Parenting Styles

Jellyfish Parenting Isn’t Just A Silly Name

The tiger parent backlash has swung the pendulum from the jungle to the deep sea. It’s not for the best.

Originally Published: 
A child pulls on their jellyfish parent's shirt while whining.
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From dolphins to tiger to elephants, naming parenting styles after animals has become all the rage. But on further review, it’s not so much a trend in naming as much as it is in repackaging. Tiger parenting — the OG member of the parenting style zoo — is a more relatable name for authoritarian parenting. Authoritative parents are described as dolphin parents. And jellyfish parenting is widely becoming the accepted street name for parents who adopt a more permissive style.

One of the problems with branding a parenting style as jellyfish parenting is that most people don’t have a grasp of this animal’s characteristics and how they might apply to parenting. So, is jellyfish parenting good for kids? Not so much. But there are ways to turn jellyfish parenting into something far more healthy for the whole family.

What, Exactly, Is Jellyfish Parenting?

Jellyfish parenting refers to the permissive parenting style, which along with authoritative, neglectful, and authoritarian makes up the styles currently used in child psychology. Those four styles are grounded in the research of University of California at Berkeley psychologist Diana Baumrind, Ph.D., who in the 1960s categorized parenting based on the amount of demands a parent makes on a child and how much support they give them.

Authoritative parents find a healthy balance of demand and support by setting reasonable expectations for their kids and then helping kids meet those expectations with appropriate support. Authoritarian parents demand too much from their kids’ they’re also unsupportive and unfairly harsh when kids don’t meet expectations. And neglectful parents have little to no expectations for their kids coupled with an absence of support.

It’s a harsh correlation, but much like jellyfish, which are invertebrates, permissive jellyfish parents don’t have a backbone. “Children who are raised by permissive parents tend to grow up without appropriate boundaries and discipline,” says Sarah Ockwell-Smith, a parenting expert and author of The Gentle Parenting Book. “While this may sound great if you're a child, the lack of teaching and direction can mean children struggle to fit in with the world around them and societal expectations.”

Children who are raised by permissive parents tend to grow up without appropriate boundaries and discipline

Jellyfish parents’ permissiveness is a strategy to avoid upsetting their children, and they often give in to their kids in order to appease them. The result is that kids raised by permissive parents can struggle with emotional regulation.

“If kids never had to learn to deal with frustration, anger, or disappointment, then as teens and adults they are more likely to lack emotion regulation and impulse control skills,” Ockwell-Smith says. “Children raised by permissive parents can really struggle with any sort of disagreement, argument, conflict or relationship difficulties as adults as a result of these immature emotion regulation abilities.”

Sure, temper tantrums are painful. Indulgence is a tempting strategy to employ in the heat of the moment, and can be quite effective in the short term. But succumbing to a child’s whims robs them of the opportunity to develop a robust emotional toolbox.

Permissive parents will often run themselves into the ground.

Not only does jellyfish parenting stunt a child’s emotional growth, but it’s also detrimental to parents. “Permissive parents will often run themselves into the ground, behaving like some sort of parenting martyr, in order to put their children first and avoid any discipline that makes their children unhappy or angry,” Ockwell-Smith says.

The great irony then is that parents that are hell-bent on keeping things calm by letting their kids run the show end up doing what most people do when they’re stretched too thin — blow up at others because they don’t have the energy and capacity to deal with their big feelings. It simply takes too much energy to cater to a child’s every whim. And the longer that goes on, the more entitled and less grateful kids tend to become. It’s an exhausting cycle that permissive parents subject themselves to and is a road that eventually leads to some combination of mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion.

How People Become Jellyfish Parents

Although the results of jellyfish parenting are undesirable, the origins aren’t necessarily nefarious. The worst case scenario are those parents whose permissiveness borders on neglect. Those are the parents who give their kids full access to all of the food in the house and let them have unlimited screen time so that the adults aren’t bothered or distracted.

But Ockwell-Smith notes that only a slim minority of jellyfish parents fall into the neglectful category. Most are either emulating how they were parented, or think that by being permissive they are practicing gentle parenting.

“These are usually really nice people that just haven't dealt with their own childhoods yet,” Ockwell-Smith says. “Often, they were raised by strict authoritarian parents and are determined to do things differently with their children. They are … keen to avoid upsetting or damaging their children in any way.”

It’s admirable when parents recognize their own trauma and make an effort to stop that cycle in its tracks. But when the pendulum swings too far away from authoritarian parenting into permissive parenting, a whole new set of issues arises.

How To Transition From Jellyfish To Dolphin

The high-demand, high-support that defines authoritative parenting (in the zoological realm of “dolphin” parenting) is widely recognized as the sweet spot of parenting styles. And although it’s a structured approach, it embodies a gentleness that may appeal to parents who have developed permissive habits, Ockwell-Smith says.

“My understanding of healthy parenting is rooted in understanding, empathy, and respect for children. It has high expectations of children's behavior, but these expectations are realistic and age-appropriate,” she says. “Parents are always ready to support their children, showing high levels of empathy and nurturance, but they are not afraid to discipline where it is needed.”

All parenting starts with us.

Luckily for parents who have been lax on discipline, there are numerous effective discipline skills and strategies grounded in child development that have worked for other families. And effective discipline is something that all parents struggle with, so anyone going through the growing pains of adopting new habits should know they are in good company.

Parenting is stressful, and parents can be their own loudest critics. Ockwell-Smith encourages a hearty dose of self-compassion, as well as diligence in doing the internal work that’s required to parent from a healthy place.

“All parenting starts with us. By that, I mean focusing on our own demons, making peace with our own upbringing, and working to understand our triggers,” she says. “If we don’t focus on being a calmer parent, then it doesn’t matter what techniques we try to use.”

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