- Were you raised with fewer rules and household responsibilities than many of your friends?
- Was there a lack of structure in your childhood home?
- Were you somewhat of a behavioral problem at home or school?
- Were you raised by parents who seemed more like friends than parents?
- Do you feel guilty for the way you behaved as a teen?
All of these are signs that you were raised by permissive parents.
In the early 1960s psychologist Diana Baumrind conducted a landmark study that identified the 4 main parenting styles that have been heavily researched, written about and expanded upon, and are still often cited to this day. In her work, she described and named the permissive parent type.
Permissive parents, at best, act more as a friend than a parent to their children. At worst, they are simply not paying attention to what their child is doing or not doing. They may focus solely on enjoyment and happiness for their child or they may constantly look the other way in order to avoid the clash and conflict that is a necessary part of teaching a child important life skills.
Since the children of permissive parents have few limits and rules, they are the ones who run the freest as children and stay out the latest as teens. Their friends may envy their freedom. But unfortunately, research has shown that there is a dark side to being raised by permissive parents.
When you are raised by permissive parents, you are, by definition, being raised with Childhood Emotional Neglect, or CEN. Other kids, whose parents give them responsibilities and rules and enforce them, may think you have it made.
But sadly, what looks great from the outside, and often feels great on the inside — after all, what kid doesn’t love an absence of rules and responsibilities — does not prepare the child to thrive emotionally as an adult. What looks like privilege is actually quite the opposite. It’s neglect.
The Dark Side Of Permissive Parenting
- You don’t get to learn how to make yourself do things you don’t want to do, or stop yourself from doing things you shouldn’t do. Those two skills are the foundation of self-discipline. When your parents require you, as a child, to do chores, meet requirements, and manage your impulses, you internalize the ability to do chores, meet requirements, and manage your impulses yourself.
- The love from your parents comes across as one-dimensional. Parental love is meant to have conflict in it. That’s because a parent’s role is to do whatever is necessary to raise a healthy child. A parent who is willing to fight with you is one who’s willing to fight for you. Even though children get angry and frustrated with parents who are disciplining them, children experience that conflict, if not delivered harshly or excessively from the parent, as a deeper, richer form of love. When you do not get this from your parents, you miss out on that deeper version of attentive, fight-for-you love.
- Having a permissive parent teaches you little about how to handle difficult emotions. Permissive parents fail their children by failing to prepare them emotionally for their adult lives. When there’s little clash in the home, there’s little opportunity for the children to learn that it’s okay to be angry, how to express anger, or how to work through negative emotions with another person. Being comfortable and capable in the face of conflict is a vital life skill that you, the child, missed out on.
- It’s hard to see what you missed in childhood. Since permissive parenting masquerades as a kinder form of love, it leaves the child struggling with the results of Childhood Emotional Neglect as he or she grows up. Yet looking back to childhood for an explanation, the true answer to what went wrong is very difficult to see.
As a therapist who specializes in treating Childhood Emotional Neglect, I have heard many people raised by permissive parents say, “I was a difficult kid. I feel sorry for my poor parents.” These folks have no idea that they weren’t “difficult” at all. They were testing weak or non-existent limits from their permissive parents because this is what unstructured children virtually always do.
Most of the folks who say this are struggling with all the results of an emotionally neglectful childhood:
- Emptiness, numbness, or lack of feeling
- Unrealistic self-appraisal
- Low compassion for yourself
- The Fatal Flaw
- A tendency toward self-blame, self-directed anger, guilt and shame
- Low emotional intelligence
- A feeling of being less important than others
It’s hard to see what your parents failed to give you, and it’s hard to know how important that failure is. So you, the child, all grown up, are left holding the bag of Emotional Neglect, having no idea how you got it or what it means. So, for all of this, you are probably blaming yourself.
You are caught in the puzzling paradox of the permissive parent. But good news, you can escape. Once you understand that your parents, perhaps well-meaning — or perhaps not — left a vital ingredient out of your upbringing, you can provide that missing ingredient to yourself.
3 Steps Out of The Paradox
- Stop blaming yourself for your struggles with self-discipline. Chances are high that you either let yourself off the hook too much for things (like your parents did) or hold yourself so harshly accountable that it’s hard to feel good about accomplishments. Neither of these is effective, but they are not your fault.
- Have compassion for yourself in your struggle, but also try to hold yourself accountable.
- Stop avoiding conflict. Conflict is necessary for a healthy, happy life. You can learn the skills you missed, like how to recognize, tolerate and express anger. The better you get at those skills, the more comfortable you will be with conflict.
Childhood Emotional Neglect can be very difficult to remember so it can be hard to know if you have it. To find out, Take The Emotional Neglect Test. It’s free.
To learn more about how Emotional Neglect plays out in your adult relationships and what you can do about it now, see the book Running On Empty No More: Transform Your Relationships With Your Partner, Your Parents & Your Children.
To learn more about how to heal your Childhood Emotional Neglect and give yourself structure and discipline, see the book Running On Empty: Overcome Your Childhood Emotional Neglect.