The following are some of the characteristics of overly permissive parents that I consider most important. Most of the parents are devoted to doing the best for their children.
In relationship with the parents, the youngster is driven by anxiety in demanding rights and freedom, and the material advantages of being grown up. Initially the parents are against the youngster but without clear convictions of their own. In the emotional field with the youngster, they may be partially ‘sold’ on the youngster’s argument, and give in to the demands to allay the anxiety of the moment, hoping this will solve the problem. This sets the stage for new and greater demands and threats. The process can keep repeating until the parents have exceeded their ability to provide material demands, and the youngster’s misbehavior has become a social problem. These youngsters are masters in knowing the weaknesses of parents and society and in presenting willful arguments in favor of ‘rights.’
It is a clinical fact that insecure and permissive parents, in situations that require parental control, will automatically shift to a degree of authoritative cruelty that is equal to the unsure permissiveness on the other side. (An example of this is when parents give in and give in, perhaps while simultaneously complaining about the child’s demands or behavior, until the parent “loses it” and impulsively imposes a punishment that appears out of proportion to the severity of the child’s “crime”.)
A shift toward individuality (increased emotional maturity) on a family level can be illustrated by a single responsible family member who proceeds on an individually determined course.
Increasing individuation (i.e. maturity) is slow and difficult and it takes place only with a disciplined decision to stay on a principled course…a successful attempt usually comes after several failures. When he is finally able to maintain his course without getting angry at the opposition, the opposition does a final intense emotional attack. If he remains calm with this, the opposition becomes calm and pulls up to his level of individuality.
In a small or large social system, the move toward individuality is initiated by a single, strong leader with the courage of his conviction.
When the family is able to be a contained unit, and there is a family leader with motivation to define the problem and to back his own convictions in taking appropriate action, the family can change from a directionless, anxiety-ridden, floundering unit, to a more resourceful organism with a problem to be solved.
Questions to Ponder:
- Am I an insecure or overly permissive parent?
- Do I give in to the anxiety of the moment?
- Does my child control the household with his/her demands for rights and freedom?
- Do I periodically “lose it” and come down too heavily on my child?
- Am I functioning as a leader in my family?
This essay is compiled from Murray Bowen’s Book Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, Chapter 13, “Societal Regression as Viewed Through Family Systems Theory” and Chapter 5, “Family Psychotherapy”. All parentheses and the questions are mine.