When I did my TEDx Talk in 2019 (sorry the sound is terrible, out of my control), I was not expecting viewers to comment on parents bullying their own kids. Due to lived experience, I was speaking about the serious harm to developing brains when teachers abuse students, not parents. I hadn’t really thought about how some parents bully their own kids.
The fact that bullying has infected the most sacred bond in life – namely mother and father to child – suggests that bullying and abusive behaviours are so rampant in our society that they even infect parent-child relationships. These are some of the comments that struck me.
“My parents bullied me.”
“I’m 35 now and I can honestly say bullying has absolutely broken me.”
I was bullied “by my family members.”
“My bully was my father. It happened everyday as soon as my feet hit the floor in the morning.”
From a brain science perspective, this is surprising, and yet not surprising. When a child is born, the brains of both parents and baby are flooded with oxytocin which is referred to as the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone.” It has the job of making parents fall head over heels for their baby to give them the strength to have broken sleep, care passionately about their infant through thick and thin, manage the full time job of parenting when they likely have another full time job, and to shoulder a constant state of serious responsibility.
These are huge demands on an individual, and yet when “love” happens in the brain, these stressful demands fade in the intense glow of connection with and adoration for one’s child. It’s natural for the brain of a parent to discover incredible reserves of energy to cope with the intense challenges an infant and baby bring into their lives. This is all built into the brain by evolution. It’s how we survive as a species.
From a brain perspective, it’s surprising that all this natural, established in evolution, connection and bonding turns into one of the most harmful behaviours, namely bullying.
How could that happen? From a brain science perspective, it’s also not that surprising. If the parents were bullied by their parents, or family members, or maybe coaches, teachers, or even peers, then they may well transfer this harmful way of behaving onto their own kids. The brain gets shaped and moulded by experience, especially repeat experience, and especially during one’s formative childhood or teen years.
Once a brain has been sculpted by bullying, the individual is likely to believe the falsehood that bullying was the making of them.
They believe bullying gave them success or toughness or survival skills. While this is not backed by research, it makes sense that a compensatory strategy for being harmed by one’s own parents is to try and make it seem like it made the victims strong or it was done “for their own good.”
You can see though, from the comments on my TEDx Talk, that the children on the receiving end of bullying from their own parents do not see it in a positive or loving light. They speak about how much it damaged them and how hard it is to recover from this kind of harmful treatment. Rather than enhancing their grit or their success in life, it has lead them to a lot of pain and suffering.
When parents bully kids, their own kids, all they do is set them up to either bully the next generation, or to turn the harmful behaviour inward and suffer many well-documented issues throughout their lives.
Research is extensive and clear that bullying from adult to child does not give them an advantage, doesn’t help them, doesn’t make them tough or have grit, doesn’t lead to greatness, doesn’t support them in healthy social relationships. All it does, according to extensive research, is hurt brains.