What Is Inconsistent Parenting?
Inconsistent parenting is the use of different discipline practices across time or between parents1.
It can happen when rules and expectations for behavior in children are unclear or inconsistently enforced. It may also be caused by a lack of rules, insufficient monitoring, or erratic punishment.
Inconsistent Parenting Examples
Rules enforced inconsistently at different times
Inconsistent parenting style can result when a rule is enforced some of the time but not others.
A parent might tell their child that they cannot have dessert without eating their vegetables, but then sometimes allow them to have dessert without eating their vegetables.
Rules enforced inconsistently in different environments
When the place or environment differs, rules may not be enforced consistently.
In the home, a parent might not allow their child to make a mess, but out with friends, they do.
Rules exempted from siblings
Inconsistency in parenting can be caused by making exceptions for some children or not holding them to the same standards as their other children.
A parent tells one child they cannot have friends over on a school night but allows the child’s sibling to have friends over.
Rules contradict each other between parents
Conflicts and inconsistencies between parents are often caused by different parenting styles. Parents may have different rules or different interpretations of them.
One parent may allow their child to stay up late on the weekends, while the other insists on a strict bedtime.
Erratic punishment is one of the major signs of inconsistent parenting.
When a parent is feeling good, they can be lax and lenient, but when they are in a bad mood, they can be unexpectedly strict and abusive.
Effects of Inconsistent Parenting
More behavioral problem
Inconsistency is one of the major reasons why children develop difficult behavior problems2.
By not consistently enforcing the rules and expectations they have set, parents are sending mixed messages to their children.
When inconsistent parents are free to enforce or not enforce rules at their discretion, they teach children that rules are flexible.
As a result, children develop more behavioral problems because they do not believe in following rules.
When they don’t know the real limits, children may test the boundaries to see what they can get away with.
Oppositional and aggressive behavior
Some parents escalate when children do not follow parental rules and use harsh punishment to force compliance.
Using inconsistent, punitive discipline puts children at risk of developing oppositional defiant disorder in children3.
Controlling parents who use inconsistent internet mediation are more likely to have adolescents involved in cyberbullying as victims or bullies4.
Trapped in Coercive Cycles
When punitive parents are faced with rebellious children, conflicts tend to escalate until one of them caves.
Consequently, aggressive behavior on the part of the winning side is rewarded and reinforced.
This becomes a reinforcement trap that keeps repeating itself.
Lack of trust and respect for the parent
When parents cannot stick to their own rules, they undermine their authority and influence. Their children lose respect and trust for parents.
Resentment among siblings
Resentment increases between siblings when they are treated differently.
Sibling relationships can be strained and stressful for everyone involved contributing to more externalizing behavior6 in children.
In order to scare their children into compliance, some parents use empty threats they don’t intend to carry out7.
For example, despite knowing they will not miss the party, a parent may threaten not to attend if their child does not finish his breakfast.
Once children discover these empty threats are not real, they will no longer take threats seriously, making it harder to enforce any rules.
What Causes Inconsistency In Parenting
Most parents know that consistency in parenting is important, but they still make a mistake for the following reasons.
Lack of patience or energy to enforce rules
Parenting is hard. It’s even harder to deal with your child’s undesired behavior when you’re tired, hungry, or not in the mood.
Some parents tend to let things slide when they’re physically tired or mentally tired of fighting with their children.
A lack of patience or energy is a common cause of inconsistent parenting.
Distractions by work or other obligations can prevent parents from following through with their rules.
For example, when parents work from home, some children who are normally not allowed screen time may persistently request it when their parents are busy with work.
In the end, the parents give in because they feel they have no other option.
Parents sometimes give their children a break, believing they are kind to them.
Lack of emotional regulation
Parents who practice erratic punishment tend to lack emotional regulation skills.
When they are dysregulated, they become aggressive or punitive out of anger or frustration.
How To Prevent Inconsistent Parenting
Consistency in discipline is important because it provides children with a secure environment to understand what is expected of them and learn self-control.
Only set enforceable rules
Some parents feel that it is necessary to set many rules for their children to keep them safe and well-behaved.
However, setting rules that cannot be enforced is counterproductive.
To practice consistent parenting, pick your battles and only set rules that you are confident you can enforce.
Otherwise, your child may learn that it is okay to break the rules.
Use reasoning in place of empty threats
The temptation to use empty threats is strong when you really want your child to do something, but you can’t.
When this happens, instead of using empty threats, employ a consistent approach based on reasoning.
Tell them why they need to do something, not just what they need to do.
Talking reasons may not work at first, especially if your house has been governed by rules instead of reasoning.
But empty threats don’t work either, so you have nothing to lose.
Giving them reasons is a consistent parenting strategy that teaches your child how to think.
Over time, they will learn to make sound decisions and listen to your reasoning rather than fighting with you.
Getting children to listen to you is much easier when you don’t threaten them.
A consistent discipline cannot include favoritism.
A fair and predictable set of rules and expectations that apply to everyone can help children understand what is expected of them and improve their behavior.
Don’t contradict the other parent
If the other parent’s discipline is not harmful, don’t contradict it or undo it even if you disagree.
You can tell your child, “Although I disagree with Dad’s decision, I respect it, and you should as well.”
You can elaborate on your reasons; if the other parent wants to, invite them to do so with you.
Rules should not become the source of conflict between parents.
Rely on teaching rather than using rules to discipline
When children are young and don’t understand why they should or shouldn’t do something, rules are necessary to prevent risky behavior.
As they grow, they must understand why you have family rules or limits so that they will follow them without your constant monitoring and enforcement.
Describe why you have rules, your concerns, and how the limits are determined.
Your child will learn critical thinking, a valuable skill that can last a lifetime.
Maintaining parenting consistency is also significantly easier when you don’t have to enforce it actively.
Need Help Motivating Kids?
If you are looking for additional tips and an actual step-by-step plan, this online course How To Motivate Kids is a great place to start.
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- 1.Gardner FEM. Inconsistent parenting: Is there evidence for a link with children’s conduct problems? J Abnorm Child Psychol. Published online April 1989:223-233. doi:10.1007/bf00913796
- 2.Campbell SB. Behavior Problems in Preschool Children: A Review of Recent Research. J Child Psychol & Psychiat. Published online January 1995:113-149. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.1995.tb01657.x
- 3.Stormshak EA, Bierman KL, McMahon RJ, Lengua LJ. Parenting Practices and Child Disruptive Behavior Problems in Early Elementary School. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology. Published online February 2000:17-29. doi:10.1207/s15374424jccp2901_3
- 4.Katz I, Lemish D, Cohen R, Arden A. When parents are inconsistent: Parenting style and adolescents’ involvement in cyberbullying. Journal of Adolescence. Published online May 16, 2019:1-12. doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2019.04.006
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- 6.Meunier JC, Roskam I, Stievenart M, van de Moortele G, Browne DT, Kumar A. Externalizing behavior trajectories: The role of parenting, sibling relationships and child personality. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology. Published online January 2011:20-33. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2010.09.006
- 7.Laird RD, Pettit GS, Dodge KA, Bates JE. Change in Parents’ Monitoring Knowledge: Links with Parenting, Relationship Quality, Adolescent Beliefs, and Antisocial Behavior. Social Development. Published online August 2003:401-419. doi:10.1111/1467-9507.00240