Permissive parenting is a style of parenting that involves love and warmth toward children, but a lack of boundaries, rules, and expectations. Because of the lack of monitoring and control over behavior, children of permissive parents are more likely to act out and engage in harmful or risky behaviors. If you are a permissive parent, you can benefit from therapy to help you improve your skills in this area.
What Is Permissive Parenting?
Permissive parenting is one of four different parenting styles characterized by being accepting of their children, but failing to provide structure or control.1 It is also sometimes referred to as indulgent or passive parenting. Permissive parenting involves high degrees of responsiveness and low degrees of demandingness.
Dr. Nanika Coor, a Brooklyn, New York-based clinical psychologist and respected parenting therapist and consultant at Brooklyn Parent Therapy says, “Permissive parenting involves parents providing high levels of support and warmth to their children, while having very low expectations of them. These parents have a hard time setting limits and holding boundaries, often feeling as though they have to do something their child is insisting upon, and as if they don’t have a choice – the parent consistently gives in to the child’s demands.”
The other parenting styles include authoritative parenting, authoritarian parenting, and neglectful/uninvolved parenting.2 Each style differs to the degree that parents are demanding and responsive to their children’s needs.3 This style can contribute to problems with anxiety, depression, social withdrawal, school misconduct, and defiance.3
Children of permissive parents may experience their parents as easy-going, lenient, and even fun. While this parenting can have its perks for children, it fails to teach children important life skills, like the importance of following rules and respecting authority. Children of permissive parents may also have a difficult time setting limits for themselves, which can lead to problematic behaviors as they grow older like drug and alcohol use, which could be enabled by parents of adult children.
Characteristics of Permissive Parents
Permissive parenting is highly responsive to children’s needs, but is not demanding when it comes to behavior. Permissive parents are warm and loving toward children, but indulge them without setting rules or limits. These parents may appear more like friends than parents, since they are unable to provide structure for their children.
Characteristics of permissive parenting include:
- Expressing love and warmth toward children
- Providing support and responding to children’s needs
- Lack of structure or routine
- Having few or no rules and expectations for children
- No enforcement of rules that are in place
- Providing little guidance for children when it comes to making decisions
- Failing to hold limits by giving into children’s requests
- Inability to say “no” to children
- No consequences for bad behavior
- Prioritizing being liked by children over limit-setting
What Is the Impact of a Permissive Parenting Style?
Research on permissive parenting has found that it can have negative effects on children.3 This approach is linked to mental health concerns like anxiety and depression, as well as social isolation and somatic complaints. When it comes to school, permissive parenting is linked to poorer academic performance.4
Children of permissive parents may exhibit negative behaviors at school, such as acting out and delinquency. Because they have little structure at home, they may respond negatively when teachers enforce rules and limits. These children may also be more likely to engage in drug and alcohol experimentation.
Dr Coor states, “Children of permissive parents have more difficulty regulating their emotions, taking the perspective of others, and controlling their impulses. These kids are more likely to be overweight and also more likely to struggle socially and lack confidence in their abilities.”
Negative Impacts of Permissive Parenting
One study of college students in the United States found that young adults with permissive parents drank more alcohol and had more alcohol-related problems than those raised by other types of parents.5 More recently, researchers have looked at how parenting affects children’s technology use. Permissive parenting has been linked to problems in this area. Studies show that permissive parenting may contribute to online gaming addiction in children.6
Because permissive parents fail to monitor and control their children’s behavior, children who do not yet have the skills to control their own behavior may play online or video games excessively. This can be harmful because children can neglect other aspects of their lives, like school and friends, and begin a habit of turning to gaming as a way to cope by escaping reality.
Positive Impacts of Permissive Parenting
There are also some advantages for children when it comes to parents having a permissive parenting style. Children may have higher self-esteem than those with authoritarian parents or those with a neglectful parenting style.7 While there may be some benefits to a permissive parenting style, there are also drawbacks. An authoritative approach that is both responsive and demanding is considered the most effective and is associated with the best outcomes for children.3
Examples of Permissive Parenting
Permissive parents of toddlers struggle to maintain rules and stick to them. They may unintentionally reinforce negative behaviors, like temper tantrums, by giving in when their children resist their limits.
Example of Permissive Parenting in Young Children
For example, if a child asks for dessert before dinner, a permissive parent may first say no, but may then give in when the child pushes back. The child then learns that crying, arguing, or acting out will be rewarded by allowing them to get what they want. In the same situation an authoritative parent would empathize with the child’s desire for dessert, but stick to the rule that there is no dessert before dinner.
When it comes to parenting elementary-aged children, permissive parents may struggle to set and communicate expectations. Children at this age are learning how to manage school, peer and family relationships, and other areas of their lives, like sports and the arts.
An authoritative parent may create an after school schedule that involves a snack, homework, and some playtime. However, a permissive parent may “wing it” by allowing the child to create their own schedule. Children may not have a set bedtime or routine to follow, which can be confusing, since children do not know what is expected of them.
Example of Permissive Parenting in Teens
Permissive parents of teenagers may fail to set limits around alcohol, drug use, sex, and other potentially dangerous behaviors. These parents may turn a blind eye when their teens experiment with these things and may even encourage these behaviors by participating in them with their teens.
