Journal Kids Relationships

When the Parent is the Bully

Written by Jamie Sumner

I was cruising the grocery store aisles with my son when I caught two boys lurking in my periphery and laughing. My stomach dropped. I knew what this was about. I had been here before. But rather than engage, I chose to round the corner and hide in the dairy aisle. Not my finest moment. It was raining and cold out and already past dinner time while I was still buying the necessary ingredients to get dinner on the table. I did not have the time or energy to be the advocate I needed to be. You see, my son has special needs. I am used to swimming upstream in the tide of normal. But on this occasion I just didn’t have it in me…until I ran into the two boys again with their mother among the produce. This time the laughter was accompanied with a side of pointing and whispers. I couldn’t let it go.

“Can you wave hi to these boys?” I asked my son, in the hopes that human interaction would diffuse the situation. He obliged, was his adorable four-year-old self, and accompanied the wave with a blown kiss, the extent of his language skills. They laughed harder. I turned to the mother, hoping she would encourage them to say hi or at least discipline them for the laughter. But she looked up from the summer squash, took in the scene and let out a nervous snicker. And then looked away. She refused to engage. I watched her boys watch her. They took her attitude for silent approval. My face burned with all the words I left unsaid as we walked away, leaving the battle for another day.

As a high school teacher, we all had to undergo bully training, both how to prevent and how to diffuse. I remember sitting in the auditorium staring at a diagram of the five participants in the bullying cycle. Did you know there’s more to it than the bully and the one being bullied? There’s also the reinforcers who don’t actively participate but laugh along and occasionally cheer on the bully. And there’s the silent participants, the outsiders who say nothing but still watch and encourage by their mere presence. Lastly, you have the advocates, the ones who take a stand and defend the defenseless. Once you know the cycle, it’s amazing to see how much goes in to both starting and stopping the behavior. More people participate that they would like to admit.

Whether that mother realized it or not, she was bullying my son. By simply bearing witness to the act and saying nothing, she fueled the fire. By laughing instead of facing the awkwardness, she sent a silent message to her children that their behavior was acceptable. It’s not always cyber bullying or stealing the little guy’s lunch money. The world can bully by its simple recognition and then neglect in the face of bad behavior. I plan to teach my younger children to be advocates for their older brother with special needs and for anyone who requires protection. What I realized that day in the grocery store was that we all need to know the roles we play in the bullying cycle. Even parents can be bullies in their silence. Choose to see the problem. Choose to be an advocate and help your children do the same.


About the author

Jamie Sumner

Jamie Sumner is the author of the book, Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood. She is mom to a son with cerebral palsy and twins. She has written for The Washington Post,   Scary MommyParenting Special Needs Magazine and other publications. She can be found on her website, The Mom Gene, on Facebook, Twitter @mom_gene and Instagram @themomgene. She and her husband live with their kids in Nashville, Tennessee She is mom to a son with cerebral palsy and twins. 


  • We have an anti-bullying program at the elementary school where I taught technology to 700 little darlings. We discovered quite quickly that parents could turn into the biggest bullies right before our very eyes. It’s not easy to get the message across to the kiddos when their parents are the example of bullying.

    • Oh that is so true. I don’t know why parents behave so badly and then expect their children to do it differently. BUT I’m grateful to hear you have a program in place that teaches the kids how to handle it. At lease they are getting that information from responsible adults and at a younger age so that it sticks.

  • I have so much to say about this. I wish I could meet you for coffee (or tequila shots) and talk for a long time. I’ll just make a couple of points: People are afraid of what they don’t know. We all are. But some people are more afraid, and some of those people act out their fears in destructive and cruel ways. Not just bullying, but with drinking and drugs and using people (sexually, financially, etc). Just because we get older or become parents doesn’t mean that all of our insecurities and destructive behaviour patterns change. Not at all. In fact quite often they’re magnified by the strain and pressures of parenting. Now imagine that a person is healthy, secure, balanced, and strong and gracious enough to stand in the gap of the unknown. That person becomes a parent, and she brings her kids to the market. You’d have a very different experience with that family than the one you had most recently. Which is all the stuff you already know, I know. And the frustrating part is that we can’t change people, we can’t control their actions but we can control OUR reactions, and make them teachable moments so that we ourselves can be that healthy, secure, balanced, strong and gracious person that is able to stand in the gap of the unknown and THAT is a fkn gift we can pass onto our kids, disabled, typical, whatever. It really doesn’t matter that you didn’t stand up for yourself and your family that day. Because the stand you take is revealed in the dark corners when nobody is watching. We live it out, minute by minute, hour by hour, and trust me when I say that the woman and her boys will feel the affects of their behaviour long after your son waved at them, whether or not your son waved at them. Your son waved at them for HIS growth and HIS good sweet heart, not theirs.

    Glad I “met” you. I wish we could hang in real life. XO

    • Oh Suzy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I absolutely agree with all of this. I love this: “And the frustrating part is that we can’t change people, we can’t
      control their actions but we can control OUR reactions, and make them
      teachable moments so that we ourselves can be that healthy, secure,
      balanced, strong and gracious person that is able to stand in the gap of
      the unknown.” You would have been good to have in the grocery store with me. Charlie, bless him, continued on with his sweet self. I gave him an extra long hug when we got to the car and played his favorite DVD on the way home. Basically, I blanketed him in comfort. I think he thought he’d won some prize.

  • I’m sorry you had to go through that, or ever have to experience that! People can be so cruel. The fact that she didn’t say anything to her sons would infuriate me! My older son is on the autism spectrum. He is very high functioning, but he still does some classic autism characteristics while we are out in public, such as stimming or scanning objects. His speech is quite limited as well. I’m very protective of him. I have family members I don’t even let around him because they just don’t understand what autism is or care to learn. Like you, we’ve gotten looks or questions from random people. I normally don’t mind being the advocate, but sometimes it is just exhausting and I truly feel that some people never really learn or try to. I really do chalk it up to the fact that some people just can’t be changed. I can only hope that those two boys are learning tolerance from another adult in their life or perhaps an awesome teacher at their school (doesn’t seem that way but you never know). Just know you are not alone! You seem like an awesome mom and your son is so lucky to have you. Bless you are your beautiful boy!

    • Autism can be hard because it’s not always noticeable at first. With Charlie, when you look at him, in his wheelchair or in the shopping cart, you can tell he has special needs. I agree with you. I can just get exhausting to advocate all the time. You have to pick and choose and be wise. Sometimes I get tired of being “wise.” But it is what we are called to do and we get support when we need it–from people like us who get it.