My Son Is Bullying Me & How Therapy Can Help or Hurt

The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 192 · Duration: 00:20:22

My Son Is Bullying Me & How Therapy Can Help or Hurt

What do you do when your son has grown bigger than you, and now pushes his weight around and bullies you?Click To Tweet We’ll talk about this and a whole lot more in this week’s podcast:  My Son Is Bullying Me & How Therapy Can Help or Hurt.

Today we’re hearing from Dina and she writes:

          Dear Neil,

When my son doesn’t follow the rules and I am not able to enforce them because he is 16 and the same height as me now, what do I do? I tell him to go to his room and he says no. He then starts to become demanding and verbally aggressive. The only way I can get him to leave the room is to physically push him which I don’t want to do. Help please.


Now to Dina’s question:

Dina, this is definitely a serious situation and unfortunately, not as rare as you might think, so let's see what we can do. 

This is clear and simple parent abuse.Click To Tweet It happens in families where the youth (usually boys) and a parent have been in control battles for a long time.  

The parent gets frustrated when the child doesn’t follow instructions and the frustration is expressed in a negative tone, being reactive, and the parent makes it their job to get the child to do the right thing.  In this case, it’s still going on, Dina you’re trying to get him to change his behavior, follow the rules, stop verbal abuse, get him to leave your room.  And he fights your rules and now wants you to follow his. He’s sixteen, he is still dependent on you.  What is he demanding from you, food, car keys, money, permission to do something?  

Here is the scary thing.

Abusive men, men who emotionally and or physically abuse their partners, have these profiles - controlling and dependent.Click To TweetThey believe it is their partner’s job to make them happy, be it with sex, cleaning the house, being happy with them regardless of what they do and don’t do, and certainly not make them feel jealousy.  And if they are unhappy, clearly the partner has to do something different to fix that.  This is the profile this young man is developing, and we certainly don’t want that to happen. 

Dina, there is one right way that kids get what they want, be it a privilege or a thing such as a phone; they earn it.  They earn it with responsible behavior and a good attitude, and a good attitude means being cooperative and respectful.

Parents who are abused by their teenagers, whether young teens or older teens, were almost always abused in some significant way in their childhoods and that left them with a wounded self. When kids act up or are disrespectful, it goes right to that wounded self, and parents react to it in a personal way.  That very often results in Parent-Child Control Battles and in your case now Dina, the Control Battle has evolved to dangerous levels.  It can easily end in physical harm to you or even to your son.

Your son is using a profoundly underdeveloped way to get his needs met; by being demanding and abusive.  His behavior points to a lack of social, emotional, and moral development.

You and he are both suffering.

What needs to happen?

What should the goals be? You need to be safe. He needs to learn and grow. Click To Tweet We need for you Dina, to be able to function as his parent and he as your child, which means that you have authority to which he is accountable.  That hasn’t been there for a while I’m guessing.  

We need a kind of psychic separation, not so focused on each other, he focused on his things and you on yours. 

There needs to be some social separation. There needs to be other adults and youth around both of you.  Adults he can be with and youth who would be shocked by such abusive behavior, particularly towards one’s mother.  

Now what to do?  

Get support for you and for him.  Support for you to talk to others about what’s going on.  You are suffering from abuse.  That means burnout, fear, trauma, and everything that goes along with that.  You need support, therapeutic support and social support. 

Let’s start with getting therapy.  You can contact a youth serving agency in your community.  It can be your county’s children’s mental health, a youth services agency, a private non-profit agency that provides counseling services.  And while therapy is important here, bad therapy will make things worse and not better.  Here is what you don’t want therapy to be:  your son is assigned a therapist and he refuses to go, and they say they can’t help you.  Perhaps you find them empathetic, so you go, and they listen and support, and refer you for medication for your depression. They offer little bits of advice for managing your son, none of which are particularly helpful.  

Dina, it may need to be a therapy agency that will come to the home, so we aren’t relying on a kid who doesn’t do what he’s told, to do what he’s told and go to therapy to change his behavior to do what he’s told.  That ain’t happening. Let’s just say he does go, and they assign a counselor for your son and one for you.  Your son’s counselor says he can’t speak to you because of confidentiality.  Your counselor supports you and gives you some ideas for dealing with your son but advises that counseling can take a long time and you can’t expect your son to change too much too soon.  His attendance in counseling falls off over time and nothing significant changes.  This happens way too often.

What you need is an approach that actually helps you and helps your son, and when I say helps your son, I mean helps him feel and act better and listen to you.  When I say help you, I mean gives you understanding and support for what you’re dealing with and offers effective tools to make things better.

Here’s an idea that can help things get started moving in the right direction.  Go to the local police station and ask to speak with a juvenile officer, and assuming law enforcement in your community is prevention oriented, explain what’s going on and see if they would come to your home and explain the legal consequences to your son of threatening behavior and of blocking you from leaving your room.  Those are both crimes and the sooner your son learns about it the better.  I’ve done that with good success, and I’ve had criminal defense attorneys come to the home with the same message as well.  Have the officer refer you and your son to counseling and STRONGLY encourage your son to go, letting him know that he has taken a report and can file charges if he doesn’t take some positive steps including going to counseling. Great, now we can go to counseling.  Like I said, the difference between effective and ineffective therapy is great so make sure that the therapy you get helps you set firm, supportive limits, and acknowledges your son’s strengths and helps him build on them.  The therapy should build on the positive aspects of you and your son’s history and strengthen the parent / youth bond. And it must of course affirm your role as someone to whom he needs to be accountable. The therapy must empower this element in your relationship and not disempower it with an overemphasis on confidentiality.  Of course, there needs to be privacy in the counselor / youth discussion, yet the parent needs to know the direction things are going and the parent needs to let the counselor know what’s really going on, so they don’t see things solely through an out-of-control youth. Certainly, we don’t want the mother to be the scapegoat for the youth’s troubles.  The therapy organization may have a group for teens that would be beneficial and there should definitely be some resources offered for your son to learn anger management skills. 

Here are some other ideas that can be helpful.  You and your son seem to be too isolated. Kids generally don’t act abusively towards their parents in front of others, so it would be good to actively engage social groups and have them around.  If you have relatives, siblings, cousins, have them over; if you have a sibling that could move in for a while, that could be a good idea. If your son has cousins who would be good role models for him, have them over, set up some family get-togethers.  Do you belong to a church?  Invite church members over for a BBQ, a Wednesday night reading club.  The point is, enlarge your social circle and make others more intimate in your lives.  You and your son are in a destructive rut so changing the social dynamic will be an important part of changing that.  It gives him and you other adults and kids to relate with.   

So parents, therapists and folks who work with teens and parents, let’s think out of the box.  Is what we’re doing helpful, or simply procedural.  If you’re a parent, is what you’re getting helpful?  We don’t want to send clients through a psychotherapy car wash, one size fits all.  How does our approach answer the question; is this helpful, are we part of the solution?  When it isn’t, do we revise our strategy, or do we blame the client?  Such a simple concept, and yet too often missed. 

Thanks for tuning in today listeners, and special thanks to you Dina for sharing your situation with us. It’s a reminder to all of us that we need to be part of a community, not isolated from each other.  The pandemic really isolated us so let’s reconnect.  If you haven't been vaccinated yet, I strongly recommend that you do. It’s a great way to take care of yourself and I want to encourage you to do just that, because you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.

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