Bad parenting is characterized by behaviors that harm a child’s development and well-being, either through a clinical or comprehensive definition. Clinically, bad parenting includes failing to monitor the child’s behavior, not recognizing deviant behavior and erratic or excessive punishment. Comprehensively, it involves prioritizing personal interests over the child’s best interests.
Signs of bad parenting include demanding blind obedience, using intimidation as discipline, being overly controlling, neglecting to monitor or correct bad behavior, consistently choosing easier parenting methods over better ones, denying responsibility for the child’s actions, and lacking self-reflection.
These behaviors can lead to various negative outcomes for the child, including behavioral problems, mental health issues, and difficulties in forming healthy relationships. Good parenting, conversely, involves prioritizing the child’s well-being, being self-reflective, and striving to provide a supportive and nurturing environment, even in the face of challenges.
What Is Bad Parenting?
Bad parenting includes the following parental behavior.
- Child abuse and neglect: Physical abuse, emotional or sexual abuse, and physical or emotional neglect.
- Causing delinquency: Failure to monitor or recognize and punitive punishment.
- Bad intention: Making decisions that are not in the best interest of their children.
What is the clinical definition of bad parenting?
The clinical definition proposed by psychologists Unnever et al. is that bad parenting causes delinquency in the following 3 ways.1
- The failure to monitor or track the child’s behavior
- The failure to recognize deviant behavior when it occurs
- The erratic and excessive punishment of deviant behavior
What is the comprehensive definition of bad parenting?
A comprehensive definition is that 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 must always put your child’s needs above yours to be a good parent. That’s not in the child’s best interests either.
Parents must wear oxygen masks before helping their kids in airplane emergencies. That’s in their kids’ best interests.
As parents, taking care of your mental health is in your child’s best interests, too, and doing that alone is not bad parenting.
What are the signs of bad parenting?
There are 7 signs of bad parenting besides the obvious bad parenting traits, such as domestic violence, physical violence, sexual abuse, harsh punishment, or neglect.
1. Demand blind obedience
Authoritarian parents require children to obey without questions.
Parents who use the authoritarian parenting style are ineffective, even though they may try to disguise themselves as tough 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 of 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 judgment and make the right decisions even without their parents.
That means when the parent makes a mistake, the child should be able to respectfully point out the bad 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.
2. Use intimidation to discipline
Discipline means to teach. It doesn’t mean punishing. 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 at 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.2
Studies have found that kids with punitive parents are more likely to be involved in school bullying as aggressors, victims, or both.3
Second, parents who punish often do so out of anger. They show their child a bad example of emotional dysregulation instead of teaching them how to self-regulate.
Adolescents with an aggressive attitude and a lack of self-regulation direct their negative feelings toward others through hostile behavior.4
These adolescents are especially likely to engage in criminal activities.1
Many 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.
Similarly, punishment may stop bad behavior temporarily, but it doesn’t teach proper self-control or inspire children to become better people in the long run. 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 better, positive parenting styles exist.
These parents choose convenience and anger relief (their interests) over spending time and effort teaching proper behavior (the child’s best interest).
3. Are controlling for the wrong reasons
Parents are controlling for various reasons. Not all of them are bad parents.
Some controlling parents are just anxious parents.
They are overprotective and want to give their children the best every single time, without fail.
They have the best intentions but use them incorrectly because they don’t know better. They are not bad parents.
However, some controlling parents are strict. They are rigid and inflexible. They have a strong desire (other than their children’s well-being) to be in control of their children.
There is a noticeable lack of empathy in them.
Their children’s best interests are not a concern for these parents.
Children of these bad-intentioned parents tend to be unhappy5.
They are more likely to suffer from psychological disorders such as depression or anxiety6,7.
There are lasting consequences on the child’s self-esteem8.
They tend to have low self-confidence in making decisions9.
4. Don’t monitor or control a child’s bad behavior
Children with parents who practice permissive or uninvolved parenting are more likely to commit delinquency10.
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 schoolwork or performance.
Children raised with this parenting style usually have the worst outcomes among the four parenting styles.
5. Choose easier over better parenting practices constantly
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 a hard time.
However, parents who always choose what is easier over what is better do not consider what is best for their kids.
One such example is how to handle toddler tantrums during the terrible twos.
Toddler tantrums result from big emotions that are out of control when 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 costs.
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 problems11 and perform poorly in school.12
Good parents set good examples by doing things right, even when it’s not easy.
6. 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 responsibility for whatever atrocities their child has committed.
Other parents may jump to their defense, too.
Sometimes, our society tends 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 have 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 into this world with no rights 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 often, the parents share some responsibilities in some way.
A responsible parent will own up to their share and set things right.
7. Does not self-reflect
Responsible parents are self-reflective. Irresponsible parents are usually not.
Some 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 relationships.
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 disrespect your friends, your friends will stop seeing you.
This is common sense.
