If your son’s 6th-grade teacher calls to inform you that your son has been tormenting another child in his class, do you yell at your son, take away his electronics and ground him? Do you sit your son down, firmly explain that you will not tolerate bullying behavior and then ground him? Or do you offhandedly mention the call to your son at dinner, raise an eyebrow, then ask him to pass the potatoes -- and not bring up the phone call again? If you chose the latter response, you're likely a permissive parent. However, because permissive parenting involves few rules and limitations, it can create a perfect breeding ground for bullying behavior.
Anita Gurian, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry explains on the NYU Child Study Center website that permissive parents are accepting and warm, but exert little control over their children. Permissive parents typically don’t set rules or expectations and in turn, allow their kids to get away with bad behavior. Unlike authoritarian parents, who effectively balance nurture and appropriate discipline, permissive parents tend to give in to their kids’ demands. If they're made aware of their child's bullying behavior, rather than address it with appropriate consequences, they might simply file a child's bullying behavior under the “kids will be kids” school of thought.
Consequences of Permissive Parenting
If you don't want to set the stage for future bullying behavior, you need to set limits and boundaries when your child is young. For instance, if your 2-year-old screams for a cookie 10 minutes before you sit down to dinner -- and you reach for the cookie jar to avoid a tantrum, you're validating his bad behavior to get what he wants. According to Dr. Markham, clinical psychologist, author and creator of ahaparenting.com, permissive parents allow their children to regulate themselves, oftentimes with destructive results. If children aren't appropriately disciplined when they’re very young, they'll lack impulse control and never learn to regulate their emotions, including anger or aggression. In other words, if you let that cute little 2-year-old get his way with the cookie, he could morph into a burly 15-year-old who bullies other kids to get his way -- or just because he believes he can get away with it.
Your Child as the Bully
Nearly all children will display bullying behavior at some point. It's not unusual for toddlers fight over toys, or for preschoolers to shove each other out of the way to get the better swing at the playground. However, parents who consistently shrug off this type of behavior shouldn’t be surprised if years later, their child turns into an aggressor at school. But what if your child is already an aggressor -- and spending more time in the principal’s office than in her own classroom? The good news is that it’s not too late to try to influence her behavior. "Psychology Today" contributor Signe Whitson, a licensed social worker, recommends that if your child is already pegged as a bully, you should try initiating conversations with her about acceptable behavior. Make it clear that you will not tolerate bullying behavior, explain that bullying is wrong, and start enforcing appropriate consequences for bullying. If you feel that your child's bullying behavior is out of control, or if you feel your disciplinary tactics aren’t making an impact, it might be time to seek professional help from a school counselor or psychologist.
Your Child as the Victim
The children of permissive parents can also become the victims of bullying. According to Dr. Markham, research shows that children who are raised in permissive households are more likely to suffer from low self-esteem because they can't manage their emotions. Likewise, Anita Gurian, Ph.D. explains that the children of permissive parents tend to watch more television, be less active and are more likely to be overweight. If your child lacks self-confidence, he will be less likely to stand up for himself when confronted with bullying behavior. If you suspect that your child is being bullied, don’t tell him he’s being dramatic or laugh it off. Be proactive. Talk to him often about what’s going on at school -- and teach him ways to handle himself should a bully confront him again, using resources that you can find on stopbullying.gov.