9 Little Ways You Bully Your Kids Without Even Realizing It

Setting a good example starts with you.

Last updated on Apr 18, 2024

Sad little boy with a pout face and single tear Getty Images | Unsplash

I'm grateful that bullying is a hot topic in the media and that parents have been calling on school administrators and teachers — not to mention social media — to do a better job protecting our kids from cruelty by their peers. As a mom of two, I understand our cultural outrage about this subject, and, like so many others, I sometimes point fingers at the parents of bullies, particularly those who set bad examples by being bullies themselves. Yes, parents can be bullies too. You know the grown-ups I'm talking about — you've seen them out and about, doing and saying awful stuff not just to their kids, but to their partners, too:


Here are 9 ways you bully your kids without realizing it:

1. You insult what they do 

"What were you thinking?" or "That was a ridiculous thing to do!"

RELATED: 5 Signs You're Raising A Little Bully — And How To Get Back On Track

2. You name-call

"What an airhead!" or "Why are you always such an idiot?"

3. You act superior

"If you'd just listened to me in the first place..."

4. You issue commands

"Don't you dare say another word!" or "Why don't you say something? You should stand up to your boss!"

5. You belittle

"How could you not know how to do that?"

6. You threaten

"You say that one more time and I'm out of here."


7. You manipulate

"If you just did what I asked, I wouldn't have to nag you about it."

8. You withhold

"If you were kinder to me, maybe we'd be intimate more." or "I'm not giving you another dime until you get your spending under control."

9. You judge and gossip

"My husband's so insensitive. You know how men are." "Them", "those parents", the ones over there, across the playing field, the ones who live across town, or next door, in another country, or school district … they're the parents whose kids become bullies.

RELATED: How I Conquered My Adult Bully Like A Grown Woman

But if we're honest with ourselves? Given the right dose of fear, frustration, powerlessness, exhaustion, or shame, any of us, myself included, not only could bully our spouses and kids, but sometimes do, if only briefly, unconsciously, and hopefully unintentionally. Not buying it? Thinking to yourself: "Sure I might be bossy sometimes, but I'm no bully!"? Fine. Insert "bossiness" through the rest of this post whenever "bullying" appears. Seriously: My advice is just as applicable to those of us who are bossy as to bullies.


One brave and fabulously honest mom, Rachel Macy Stafford, posted a piece on Huffington Post about bullying her daughter. How did she bully her? She had very high expectations and punished her — usually with harsh words or an angry tone of voice — when she didn't fulfill those expectations made mistakes, or did things that interfered with her schedule and responsibilities. As Stafford courageously and compassionately admits: "I bully myself. And when I bully myself, it makes me unhappy and then I treat others badly."

Stafford's words ring true for so many of us, whether or not we have kids. Our relationship with ourselves — specifically, our bad relationship habits, like self-criticism and judgment, or our issues with self-trust — not only impact but often define our relationships with others. To break it down: If we bully ourselves, chances are we also bully those we love, like our spouses and kids. Given that we sometimes model bullying for our children (however accidentally), how can we readjust our attitudes and prevent them from doing it to others, or from staying silent if they get bullied?

Here are 4 suggestions to stop the bullying cycle in our homes:

1. Improve your relationship with your inner critic

Unlike our spouses, we can't divorce our inner critics; can't kick them out or leave them. But we can improve our relationships with them. 



RELATED: The (Accidental) Way Parents Enable Their Kids To Be Bullies


2. Don't "should" on yourself

That's right. Remove the word "should" from your chats with yourself. Feel free to decide whether you "want" or "prefer" or "believe it best" to do or say something. But more often than not, when we should on ourselves, we're being our bullies and making commands based on fear or judgment. Then, do unto others as you've started doing unto yourself:

3. Don't should on others

When I encourage clients to pay attention to their "shoulds," nine times out of ten they use them to cajole or criticize others. "Shoulding" can sound innocent — you really should get a haircut — except for that whole judging thing that happens: not innocent at all!

4. Stop phrasing requests as demands

As a mom, I disguise demands as requests more often than I like to admit. Did I mean to ask: "Are you going to finish what's on your plate?" Nope! What I meant was: "Finish what's on your plate!" If you gently request something from your kids or partner, they get to respond to you with a no, yes, maybe, or I'll think about it. Here's the kicker: If it's a request, you won't get upset, impatient, or punished if you don't get the response you want. If you do find yourself harboring resentment, you were making a demand… so cop to it and move on.




As parents, we work hard to teach our children a lot — and in addition to putting a stop to bullying, one of the most important lessons we'll impart is to accept no one is perfect. So if you've found yourself shrinking up with shame over the realization that you might sometimes be a bit of a bully, don't be too hard on yourself (after all, that would just make you more of a self-bully!). Instead, take a long, honest look at the behaviors you'd like to work on, and enjoy the process of shifting them, knowing that you're modeling healthy, positive change for your family. And if you, or your spouse, or the two of you together need a little help being the role models you want to be, do your best to get some help from a life coach, counselor, pastor, or other advisor who can help you shift patterns from a place of love and compassion. 

RELATED: 5 Painful Signs Your Child Is The Classroom Bully

Rhona Berens, PhD, PCC, is an Individual & Relationship Coach who works with leaders, parents, couples, and co-leaders/business partners to increase positive communication, productive conflict, and fulfillment in personal and professional relationship systems.