What the Research Says about Bad Parenting: 8 Profoundly Negative Effects
The effects of bad parenting are profound and manyfold. Research shows that the role of parents in shaping the future of their children is undeniably crucial. If the parenting style the adult chooses is detrimental to the child’s development, the child may suffer lifelong implications.
As the primary architects of a child’s early experiences, parents wield immense influence over their children’s development and well-being. In this blog post, we will explore the multifaceted effects of bad parenting and the lasting impact it can have on individuals.
We will also offer resources to help you mitigate the effects of bad parenting and begin the healing process.
Emotional and psychological consequences of bad parenting
Bad parenting can cast a long shadow over a child’s emotional and psychological well-being. Children raised in an environment marked by neglect, excessive unpredictability, or abuse may grapple with issues such as low self-confidence, anxiety, depression, and trust issues. The emotional scars inflicted during childhood can linger into adulthood, affecting relationships, decision-making, and overall mental health.
We’ll unpack some of these effects of bad parenting here.
According to GoodTherapy, “As adults, children raised in authoritarian homes [homes where only the adults’ voices matter and where punishment is often a staple of the child’s existence] are likely to have a great deal of self-discipline, but little self-knowledge and generally poor self-esteem. Since their inner workings were apparently irrelevant to their caregivers, they minimize their inner lives and maximize “shoulds” in their self-talk.” (source)
The child’s self-esteem suffers when they’re always comparing themselves to what they think they “should” be doing to gain the parent’s approval, when in reality, the parent may never give them the approval they’re seeking.
Anxiety and depression
According to the National Library of Medicine, bad parenting skills contribute to anxiety and depression.
“Indeed, a large body of evidence suggests that adolescents growing up with critical or harsh parenting are at increased risk for negative outcomes, such as externalizing behaviors, withdrawn behavior, trait anxiety and clinical anxiety, depression symptoms, depersonalization, interpersonal rejection sensitivity, anger, and poor health.” (source)
Other mental health problems
In a large Irish study, we learn that “Hostile parenting involves frequent harsh treatment and discipline and can be physical or psychological. It may, for example, involve shouting at children regularly, routine physical punishment, isolating children when they misbehave, damaging their self-esteem, or punishing children depending on the parent’s mood.
The researchers charted children’s mental health symptoms at ages three, five and nine. They studied both internalising mental health symptoms (such as anxiety and social withdrawal) and externalising symptoms (such as impulsive and aggressive behaviour, and hyperactivity).
About 10% of the children were found to be in a high-risk band for poor mental health. Children who experienced hostile parenting were much more likely to fall into this group.”
Additionally, they may also be at higher risk to develop severe mental disorders. (source)
Impaired social skills
The family unit serves as a crucial socialization agent, shaping a child’s understanding of relationships and social norms. Bad parenting can hinder the development of essential social skills, leaving children ill-equipped to navigate the complexities of human interaction. A lack of positive role modeling can lead to challenges in forming and maintaining healthy relationships, both personally and professionally.
Such children may have difficulty in making friends and trusting people, as they find it easier to push people away than to open up.
According to the research, “4 out of 10 kids who lack [secure] bonds may avoid their parents when they are upset or resist their parents if they cause them more distress. Studies suggest that this can make kids more prone to serious behavior problems.” (source)
Further, “…those who experienced critical or rejecting parents who were highly judgmental, achievement-driven, or emotionally abusive often become highly anxious in their adult relationships, are preoccupied with fears of abandonment, or struggle with emotional vulnerability and trusting others in their life (Hyun, 2019).”
Beyond that, “Similarly, adults who experienced punitive parenting as children are at an increased risk for developing an anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment style where a person may not know whether to approach or push away those in their life (Kim et al., 2021; Kiviniemi et al., 2020).” (source)
Academic and cognitive impact
Parental involvement is integral to a child’s academic success and cognitive development. When parenting is characterized by indifference or a lack of support, children may struggle academically. The absence of a nurturing environment can impede cognitive growth, hindering a child’s ability to learn, concentrate, and problem-solve effectively.
The research shows that the “authoritarian [control-based] parenting style has a negative and significant relationship with educational success and career.” (source)
Children raised in an environment of bad parenting–specifically abuse–may resort to self-destructive behaviors as coping mechanisms. Substance abuse, reckless behavior, and delinquency can become outlets for the emotional turmoil resulting from a lack of proper guidance and support, coupled with generalized bad parenting skills. The cycle of self-destructive behavior may persist into adulthood, perpetuating a cycle of dysfunction.
