaving him anxious about fending for himself emotionally. He also fathomed that he could push her guilt-provoking buttons to bully her into indulging him in whatever he wanted. He felt anxious and guilty for manipulating her, especially when she would be affectionate towards him. He was not only angry with her vulnerability, but also angry with her for letting him manipulate her due to her need for approval, thus blaming her for how confused and miserable he felt within.
Subsequently, Sania accessed family therapy to understand Suraj’s mood swings from being angry and intimidating to feeling anxious and guilty. She understood that she needed to overcome her need for approval, thus instilling confidence in Suraj that he could rely on his parent to be his emotional strength. She also needed to stop indulging Suraj and draw firm boundaries for him to help him understand what was acceptable and what was not.

As Sania became emotionally empowered, Suraj’s behaviour also changed for the better. He learned to stop pushing as Sania refused to budge and get into any guilt trips. He soon became a more rational and less moody boy.

Children need parents not friends

Sometimes parents think that they can reach their children better if they are friends. This is not true. Children need parents and not friends to nurture them into being emotionally strong, secure and stable human beings, albeit parenting need not always be a poker faced affair. Parenting requires gentle love as well as tough love, with the ability to know when to use what.

During their growing years, children need to feel that they can rely on someone stronger than themselves for their survival. Later, as they gradually venture out into the world on their own, they need balanced and assertive role models to learn from.

If you come across as a friend and clown around your child and his friends, then you lose the title and the respect of a nurturing parent, as you facilitate disrespectful behaviour and bullying on the part of your child towards you.

It is vital for the healthy emotional development of our children that we as parents exercise healthy love for our child, which is neither fearful nor indulgent; neither submissive nor possessive; and neither punishing nor controlling. Our love should be caring, committed, comforting, strong, stable, steadfast, balanced and unconditional.

So stop your childish and helpless ‘whine’ about your children bullying you, and grow up and develop a ‘spine’ of healthy parenting. If you grow up, rest assured, so will your children.

These words spell trouble

Children’s use many dramatic sentences to bullying you into having their way by creating anxiety/guilt/fear/pity (sometimes against their own best interest). Here are some of the most common ones…

  • If you loved me you would...
  • I know you don’t love me because...
  • But everyone has it so...
  • How can you deprive me of...
  • I will hate you forever if...
  • I will love you forever if...
  • I will be grateful to you forever if...
  • But I absolutely ‘need’ it for...
  • I have to have...
  • What kind of a parent are you if...
  • If I was a parent I would...
  • When I am a parent I will...
  • I wish I wasn’t born to you...
  • I’d rather die than...
  • I’ll kill myself if...
  • You’d better give me this or else...
  • But my friend’s parents always...
  • How could you stop me from...
  • You can’t tell me not to...
  • You’re being cheap if...
  • That’s why I never tell you anything about...
  • You’ve the power as parents to...
  • Just because I’m dependent on you, you treat me like...
  • I am powerless because I’m dependent on you for...
  • What everyone says is true, ‘Parents do not understand children’...
  • You and your generation will never understand...

How to be assertive with a bully

  • Take a deep breath and count to 10 in your mind
  • Don’t panic/flare up or react emotionally in any way
  • Stay in control
  • Be aware of your own emotions [guilt/anxiety/hurt/ anger/depression]
  • Take time out to deal with your own emotions i.e. grow up
  • Wait till you feel calm and composed
  • Make firm eye contact with your child while talking
  • State clearly to the bullying child that his pushiness and intimidating ways are unacceptable to you. For instance, you may say: “The tone of your voice is disrespectful and unacceptable to me. I expect you to communicate in a non-hurtful and more constructive way henceforth in all matters”
  • Assertively demand time to consider your child’s request. You may say:”I need to sleep over this/think over this till tomorrow”
  • If you need to refuse or set limits, let it be backed with logic and reason
  • Empathise with your child’s desire. You may say: “I can see how badly you want it/how much you’re looking forward to it”
  • State clearly your refusal/set clear and firm limits. You may say:“I love you and therefore cannot allow you to/ I want to help you mature and therefore have to say ‘No’ to…”
  • Briefly explain the reason for the refusal/limits. You may say:Since it is a riot-prone area on election day/not a value for money purchase with a low utility level based on your lifestyle”
  • State your values/expectations briefly. You may say: “Any pleasure you might want to indulge in but which jeopardises your physical/emotional safety will not be encouraged by me/I expect you to evaluate the utility and value for money before any purchase in order to sustain a materially comfortable lifestyle in the long-term”
  • Suggest an alternative. You may say:“Maybe you could invite your friends over instead and rent a DVD/Maybe you could do some research on the net to find something that is more reasonably priced and also serves your utility”
  • Conclude with a gesture of affection [smile/pat on the back].

This was first published in the December 2010 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Minnu Bhonsle
Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, is a Mumbai-based consulting psychotherapist and counsellor. She conducts training programmes in Personal Counselling [Client-centred Therapy] and Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and also workshops in Stress Management, Art of Listening, Couple Therapy, and Communication Skills. Minnu has co-authored the book, The Ultimate Sex Education Guide along with Dr Rajan Bhonsle.
Rajan Bhonsle
Rajan Bhonsle, MD, is a consultant in sexual medicine and counsellor. Along with his wife Minnu R Bhonsle, PhD, who is a consulting psychotherapist and counsellor, he runs a unique therapy centre

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