For example, a permissive parent may allow their teenager to drink alcohol with their friends at home. They may justify this decision by thinking that it is safer to have their teen drink alcohol at home rather than risk drinking and driving. However, this permissiveness can lead the teen to developing unhealthy habits at a young age, since lack of parental supervision is a risk factor for later addiction.8
An authoritative parent would talk to their teen about sex, drinking, and drugs at an appropriate age, discuss the potential consequences of these behaviors, and encourage an open dialogue.
How to Change If You’re a Permissive Parent
While there are some benefits to permissive parenting, like being responsive to your child’s needs, there are also drawbacks. Being too permissive or indulgent can prevent children from learning important life skills. If you think you might be too permissive, you can benefit from becoming more authoritative in your approach.
Ways to change if you’re a permissive parent include:
- Set rules for your children to follow: Rules and limits are important for helping children learn what is expected of them and how to behave appropriately in various settings.
- Communicate your expectations: Be clear about how you expect children to behave. Tailor the way that you communicate to your child’s age and maturity level. For example, use simple words and brief sentences with younger children and more in-depth explanations with older children and teens.
- Stick to your limits: Children may resist your rules or limits, but this does not mean that you should give in. If you do, children will learn that they can change the rules by pushing back against them. Instead, hold to your limits despite your children’s responses.
- Reward good behaviors: Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool as a parent and may be more effective than punishment. It involves rewarding children for good behaviors rather than focusing on bad behaviors. For example, you can give your child praise when they do well on a test at school or complete their chores.
- Guide children through making decisions: Providing guidance is another important component of parenting. This is especially helpful as your children get older and need to make difficult decisions. Rather than telling children what to do, help them think through their different options in a situation. For example, if your teen is choosing between several different colleges, you can help them brainstorm what each school would be like, write out a list of the pros and cons, and compare them.
- Maintain your authority as a parent: Remember that you are a parent, not a friend to your children. Though you love and care for them, you also need to have rules, expectations, and limits. These allow children to learn skills that will benefit them throughout their lives as they grow and develop.
Consider Incorporating Mindfulness & Self-Care
Dr. Coor encourages parents to develop practices that can help you live in the moment: “Parental behavior change begins with the practice of present moment self-awareness. In those moments when you have a choice between your old reaction and a new response, slow everything down and just pause. Without judgement, notice your sensations, emotions, thoughts, words and actions that are happening right now. What you learn from sensing your internal experience can give you clues about what gets in the way of you being the parent you want to be.
As a permissive parent, you already prioritize giving your children lots of connection and support. So remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup. Sometimes self-care means holding your personal boundaries, even if your kiddo doesn’t like it. Set the limits you need to set and hold space for any upset feelings your child may have about it. Not only are you asserting your own boundaries and accepting (and surviving!) your child’s big feelings, but you’re also modeling for your children how to do both of those things for themselves as they grow and develop.”
How Therapy Can Help If You’re a Permissive Parent
Permissive parents who would like help changing their parenting style can benefit from therapy. Therapy can help you learn new skills to become a more authoritative parent that is warm and loving toward your children, but also sets firm limits, expectations, and rules. Be sure to seek out a therapist that specializes in working with parents, children, or families on parenting issues.
You can get help by seeking out either individual, family, or group therapy. Individual therapy can give you the opportunity to explore how your own childhood influences your current parenting style and ways to parent your children more effectively.
Group therapy can provide a way to give and receive advice on these issues and learn parenting skills. Family therapy allows you to work on changing unhealthy family dynamics. In family therapy, the therapist can witness your interactions and address negative communication and behavior in the moment.
Parent-Child Interaction Therapy
Parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT)is one specific type of therapy that can help you improve your parenting skills and relationship with your child.9 PCIT can help you more effectively manage your child’s behavior, discipline appropriately, set healthy limits, and support your child’s confidence. It was developed for families with children between the ages of two and seven years old.
In this type of therapy, a therapist observes a parent(s) and child interact through a one-way mirror. At the same time, the therapist coaches the parent on how to interact with the child through an ear device. This helps parents learn how to respond more appropriately to their children’s behaviors. PCIT has been well-studied and is considered an effective therapy.
How to Find a Therapist
If you think you could benefit from seeing a therapist who focuses on parent coaching, you can talk to your healthcare provider about a referral, ask family and friends for recommendations, or contact your health insurance company for a list of in-network family therapists. You can also use an online therapist directory, which allows you to search for a therapist that matches your needs and availability.
In general, therapy and parent coaching can cost around $110 per session, but may between $70 and $200 per session. The cost of therapy varies widely depending on a therapist’s level of experience, location, and whether they accept insurance. If you are using health insurance to pay for therapy, then treatment may be covered entirely or you may be responsible for a deductible and/or co-pay. The length of therapy can also vary widely depending upon your goals. It can take as little as eight sessions or as long as several years to meet your goals.
Final Thoughts on Permissive Parenting
There are pros and cons to having a permissive parenting style. This particular style is warm, but lacks structure. While children of permissive parents may feel loved and cared for, the lack of rules and expectations can lead to problematic behaviors, like acting out and drug and alcohol use. If you are a parent who would like help adopting a more authoritative approach, consider seeing a therapist that specializes in this area. Therapy can help you grow as a parent and learn ways to more effectively address your child’s behavior.