Research shows that “Histories of childhood sexual and physical abuse were highly significant predictors of self-cutting and suicide attempts. During follow-up, the subjects with the most severe histories of separation and neglect and those with past sexual abuse continued being self-destructive. The nature of the trauma and the subjects’ age at the time of the trauma affected the character and the severity of the self-destructive behavior. Cutting was also specifically related to dissociation.” (source)
The effects of bad parenting are not confined to a single generation. Patterns of dysfunction can be perpetuated through generations, creating a cycle that is challenging to break. Without intervention, children of bad parents may struggle to provide a healthy and nurturing environment for their own offspring, perpetuating a cycle of dysfunction.
Research states the following:
“While conventional wisdom has long suggested that children living in violent homes may learn to be abusers or victims when they grow up, research on the biopsychosocial nature of family violence gives us insight into why this is the case. Trauma, defined as any experience that overwhelms an individual’s physical or psychological coping abilities, causes behavioral adaptations and physical changes in the brain and rest of the body.”
Further, “People who have experienced trauma have higher levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, and even seemingly mild stimuli that trigger the brain’s fight-flight-freeze response may result in strong reactions of fear, anxiety, depression, or aggression. Unlike one-time traumatic events such as being caught in a tornado, family violence is usually ongoing, and the constant state of high alert with the accompanying stress hormones takes its toll. In addition, the stress can cause genetic changes that are passed on to descendants.” (source)
Increased likelihood of criminal behavior
Neglected children and those who are exposed to abuse are more likely to be prosecuted for juvenile delinquency.
A child who is never allowed to make decisions, and who is constantly criticized, belittled, and who goes through abuse is likely to have low self-esteem. Verbal, emotional, and/or sexual abuse are also known to make children more prone to violent behaviors. Children who are exposed to abuse and violence are more likely to become violent people. They grow up believing that violence is the only way to solve issues.
The research states this about bad parenting and delinquency:
“Children who are rejected by their parents, grow up in homes with considerable conflict, and are inadequately supervised are at greatest risk of becoming delinquents. There appears to be a cumulative efftect such that the presence of more than one of these negative family attributes further increases the likelihood of delinquency.”
Further, “Not all children follow the same path to delinquency; different combinations of life experiences may produce delinquent behavior. Positive parenting practices during the early years and later in adolescence appear to act as buffers preventing delinquent behavior and assisting adolescents already involved in such behavior in desisting from further delinquency.” (source)
Further, those who struggle with low self confidence and are recipients of bad parenting, these children eventually develop apathy towards situations that should be concerning to them. Essentially, they often learn not to care.
Examples of bad parenting
There are many signs of bad parenting. It’s important to note that the parenting style that parent intends to use matters less than the child’s perception of how they’re being parented. For example, if the parent thinks they’re being warm and present enough, but if their actions make the child feel neglected, the child will experience neglect rather than the adult’s intent to be emotionally warm.
At the same time, numerous bad parenting examples that directly influence not only how children behave short-term, but also how they usually fare long-term.
Specifically, researchers determined that 10 traumatic childhood experiences, or ACEs, could be linked to a higher likelihood of health challenges later in life, and that the likelihood of these negative effects increased with the number of “ACEs” a child experienced.
The 10 ACEs were defined as the following childhood experiences:
- Physical, sexual or verbal abuse
- Physical or emotional neglect
- Separation or divorce
- A family member with mental illness
- A family member addicted to drugs or alcohol
- A family member who is in prison
- Witnessing a parent being abused
You can learn more about ACEs here.
We’ll address a few of these below, along with several others that could be considered bad parenting.
Authoritarian parenting style
In the authoritarian parenting style, the parent offers little emotional rapport with the child, and simply seeks to control them. This parenting philosophy preaches that when the adult perceives them as “naughty,” children deserve punishment.
It does not account for the child’s mindset or ability to behave in the way the parent wants. It neglects to address the child’s perspective or emotional experience. Moreover, it rarely considers what’s developmentally normal.
For example, young children often have big emotional releases (tantrums, meltdowns) and need to co-regulate with their caregiver and have that person hold space for them, rather than be punished for “acting out.”
Similarly, for an older child, the adult might perceive “talking back” as disrespect and punish them accordingly, whereas what the child often needs is a different, non-punitive approach to addressing this.
Child abuse: physical and/or sexual
Whether emotional abuse, physical abuse including corporal punishment and/or other types of physical violence (no matter how “small”), or sexual abuse, all are linked with significant risks to the child’s well-being.
This includes irresponsible parents who fail to take care of their children’s physical and emotional needs. They often offer little or no discipline (remembering that to discipline means to teach, not to punish), and also little or no warmth.
The child is often made to take care of themselves in ways that are not at all appropriate for their age or stage of development.
One of the signs of bad parenting is emotional (or psychological) abuse. This may come in the form of putting inappropriate expectations or responsibilities on a child, continuing to add stress to an already overly stressed child, consistent shaming or blaming, narcissism, and many other forms of behavior that create significantly negative feelings in the child.
