Q My parents gave me everything they could. They were ‘old hippies’ and were very laid back and easy going with me and my brother. My school friends used to be jealous of my parents and how ‘cool’ they were and how much freedom I got. My brother has ended up a druggy and been in prison; and I feel lonely, miserable and empty all the time. It’s not from bad parenting or my childhood, so why do I feel like this?
A It sounds like your parents followed the ‘permissive’ path to parenting you and your brother – which may have been a conscious decision to give you much more freedom than they’d had themselves as children.
Trouble is, sometimes the pendulum swings too far the other way – and inadvertently children still lose out and don’t get what they need. They grow up with weak boundaries and a lack of self regulation.
I’m certainly not blaming your parents – like many others they did what they thought was best for you. It just had a few ‘holes’ in the plan, which you, and your brother have now fallen through.
Children need to feel safe and protected. They push the boundaries to find out how far they can go before they are held in check. They need to know that the imaginary walls of the boundaries are strong.
If we don’t learn this in childhood we can have difficulty fitting in with the norms and limits of society as an adult.
A permissive parent (assuming that isn’t just a cover up for lazy, ignorant and emotionally neglectful parenting) usually wants these for their child(ren):-
To feel happy and to avoid strong feelings or conflict
To think of their parent as being more like a friend to them
To allow and encourage the child to make their own boundaries – because the parent avoids doing this for them
To somehow create their own structure, rules and limits – as if the child had a mature adult mind that was capable of doing so
To avoid having to consider the longer-term consequences of their actions – obviously not a good thing either as a child or later in life!
The permissive parent fails to offer enough guidance or to shape the child in preparation for becoming an adult. The grown up child then struggles to fit in and be able to compromise in relationships. People find them to be ‘hard work’ and they try to avoid them.
Due to the lack of earlier parental control the immature child has had to try and regulate themselves. They have feelings and behaviours which are beyond their childlike capabilities. This can result in erratic rage flare ups that are soothed and distracted from with substances and gifts, rather than being explored and built from.
The child finds it hard to discipline themselves or to restrain themselves; they become self-centred and may be hedonistic. This may create problems with food and alcohol consumption – which are not good traits for healthy mature adult relationships!
The child becomes unable and unwilling to handle conflict, pressure or challenges to what they want – when they want it. They are more likely to move on to find a more compliant partner than to work at a relationship when any rough patches emerge.
There might also be a tendency to give in too easily and to become easily discouraged. They are much less likely to stick at things – or to focus and concentrate upon a goal.
There may also be a tendency to be a ‘People Pleaser’ to avoid conflict – at least that is the mask that is worn until the adult child flees the scene.
Children of permissive parents might feel confused by the mismatch between their peers’ envy of their permissive parenting, and their own feelings of weakness and lack of confidence from growing up in the well-meaning but misguided parental shadow.
When the parents are admired then the child has to resort to self-blame…’There must be something wrong with me…I’m to blame for my problems…I had a great childhood’ etc.
The bottom line is that your parents, it seems, wanted to make you feel happy. They probably didn’t realise that happiness also comes from feeling safe within strong but fair boundaries, and in having a calm mind.
They wanted you to avoid painful feelings but only made you less able to handle them when they inevitably arose in life.
They have unwittingly set you up to have problems with adult peers when you show ‘spoilt child’ behaviours.
Your peers had a different experience of childhood – maybe better, maybe worse. Your lack of empathy and emotional attunement to other people’s needs will cause additional problems in your relationships too.
What can you do?
Make sense of your parents’ style of parenting, what you gained – and what else you could have done with too.
You can catch yourself behaving in selfish and overly important ways – and make the connection to your inner child who is struggling to be an adult with only a child’s mind for reference, guidance and boundaries.
You may feel anger at your parents – which isn’t about blame or shame… just a response to the avoidable difficulties you now face as a consequence of being given too free a range as a child.
Challenge yourself now and have a written dialogue between you the empty adult, and you the free-spirited inner child. You are one and the same, but you will need to re-parent yourself now to make up for the earlier deficits.
It’s time for ‘Care & Repair From The Inside Out © ‘
Maxine Harley (MSc Psychotherapy)
www.maxineharley.com Where you will find FREE e-booklets and other free resources designed to help and inform you on your journey of self-knowledge and development
There is also a therapeutic personal development e-course called ‘3 Steps To Sort Yourself Out – without therapy!’ – which will help you to get things into clearer perspective as well as guide you to a more balanced and rewarding life in future.