Gina was a typical 8-year-old girl – active, creative, and confident at her soccer games. But when it came to bedtime, she cried, demanded that her parents stay in her bedroom, and repeatedly expressed fears about the dark and burglars. Jamal was a five-year-old boy who became distraught when his mother left him at school for the first time, and months later this behavior had worsened, so that he was throwing tantrums and sobbing hysterically for hours every day.
I frequently see cases of children who have trouble sleeping alone, even as they reach middle or late elementary school. They demand that parents stay with them in their beds until they are asleep and they may join the parents in their bed in the middle of the night. They may not be able to go on sleepovers to friends or relatives. Also common is separation anxiety when young children enter a new school or day care. Normally, this is usually brief as the child grows accustomed to the new environment. Some children, however, continue for months or even years with crying outbursts when dropped off at school or even a grandparent’s house.
Certainly, these behaviors can be concerning to a parent, who dislikes seeing a child upset and wants to soothe the child.
In severe cases of separation anxiety or fear of sleeping alone, it may be helpful to look beyond just an explanation that the child is merely afraid or worried. The real cause may be one or both parents engaging in a permissive style of parenting. Separation anxiety and delayed sleep training may be about a child’s unhealthy power over parents. In these cases, when a child encounters a situation where the parent is making an independent choice and the child is unable to enforce a demand, the child engages in behaviors that include tantrums, demands, whining, crying and meltdowns.
While permissive parents are very caring and concerned, they may be excessively motivated by guilt and, hence, they may give in easily to a child’s demands as a way to alleviate the parent’s feelings of guilt. A child learns very early on that they are in charge, at some level, of how things are run in the family. This can be labeled an inverted family structure, because the child is on top of the family hierarchy, rather than the parents.
I’ll share in this blog some obvious and not-so-obvious signs of separation anxiety and how they relate to permissive parenting and then offer some parenting tips to help break this family dynamic and regain healthy authority over your child.
Reinterpreting Separation Anxiety and Sleep Issues
When parents bring their child to therapy for separation anxiety or sleep issues, I do a complete history and often observe other issues that the parent may be overlooking or may not connect as related.
The first thing I do is observe how the child interacts with the parent: Does the child walk in front of the parents or maybe even in front of me when entering my office? Does the child then get first choice of seats in the office — maybe even sit in my chair? Does he interrupt or over-talk adults frequently? Is there limited respect and deference to adults? Does the child insert themself in or dominate adult conversations? Is the child bossy with adults, peers or siblings? These are all signs of a child who is accustomed to being the “false leader” in the family, with the parents being “followers.”
Other assessment questions to consider:
- If the separation anxiety continues long past time when the child’s fear should have dissipated, we can consider the crying, demanding and whining to be manipulative. What does the parent do? Give in or hold firm?
- Does the child escalate to tantrums when they don’t get their way, whether it is about attending school, going to bed or other issues?
- Does the child have excessive verbal expressions of worry at bedtime or about attending school? Is this in contrast to other “transitions” when the parent is not involved? Notice that this anxiety may not be because the child is afraid per se, but because in certain situations they have the parent around to control and dominate. The “separation anxiety” often does not occur when the parent is not involved. The child has learned that expressing worry triggers the parent’s guilt and then, often, the parent’s capitulation to the child’s demands. This becomes the “normal” way of relating in the family, with the child as leader and parents as followers.
- Does the child make accusations, often combined with demands for attention and love, such as “You love my sister best,” “You always side with dad,” “You lie,” etc? This can indicate a child who feels empowered to make grand or false accusations, make extravagant demands, or play on a parent’s guilt.
- Does your child negotiate with you constantly and use manipulation? While some attempts to manipulate are very normal, excessive frequency or intensity is a sign a child feels able to get away with this behavior based on past experience.
- Does your child have poor frustration tolerance and persistence in the face of authority? Because they are used to getting their way at home with a parent or parents, they may resist being submissive when in school or other setting where they cannot control the adults, although this is not always true. Some children are only defiant to their parents or even to just one parent — usually the more permissive parent.
- Does your child dislike changes in plans or struggle with “transitions”? This may be merely because “it is not his idea” and he is not in charge — this is often obvious because he is resisting something that is to his benefit just because he didn’t choose it.
- Does your child have unreasonable fears that he fixates on and discusses at length, despite repeated attempts to calm and rationalize with him? Does she come up with new fears when old ones are explained away? Examples of these irrational fears may be: “What if the power goes out and I can’t find you?” “What happens if everyone goes to sleep before I do?” “What if this is the wrong bus to school?” “What if dad forgets my vitamins at bedtime?” “What if Grandma puts me to sleep wrong?” These unrealistic fears are likely being used as negotiation tactics to control the parent with guilt and high and ever-changing expectations that can never be met.
- Does your child also show generalized anxiety, with nervous behaviors, fidgeting, excess energy, distractibility? Children who are in an inverted family structure may feel anxious when they are not near the parent — but not in the way we might expect. They are not afraid of being alone, but are afraid that the parent is not nearby to boss around, which is a disruption of their expected or “normal” social structure. In addition, permissive parents do not signal confidence and authority, making children fearful and uncertain. Children need and subconsciously want strong, decisive parents who are in charge. Lacking this type of parent, children will be fearful and unprotected. Then when put in charge by default, children subconsciously know that they are not capable of acting like an adult and become more anxious.
