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Are You an Overly Permissive Parent?

You can't set boundaries if you're letting yourself get pushed beyond limits.

Key points

  • Children flourish when parents model self-control, show self-discipline, and set limits.
  • Parents who unhealthily seek their child's approval may reflect a lack of self-esteem.
  • Being calm, firm, and non-controlling helps parents set limits while bypassing a child's emotional reaction to setting solid boundaries.

Many parents of challenging children, teens, and adult children contact me, expressing great frustration that they are not taken seriously when setting boundaries. Many of them fall into a group known as indulgent (or permissive) parents. This type of parent appears attentive and warm but tends not to set limits and expectations of what is acceptable. I have seen struggling children with overly permissive parents just as often as I have seen defiant children with controlling and authoritarian parents.

Permissive parents actually seem to prioritize being their child’s friend over being their parent. Research suggests that the children of permissive parents may show higher levels of creativity but may also feel entitled and be more interested in taking rather than giving in their own relationships.

If parents are too soft and fail to respond to challenging behaviors by their challenging child of any age, they lose credibility and respect. Parents who are over permissive can often clearly see that they have few rules and no consistent limits–but they struggle to change their behavior.

When coaching permissive parents, they acknowledge not having the necessary rules and structure for their kids. They report a longstanding history of how when they do make rules. They fail to enforce them. It is sad when I hear the feelings of guilt and shame from parents who have essentially put their children in charge.

Permissive Parents Have Told Me:

“He’ll go to bed when he is tired.” (While ignoring that it is 11:00 p.m. on a school night.)

“It’s fine with me if she likes to eat ice cream for breakfast.”

“Why should I be the one to caution and discuss with him to lay off the video games? He will just have to fail in school and figure this out on his own.”

“She can be rude to me because I know it is just a stage.”

Since children who grow up with permissive parents are used to doing whatever they want, they have trouble getting along with others. They can be spoiled, selfish, and, yes, quite defiant.

If you chose this laissez-faire method of parenting, don’t beat yourself up about it now. You may have become overly permissive for several reasons. Maybe you grew up with strict, authoritarian parents, and consequently, decided to use very little discipline. If this is the case, then permissiveness is probably a reaction to your harsh, punitive upbringing. Or maybe you chose the lenient style because you felt you were under stress and didn’t have the energy to make rules and enforce them. Parents struggling with alcohol or drugs addictions may also become compromised in the discipline department and fail to set consistent limits.

If you have erred on the side of being overly permissive with your child, make an effort to recognize how and where you are too permissive and make a commitment to change. Maybe you don’t like conflict, and you have become an emotional hostage to your defiant child for fear of experiencing more drama and chaos.

If so, be calm, firm, and noncontrolling, as I further describe in my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, to communicate with your child. Even if your child initially reacts negatively, keep your cool and speak with integrity. Encourage your child to talk to you in the same way. Point out that they will get more of your positive attention and more privileges if they can walk the calm, firm, and noncontrolling road with you.

In Closing

Remember that this firming up of your parenting style may be challenging and may take some time. Your child, however, will be less defiant and will respect you more in the long run if you avoid being overly passive.

References

Bahr SJ, Hoffmann JP. Parenting style, religiosity, peers, and adolescent heavy drinking. J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2010;71(4):539-543. doi:10.15288/jsad.2010.71.539

Bernstein, J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (2nd Ed.) Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein J. (2009) Liking the Child You Love, Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein, J. (2019). The Stress Survival Guide for Teens. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Letting go of Anger—Card deck for teens. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Mindfulness for Teen Worry: (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications)

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