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What Is Bad Parenting According To Science & 7 Big Signs

Why Bad Parenting Matters

Parenting may appear to be a personal matter. It is a parent’s right to decide how to raise their child.

Nonetheless, researchers consider it the most important public health issue facing our society​2​.

Poor parenting has a serious impact on not only the child but also on the society as a whole.

Physically, poor parenting, such as child abuse, including physical abuse or emotional neglect, can harm a child or put them or others in dangerous situations.

Psychologically, bad parenting skills lead to children’s mental health​3​ and development​4​ problems.

Dysfunctional parenting can cause two major types of mental health issues: internalizing problems such as depression, anxiety, or personality disorders, and externalizing problems, such as aggression and violence.

Studies show that poor parenting, especially aggressive punishment, is one of the biggest causes of externalizing behavior that leads to juvenile delinquency​5​. Bad childhood may lead to crimes, drug addiction, or alcoholism in adulthood. It can also lead to teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, truancy, and school disruption​2​.

Knowing how to recognize and prevent ineffective parenting is not just a personal matter or difference in parenting philosophy any more. The effects of bad parenting on the society can be very serious. They can impact the safety and stability of a community.

girl cries in a corner due to bad parenting, how does bad parenting meaning affect a child?

How Not To Define Bad Parenting

Most people define bad parenting in one of two ways: by the behavior in parents or by the outcome/behavior in children.

There are many problems with these two types of definitions.

Parent’s Behavior Alone Does Not Reflect Intention

First, a parent can be unfairly judged by their behavior alone, because parenting behaviors do not always reflect their intent. 

Most of us did not learn how to be a good parent in school. As new parents, we often do what we know, whether from our own experience, or from watching or listening to others.

We do not know what we do not know.

Even with the best of intentions, parents can make mistakes. Being uninformed and making mistakes doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad parents.

Child’s Behavior or Outcomes Depend On More Than Just Parenting

Second, a child’s behavior or success/failure alone can not represent parenting quality because there are many factors that can influence a child.

Children can thrive despite awful parenting, while others can falter or show bad behavior even with good parenting.

It is not uncommon for lousy parents to take credit for good results when their kids succeed despite terrible parenting. They justify their poor parenting with how well their kids do behaviorally, financially or professionally. They often ignore the psychological scars they have left on their children. This is an injustice for those kids. The children, not the parents, should get the credits for surviving bad parenting actions.

Conversely, some children do not do well in life, even if they have good parents, because other factors can have adverse effects on development, too. Parents have no control over everything in their children’s lives even if they try.

What Is Bad Parenting?

A bad parent can be defined in two ways:

1. Clinical Definition

Psychologists Unnever et al. defined bad parenting that could cause delinquency as​1​

  1. The failure to monitor or track the child’s behavior
  2. The failure to recognize deviant behavior when it occurs, and 
  3. The erratic and excessive punishment of deviant behavior

Unnever’s definition focuses on identifying parenting style that can result in delinquent behaviors.

Bad parenting can lead to crime. But crimes are not the sole negative outcomes of bad father or mother.

Therefore, we need a more comprehensive definition.

2. Comprehensive Definition

Bad parenting occurs when a parent prioritizes their own interests over their children’s best interests.

Bad parents make decisions that are not in the best interest of their children.

It doesn’t mean you have to put your child’s needs above yours all the time to be good a parent. That’s not in the child’s best interests either.

In airplane emergencies, parents should put on their own oxygen masks first before helping their kids. That’s in their kids’ best interests.

As parents, taking care of your own mental health is in your child’s best interests, too, and doing that is not bad parenting.

7 Big Signs Of Bad Parenting

Domestic violence, physical violence, sexual abuse or punishing a child excessively are obvious bad parenting traits. Besides those, here are 7 bad parenting signs.

1. They demand blind obedience

Authoritarian parents require children to obey without questions. Parents who use the authoritarian parenting style are clearly ineffective parents, even though they may try to disguise themselves as tough parents or disciplined parents.

