Permissive parenting is something I see a lot in the step-family dynamic. It’s custodial parents who think children should get to dictate to schedule, it’s non-custodial parents who are too scared to set boundaries. It’s when kids are put in the driving seat of the decision making in the family unit. It’s when kids are given too much control over the family dynamic. It’s when kids get to dictate the visitation schedule.
One of the big warning signs of pathogenic parenting (alienating parenting) is when a parent keeps saying ‘But why won’t you listen to the child?’ or ‘I can’t make the child call you/spend time with you etc’. Strangely enough, these parents usually manage to get the children to do other basic tasks they may not particularly want to; like going to bed, eating a meal, getting to school, but anything to do with the other parent is mission impossible…
A parent who is invested in their child having a healthy relationship with both of their parents will respond firmly, but lovingly, to any expression of ‘I don’t want to go’. There are many reasons a child will choose not to go to the other parents, the majority of those are benign. They hate having to change routine, they miss their toys, they want to be able to do things with neighbourhood friends. All of those are understandable reasons for a child to express a reluctance to change houses, they are not reasons to allow a child to miss time with their other parent.
One of the greatest tragedies for children with two homes is the ability they have to play the homes off against each other and to avoid having to face responsibility when they screw up. If we allow our children to avoid dealing with conflict with the other parent, we are doing them a great disservice. None of us are perfect parents, we all make mistakes. Giving the other parent the space to repair from mistakes is essential for our children’s well-being and developing skills to manage relationships. If we simply say ‘Oh dad was mean last time, you can stay here’ we are teaching children avoiding conflict is a valid response. Instead, to promote healthy conflict resolution, we could say ‘Yeah, I know things were rough last time, but I think it’s important that you go and spend some time together and figure things out’. The only exception to this is when children are subjected to abuse that is worthy of a child services notification. If it’s not notification worthy, it’s not a reason to withhold the children or allow them to dictate the schedule.
Children who are subjected to pathogenic parenting are also often subjected to permissive parenting. The children are told their feelings, wants, and needs should take precedence over the wants and needs of everyone (except the pathogenic parent!). So when the child goes into an environment where they are not the centre of the universe, where the world does not revolve around their wants and needs, they act out. When the parent who is the target of the pathogenic parent has time with the children, the children are set up to be unhappy. They have an expectation everything they want and need should be supplied by the targeted parent, and that the targeted parent doesn’t understand them so therefore, won’t be able to meet their wants and needs. Sound familiar?
They pout, they tantrum, they use every available tool in their toolbox to reassert themselves in what they deem as their rightful place – the centre of attention. They will often come back and complain vociferously that the other parent was mean, didn’t listen etc. In fact, what happened was the other parent set necessary boundaries and the child didn’t like it. Not liking a boundary is not a reason to opt-out of seeing your parent.
It takes a very brave parent to go against this conditioning. There is a very real fear that setting boundaries could result in losing your child completely. When I say very real fear, I mean a fear that is grounded in reality. There are many stories of parents who have lost their children to pathogenic parenting. It’s this fear that leads to permissive parenting by targeted or non-custodial parents. They are scared to set boundaries with children who already have said they don’t want to be there. How on earth do you risk making them hate being there even more by imposing rules and boundaries?
The answer to this is not simple, and what I am about to say may not be relevant to your situation. There is no one size fits all, but this is what I have seen work in my own family and in the families of people I have worked with over the years. Enforce the visitation schedule, go to court if need be. Setting a boundary that the schedule must be adhered to when dealing with pathogenic or permissive parenting is key. It takes the pressure off the child, it allows them to keep the pathogenic parent happy by saying they hate the targeted parent, but it means they get to maintain a relationship with both of their parents. It’s a sad fact that this dynamic is still not recognised by many involved in the judicial and therapeutic community. It doesn’t mean you don’t keep on enforcing the schedule.
Boundaries are the means by which children feel safe and held. It’s scary being in a world where you get to call the shots and you are 5, 10 or 15. You know on some level you are not equipped to make decisions for yourself, but you have adults around you allowing you to do that. Is it any wonder these children lash out and tantrum?
The most important thing is realising that being a permissive parent will not protect you from losing your child to pathogenic parenting, or parental alienation. In fact, it will probably fast track the process. Kids need to know adults have their backs and that adults will make the hard calls. Leaving kids in charge of the schedule puts the burden of disappointing a parent on them. Most of the time they will side with the parent who is most vocal about being hurt by them choosing time with the other parent, i.e. the permissive/pathogenic/alienating parent. Enforcing the schedule takes the burden off your child, giving them space to have a relationship with both of their parents.
NB – I know there are genuine situations where children are forced to spend time with abusive parents due to the courts not recognising the abuse. This is not what I am talking about in this article. The situations I am talking about here are those where loving parents are being kept from having a relationship or time with their children because of the other parent wants to be the chosen parent.
Anita is the Lifestyle Editor at Stepparent Magazine and is a step/mum to 7, ranging from tweens to adults. As a child of divorce and a divorced mum, she was completely unprepared for life married to a man in a high conflict relationship with his ex. This led to her current career, helping others deal with complex step-family dynamics. She lives in New Zealand but works with clients in the US and Australasia. Her passion is mentoring divorced and step-mums to step into their power and couples to navigate the challenging waters of step-family life. She is a certified step-family coach, with graduate and post-graduate qualifications in psychology. Email her for information about her courses or mentoring email@example.com