Is “bad parenting” too broad of a term?
Whether the mistreatment of children comes from psychological disorders, intergenerational patterns being passed on, lifestyle choices, or simply the preferred parenting style of the adult, the research is clear: some parenting styles are beneficial to children, while others are detrimental.
Indeed, poor or “bad parenting” may sound broad or judgmental, but if the parenting affects child development negatively, the outcomes are unequivocally “bad.”
Fortunately, according to the statistics, most parents treat their own children in ways that are conducive to forming secure attachments. Research as of 2023 puts the number of securely attached children just above 51% (source). A secure attachment is associated with positive outcomes for children.
“[Secure] attachment allows children the ‘secure base’ necessary to explore, learn and relate, and the wellbeing, motivation, and opportunity to do so. It is important for safety, stress regulation, adaptability, and resilience.” (source)
Although there are many “shades” of bad parenting, some clearly trickier than others, truly terrible parenting is, in general, a statistical rarity.
Does bad parenting affect children more when they’re younger or older?
There’s clearly never a good time for bad parenting. Responsive, nurturing, and otherwise “good” parenting is important throughout the child’s life.
It may be argued that a child’s development is more directly affected by bad parenting when the child is younger, as they likely have little to no outside support system beyond their primary caregivers. By the time the child is a bit older, they may be able to ask outside sources for support or intervention, if they need it.
Additionally, by the time the child is older, it’s possible someone outside the family may notice signs of bad parenting, abuse, and/or neglect.
To be clear, though, the mental or physical impact of bad parenting skills are always best avoided. It’s never okay.
Children learn habits from their caregivers at all ages, so the more we can set up the next generation to succeed by what we model socially, emotionally, and otherwise, the better.
Children tend to pass on whatever they experience firsthand. The less cycle breaking they have to do, the easier their futures will be for them.
Not all poor parenting choices make you a bad parent
Does every bad parenting decision actually make you a bad parent?
Of course not.
It’s important to know that all parents make mistakes. Common parenting mistakes include occasionally yelling, choosing consequences that may have been too harsh, and other similar choices. Many parents make these mistakes and still aren’t considered “bad parents.”
The difference between bad parenting and better parenting often lies in our ability to apologize, make amends, and choose a different path forward next time.
Even when we overreact to our child’s behavior, and parents decide they want to do better, we can go back and attempt a “do over.”
Repair is powerful
If you want to become a better parent, whether you have a young, middle-grade, or even adult child, repair is powerful — and change is possible.
What is repair?
Essentially, repair is apology and making amends. No matter where we are on our parenting journey, we can apologize for the negative behavior we’ve modeled to our children. We can listen to our child’s feelings, get support where we need it, and even “reparent” ourselves” so that we’re operating from a healthier worldview.
Reason for hope
All these signs of bad parenting can be stopped–and healed–with the right support.
Certainly, the effects of bad parenting are far-reaching and can manifest in various aspects of an individual’s life. While the impact may be profound, it’s essential to recognize that healing and growth are possible.
Supportive interventions, therapy, and personal development efforts can help individuals overcome the challenges associated with a difficult upbringing. By understanding the consequences of bad parenting, society can work towards fostering environments that nurture and empower children to reach their full potential.
Ultimately, it is crucial to raise awareness about the importance of positive parenting practices (often called conscious parenting) and create a culture that prioritizes the well-being of future generations.
Where to get support
If you’re concerned you may have been a bad parent, know that healing is possible not only for you, but also for your child’s life, as well. Poor parenting choices in your past don’t need to hold you back from making you a better parent in the future.
- Get professional help from a licensed therapist or counselor to address any underlying mental health issues that may be at play
- If you’re spiritual, consider involving your pastor or other clergy in your healing process
- Spend time with other parents who choose more positive parenting styles
- Learn about positive parenting and practice, little by little, implementing these concepts
- Read books, listen to podcasts, and use whatever trusted resources you need to improve your parenting skills and learn about child development
- Reduce or cut ties with others who encourage or model bad parenting; you’ll need an effective support system to surround and encourage you
- Consider an accredited and evidence-based parent coaching program to help you learn new parenting skills
Most of all, remember that your child is just a child, and just like you, they’re doing the best they can with the tools, skills, and resources they have at the time.
Together, healing is possible. You may have to spend time building and rebuilding trust, but your healed relationship is perhaps the best gift you can ever give each other — and yourself.
By being here, you’re impacting generations.
American Society for the Positive Care of Children is dedicated to preventing child maltreatment and raising awareness of the lifelong impacts of adverse childhood experiences by providing parents with the skills, tools, and educational resources that build their confidence and capacity as caregivers and create more positive childhood experiences. We’re able to continue providing resources like these free of charge to nearly 1,000,000 families who rely on us annually thanks to the generosity of our supporters.
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