While there are times we need children to listen and do exactly as we say, forcing a child to blindly follow all orders is robbing them the ability to think critically and to tell right from wrong.

No one is always right. Parents are no exceptions.

Good parents want their children to develop sound judgement so they can make good decisions even without the parents. That means when the parent makes a mistake, the child should be able to respectfully point out the poor choices and not follow them blindly.

Parents who require their children to listen and agree no matter what do more harm than good to their kids.

bad mother spanks daughter

2. They use intimidation to discipline

Discipline means to teach. It doesn’t mean to punish. Punishing is not the only way to teach. Using punishment as the go-to disciplinary measure is lazy parenting. Some parents use punishment indiscriminately because it is easy to stop negative behavior in the moment.

Disciplining with punishment doesn’t teach a child anything good.

First, it teaches the child how to use intimidation to get what they want. These children adopt a punitive or violent attitude. They learn that aggression is an acceptable solution to problems​6​. Studies have found that kids with punitive parents are more likely to be involved in school bullying, as aggressors, victims or both​7​.

Second, parents who punish often do so out of anger. They show a bad example of emotional dysregulation to their child instead of teaching them how to self-regulate.

Adolescents with an aggressive attitude and a lack of self-regulation direct their negative feelings towards others through hostile behavior​8​. These adolescents are especially likely to engage in criminal activities​1​.

Most parents argue that using punishment to discipline is modeled after important lessons in the real world — if you break the law, you are punished and sent to jail.

This is the basis of the criminal justice system.

The problem is… jail time may deter crimes, or motivate criminals to try harder not to get caught, but it doesn’t make them better people. 

In a similar vein, punishment may stop bad behaviour for the time being, but it doesn’t teach proper self-control or inspire children to become better people. Instead, punishment makes them angry and hateful.

Applying routine punishment is not in children’s best interest. Yet, many parents refuse to give it up even when there are better, positive-style of parenting.

These parents choose convenience and anger relief (their own interests) over spending time and effort to teach proper behavior (the child’s best interest).

girl trying to control own emotions and negative feelings when parent points finger at her

3. They are controlling… for the wrong reasons

Controlling parents can come in many forms. Not all of them are bad.

Some controlling parents are just anxious parents. They are overprotective and they want to provide their children with the best, every single time, without fail. They have the best intention at heart but use the wrong way because they don’t know better. They are not bad parents.

However, some controlling parents are strict parents. They are rigid and inflexible. They have a strong desire (other than their children’s wellbeing) to be in control of their children. Their children’s best interests are not the concerns for these parents.

Children of these bad-intentioned parents tend to be unhappy​9​. They are more likely to suffer from psychological disorders such as depression or anxiety​10,11​. There are lasting consequences in the child’s self-esteem​12​. They also tend to have low self-confidence in making decisions​13​.

4. They don’t monitor or control

Children with parents who practice permissive or uninvolved parenting are more likely to commit delinquency​14​.

Uninvolved parents do not pay attention to their children’s behavior or activities. They do not set limits or boundaries. If they do, they do not enforce the consequences. They have little or no discipline.

These parents also do not show interest in their child’s school work or performance.

Children raised with this parenting style usually have the worst adverse outcomes among the four parenting styles.

5. They always choose easier over better parenting practices

Life can be tough, especially these days.

Parenting is already hard enough without the worldwide chaos.

The parenting journey isn’t easy. We knew that from the get-go. I don’t blame parents who look for new ways to make life less difficult during the hard time.

However, parents who always choose what is easier over what is better do not think about what is best for their kids.

One such example is how to handle toddler tantrums during the terrible-twos.

Toddler tantrums are the results of big emotions out-of-control when the toddlers have unmet needs. Good parents help their children learn to regulate themselves. Emotional regulation is a big key to a child’s future success.

Unfortunately, some parents only care about stopping the occurrence at all cost. They use time-out, spanking, and punishment to curb tantrums instead of providing emotional support. They choose what seems to be easier over what is better.