- Is this an only child or youngest child? Permissive parenting is common with a single child and adopted children. Parenting styles can also change and become more permissive with younger children.
“Why Do I Engage In Permissive Parenting?”
Permissive parenting is well-intentioned, as I’ve noted, and often looks quite loving. But, like a sugary dessert, it is a short-term fix and is not in the best long-term interests of the child.
If you had neglectful, harsh or abusive parents, you may be driven by a desire to be a different type of parent. This is great, but don’t over-correct!
Parents can also feel guilty due to the child’s situation, whether from divorce, history of abuse, adoption, fostering, or other difficult circumstances.
Permissive parents may also be uncomfortable with the emotion of shame, so they want to protect the child from this emotion. The result is a failure to hold a child accountable for their behaviors.
You may feel compelled to buy friendship with a child to gain approval. This can be due to your unresolved issues with low self-worth. Work on your own self-acceptance to decrease your people-pleasing tendencies.
Think of Firmness as Kindness
When parents set limits and enforce rules, it does more than get kids to pick up their toys or go to bed on time. It also models for children an essential skill — being firm with themselves and being accountable. This encourages self-discipline and intrinsic motivation — the core of “adulting.”
Permissive parenting can teach the opposite. It may feel nice to relieve your children of their distress at having to clean up their toys, but it teaches them they get their way. It also fails to teach them that there are consequences to their actions: When you make a mess, you clean it up.
If we frame this in terms of compassion, it also works. Sometimes we need to be warm and generous to ourselves — perhaps a hot bath or a nap is exactly what we need to restore and recover from emotional or physical stress. But sometimes we need firmness: Go to the gym, get a job, don’t eat that candy bar. This rule setting with yourself can be an essential part of self-compassion — care for your future self who will appreciate being fit, healthy and having a job.
If all a chid learns is the soft, permissive side of compassion, they are missing skills they will need as an adult. Think of firmness as kindness — in the long run.
Parenting Tips to Toughen Up a Permissive Parent
— Start with compassion for your good intentions to be kind as a parent, but know that firmness is a form of kindness toward children.
— Become aware of the many small ways you may be communicating indecisiveness, doubt, insecurity, inconsistency, or passivity when parenting.
— Reduce negotiating with your child. By negotiating you are teaching a child to argue back. Why should parents encourage this skill in children? If you use coercion to control your child, the child learns to control parents and others coercively. Not every demand a child makes requires a response. Speak and move on. Don’t stand and wait for a child’s response. Act AS IF he is going to obey. Don’t wait for his refusal or negotiation.
— Explaining, justifying and rationalizing are skills used by Other-Blamers who use manipulation and negotiating as ways to shift blame for their behaviors. This does not teach a child the core skill of accountability. Allowing your child to practice rationalizing or excuses is just training them in very unhealthy behaviors that will not serve them well in adulthood.
— Stop making empty threats that you don’t enforce. My motto: “If you say it, it has to come true.” — Enforce consequences consistently. Never make a rule that cannot or will not be carried out. A child will merely learn that your word is meaningless.
— Don’t offer bribes for behavior. Terrorists and gangsters use coercion, extortion, and bribery. Children should behave because you tell them to, not because there is an external reward. This does not teach internal self-regulation and self-motivation. Also, this external reward does not help a child learn self-worth by being self-directed.
— There are age-appropriate times to mutually agree on expected behaviors and consequences. But these must be discussed ahead of time. Avoid negotiating deals like: “If you do X, I’ll give you Y.” This sets the child up to be in control of the situation and have power over you. He gets to choose NOT to do X if he wants to! External rewards encourage a child to look to others for approval and motivation, making relationships into contingent experiences. Instead, teach intrinsic self-motivation. Expect good behavior as a natural, respectful parent-child relationship. This is fundamentally non-negotiable.
— Parents should speak in clear, firm statements. Stop asking so many questions. Don’t ask: “Let’s go to the store, ok?” Tell, don’t ask! “We are going to the store now.”
— Speak in “accountability language.” Don’t say, “WE have to do the dishes,” if you mean, “YOU have to do the dishes.”
— Don’t explain every decision you make. This communicates that you feel you must justify your decision and weakens your power.
— There is no rule that says you have to continue a conversation with an oppositional child. Walk away, change the topic, start singing, go on about your business. If you stand and wait for a response to your directive, it implies a response is needed.
— Do not give in to a child’s manipulations. They are quick learners, especially when it gets them what they want.
— Don’t parent out of guilt or shame. If you have made mistakes as a parent (you are not alone!) or have children who have experienced hurts or traumas, it is easy to feel guilty and want to protect them from future negative experiences. However, you cannot and should not protect children from all feelings of shame. Doing so leads to permissive or authoritarian parenting or anxious “helicopter” parenting.
Know that being firm with your child helps them relax and be less “in charge,” which decreases their anxiety. Separation anxiety and sleep avoidance issues should also decrease.
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