Sadly, a few kind-hearted people don’t understand that this logic applies to children, too.
When they are mean to their children or use aggressive parenting, they expect nothing but compliance from the kids.
When toxic parents are constantly yelling at their kids, they expect their children to reply respectfully.
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 mean it but they can’t control their negative emotions. Which one is it? Why is that?
Understanding 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 want to eliminate the behavior they don’t like but don’t care about why it happened in the first place.
All parents make mistakes, especially when they are overly stressed. But if they can be reflective, own up to their mistakes when they happen, and try to do the right thing next time, that’s all that matters.
Every parent can achieve that if they want to.
Why does parenting matter?
The quality of parenting matters because poor parenting severely impacts the child and society as a whole.
Researchers believe that bad parenting is the most important public health issue facing society.13
Parenting may appear to be a personal matter, and it is a parent’s right to decide how to raise their child.
Physically, poor parenting, such as child abuse, including physical abuse, emotional abuse, or emotional neglect in childhood, can harm a child or put them or others in dangerous situations.
Psychologically, bad parenting skills lead to children’s development and mental health problems.14,15
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.16
A bad childhood may lead to crimes, drug addiction, or alcoholism in adulthood. It can also lead to teenage pregnancy, substance abuse, truancy, school disruption, and a cycle of abuse with their own children.17
Knowing how to recognize and prevent ineffective parenting is not just a personal matter or a difference in parenting philosophy anymore.
The long-term effects of bad parenting on society can be very serious. They can impact the safety and stability of a community.
How not to define parenting quality
Bad parenting is not defined by the behavior of parents or by the outcome/behavior of children alone.
Why does a parent’s behavior alone do not define bad parenting?
A parent’s behavior alone does not define bad parenting because it does not always reflect a parent’s intent. Even with the best of intentions, parents can make mistakes.
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 experience or watching or listening to others. We do not know what we do not know. Being uninformed and making mistakes doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad parents.
Why do a child’s outcomes alone not define bad parenting?
A child’s outcomes alone do not represent parenting quality because many factors can influence a child’s development, personality, and behavior.
Children can thrive despite awful parenting. Children can also falter 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 be credited for surviving bad parenting actions.
Conversely, some children do not do well in life, even if they have good parents, because other factors can also adversely affect development.
Parents have no control over everything in their children’s lives, even if they try.
What are the statistics on bad parenting?
Here are 3 pieces of statistics on bad parenting.18–21
- In the US, roughly 16% of children experience some form of abuse, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
- 18% of parents have a permissive parenting style, which meets the clinical definition of bad parenting.
- Harsh parenting is associated with lower self-control and higher aggressive attitudes in children. Adolescents who have less self-control and stronger aggressive attitudes are 26.5 times more likely to commit delinquency than those who don’t have self-control issues and don’t hold aggressive attitudes.
Who can decide whether a parent is a bad parent?
Adult children should judge parenting quality because they are the ultimate consumers of that parenting. Parents are not qualified to judge themselves because they cannot be objective judges.
Young children may not be reliable judges. However, when they grow up, their childhood memories are 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.
A 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.
The most important thing is to provide good enough parenting to raise happy, healthy children.
A good parent prioritizes their children’s best interest over their own as much as possible.
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- 2.Simons DA, Wurtele SK. Relationships between parents’ use of corporal punishment and their children’s endorsement of spanking and hitting other children. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online September 2010:639-646. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2010.01.012
- 3.Gómez-Ortiz O, Romera EM, Ortega-Ruiz R. Parenting styles and bullying. The mediating role of parental psychological aggression and physical punishment. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online January 2016:132-143. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2015.10.025
- 4.Eisenberg N. Emotion, Regulation, and Moral Development. Annu Rev Psychol. Published online February 2000:665-697. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.51.1.665
- 5.Furnham A, Cheng H. Journal of Happiness Studies. Published online 2000:227-246. doi:10.1023/a:1010027611587
- 6.Watson G. Some Personality Differences in Children Related to Strict or Permissive Parental Discipline. The Journal of Psychology. Published online July 1957:227-249. doi:10.1080/00223980.1957.9916233
- 7.Donath C, Graessel E, Baier D, Bleich S, Hillemacher T. Is parenting style a predictor of suicide attempts in a representative sample of adolescents? BMC Pediatr. Published online April 26, 2014. doi:10.1186/1471-2431-14-113
- 8.Bean RA, Bush KR, McKenry PC, Wilson SM. The Impact of Parental Support, Behavioral Control, and Psychological Control on the Academic Achievement and Self-Esteem of African American and European American Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Research. Published online September 2003:523-541. doi:10.1177/0743558403255070
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- 11.Denham SA, Blair KA, DeMulder E, et al. Preschool Emotional Competence: Pathway to Social Competence? Child Development. Published online February 2003:238-256. doi:10.1111/1467-8624.00533
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