Parenting shortcuts like this almost always backfire in the long term. Even if you can stop temper tantrums for the time being, the child will not learn to regulate themselves properly. These kids may develop antisocial behavioral problems​15​ and have lower academic performance​16​.

Good parents set good examples by doing things the right way, even when it[‘s not an easy way.

6. They deny responsibilities… whenever things go wrong

Have you ever seen a parent of a successful grownup modestly deny responsibility for how well their child has turned out?

I have never seen one.

But when a child doesn’t turn out so well, their parents often quickly deny any responsibilities for whatever atrocities their child has committed. Other parents will jump to their defense, too.

Our society has the tendency to celebrate parents for their child’s success and let parents off the hook easily for their child’s downfall.

Although parenting is not the only factor influencing how a child turns out, it does matter. Decades of research has shown how dysfunctional parenting can have a lasting negative impact on a child’s development and how the child turns out.

A child is born to this world with no right and no choice in what kind of environment they are brought up in. When things go well, parents gladly claim the credits. Yet, when things go wrong, unfit parents wash their hands of it completely.

It doesn’t mean we should blame parents for everything that goes wrong in a child’s life. But more often than not, the parents share some responsibilities in some way. A responsible parent will own up to their share, and set things right.

7. They are not self-reflective

Responsible parents are self-reflective. Irresponsible ones are usually not.

Many parents are baffled by their children’s “defiance” and “disrespect,”  especially if they have teenagers.

It’s not uncommon to see some frustrated parents asking for help on online forums about their children’s bad behavior. 

A 500-word post describing how terrible their kids are usually ends with the question, “What consequences should I give?” or “How do I put an end to it?” They don’t seem to be interested in why it happened. Nor do they care about the fact that they contributed to the fallout.

Parent-child relationships are special, but they are not so different from other kinds of relationship.

Here’s what I mean…

If you’re mean to your neighbors, your neighbors will stop talking to you.

If you constantly yell at your coworkers, you’ll get fired.

If you are treating your friends with disrespect, your friend will stop talking to you.

Common sense, right?

Sadly, a few kind-hearted people don’t understand that these logics apply to children, too.

When they are mean to their children or use harsh parenting, they expect nothing but compliance from the kids.

When they are constantly yelling at their kids, they expect the children to reply respectfully.

Do these expectations even make sense?

NO! Kids are people, too!

No child is born defiant or disrespectful.

If a child is defiant, something is bothering them. What is it? How does your child feel?

If a child is disrespectful, they must think the parent doesn’t deserve respect. Or they don’t really mean it but they can’t control their emotions. Which one is it? Why is that?

Trying to understand where the problem comes from and helping the child resolve them are in their best interest. Sweeping the problem under the rug or blaming the kid as the problem is not.

A bad parent is not self-reflective. When something goes wrong, they always point the finger at the child. They simply want to get rid of the behavior they don’t like, but don’t care about why it happened in the first place. There is also no reflection on the part they play in the deteriorated relationship or estrangement.

We all make mistakes, especially when we’re overly stressed. But if we can be reflective, own up to our mistakes when they happen and try to do it right the next time, that’s all that matters.

Every parent can achieve that if they want to.

dad and child practice healthy habits, brush teeth

Who Can Decide

Parents are not qualified to judge themselves.

An adult child should be the judge of parenting quality. They are the ultimate consumer of that parenting.

Kids may not be reliable judges when they are young. But when they grow up, their recollection of their childhood is what counts, even if the parents disagree.

Society can also judge the effects of bad parenting if the parents knowingly prioritize their own interests over their children’s causing them harm.

Final Thoughts On Bad Parenting

Being a good parent is hard work, but it’s not impossible.

Good upbringing doesn’t mean a parent needs to be perfect. Your little one doesn’t need a perfect parent. Your child needs a good enough parent.

Good enough parenting can raise happy, healthy children.

A good parent prioritizes their children’s best interest over their own as much as humanly possible.

It’s as simple as that.


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