Permissive parents are difficult to spot. Many appear to be great parents to an observer, and even to the children who are raised by them. Even after those children grow up, it still appears that way.
Why? Because permissive parents are often very loving. They may provide a childhood that seems ideal to their children after they grow up.
Permissive parenting is a type of camouflage. It’s a case of the inadequate parent disguised as adequate; the conflict-avoidant parent disguised as kind.
Not that permissive parents purposely disguise themselves. Quite the opposite. In fact, most permissive parents really love their children and want to do right by them. Yet they inadvertently fail their children in the most important way.
The Permissive Parent: This is the “Don’t worry, be happy” parent. This parent avoids conflict with the child. They view themselves and behave, more like a friend than a parent. They consult with the child on decisions that they should be making in their role as a parent. They don’t provide enough structure to the child or impose consequences when appropriate.
In short, by failing to perform the difficult role as a parent they over-empower the child. This may feel wonderful to the child but is, in fact, a form of Childhood Emotional Neglect or CEN.
Psychologist Diana Baumrind was the first to describe the Permissive Parent way back in 1966. Here are Diana Baumrind’s thoughts about this type of parent:
“She presents herself to the child as a resource for him to use as he wishes, not as an ideal for him to emulate, nor as an active agent responsible for shaping or altering his ongoing or future behavior. She allows the child to regulate his own activities as much as possible, avoids the exercise of control, and does not encourage him to obey externally defined standards.”
If you weren’t raised by permissive parents, as you’re reading this you may be feeling envious of the child who was. After all, what child wouldn’t love to have that kind of freedom from responsibility and consequences?
But that kind of freedom has a dark underside. In fact, those raised by permissive parents face a particular set of challenges in adulthood.
Difficulties with self-discipline: We are not born with self-discipline. Instead, we learn it by internalizing the structure that our parents provide us growing up. If your parents didn’t enforce enough rules and limits and structure when you were growing up, then you’ll be far more likely to struggle with this as an adult. Making yourself exercise, eat well, go to bed, get up, and other aspects of self-control can be difficult when you didn’t learn it well enough as a child. Emotion management: By not challenging the child enough, permissive parents inadvertently miss out on lots of opportunities to teach their children how to manage their emotions. When a parent says, “No” and the child cries, this is a valuable teaching moment. Just like self-discipline, if you miss these “emotion lessons” growing up, you may struggle later on to know how to manage your feelings. Tolerance for conflict: Many permissive families are short on something that is a key part of life: conflict. Conflict is a necessary part of relationships, business, friendships, and marriage. The better you are at handling anger and disagreement, the better you will do in life. When you grow up in a conflict-avoidant household, you don’t have the opportunity to learn these skills. Perseverance and motivation for tasks that are difficult or boring: When the child of the permissive parent gets bored, the parent says, “That’s OK Honey.” When the child struggles with something that’s difficult, the parent says, “That’s OK Honey.” The child as an adult, when faced with something difficult or boring says to himself, “That’s OK,” and moves on to something else. Self-blame: I know what the child of the permissive parent says to himself because I’ve heard it over and over in my office. “I’m weak,” “I have no willpower,” “I don’t want to rock the boat,” “I don’t want to make anyone angry,” “I’m lazy.” And here’s the kicker that underlies them all, “My childhood was fine. I had great parents. So why am I struggling so much?”
Deep down, the adult child of permissive parents feels flawed. With no explanation for your struggles, you assume there is something wrong with you.
Fortunately, there is a way out of this. Recognize the source of your struggles. Recognize that it’s probably not your parents’ fault since they most likely thought they were showing you love and care by not making you angry or setting limits. They just wanted a happy child. They had no idea that they were emotionally neglecting you.
Know that all of these skills are learnable.
If you’re reading this blog and thinking you might be a permissive parent yourself, don’t despair. It’s not your fault! We all raise our children the way we ourselves were raised unless we consciously override it. And you can!
To find out more about permissive parenting, how to acquire the skills you missed, and how to make sure you don’t raise your children this way, see the books, Running on Empty, and Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships.
A version of this article first appeared on Psychcentral.com. It has been reproduced here with the permission of the author and Psychcentral.