Negative parenting — such a high-flown phrase, linked in almost every study to poor outcomes for children — does not convey the anguish felt by many parents of children with various behavioral problems. When the child is sleeping peacefully, the parents plan on how they will respond only positively and with patience no matter what the next day — or hour if it’s a nap — brings. But whether it’s a developmentally appropriate temper tantrum in the supermarket by a 2-year-old or ongoing serious pathology such as oppositional defiant disorder, most parents “lose it” at some time or other when their child misbehaves. It’s normal.
So instead of condemning yourself, which just makes you feel worse (and doesn’t make you a better parent), look at what you can do objectively to make things better for your child and yourself. The keys are to be consistent and loving, while not “giving in.”
First, you probably already know intuitively what the studies say: young children — say, ages 4 to 7 — who are disciplined harshly and inconsistently are more likely to have more severe antisocial behavior.
Given the importance of positive parenting, it seems odd that there is so little guidance for new parents. Besides the pediatrician, who advises parents on how to deal with their child’s behavior? Typically, you don’t get help until there already is a problem, and then you are going to a child psychologist or some other provider who is treating the child.
Fortunately, more and more providers recognize the importance of family treatment, so once a child does develop pathology, even in the early stages, you can get advice on positive parenting to intervene in the progression of the problem.
But wouldn’t it be nice to have a “positive parenting” handbook for all new parents? Oddly, there seem to be more such books for pet owners. When you learn that positive reinforcement (treats, throwing a ball) is the standard training tool for dogs, maybe this makes sense. We’re so emotionally involved with the behavior of our children that we may not realize they have just as much individuality as dogs.
Children are different, because many parents view them as reflections of themselves, not as beloved pets. Some parents even resent being told to be less coercive: their view is that the child “belongs” to them (and, in fact, that’s true) and that it’s their right to enact whatever disciplinary methods they choose (which is also true, short of actual physical abuse).
Even these parents, when they see that negative parenting doesn’t produce results and positive parenting does, may change their minds. When they consider that positive parenting for a 2-year-old can affect his or her social behavior, and ultimately the child’s full development as an adult, they realize that the “power” they have as a parent is meant to be used for benevolent reasons.
Interestingly, some studies have found that parents who use harsh discipline are also more likely to lack involvement with their children — the children aren’t monitored closely, and their activities aren’t supervised. These parents fluctuate between being “permissive” by their lack of involvement and tending to be more violent and critical. Many researchers have concluded that hostile and punitive parenting is associated with antisocial behavior.
Of course, parents and children exert an influence on each other. Just as a parent’s negative tactics can have a deleterious modeling effect on a child, the child can also learn that misbehaving can lead to parental attention — and the unfortunate situation in which parents try to appease the behavior. This leads to a downward negative spiral in which the child’s misbehavior and the parent’s negative actions reinforce one another.
Some of the most troubling behaviors in early childhood are oppositional, aggressive, and hyperactive behavior. One study by Stormshak et al. narrowed down five distinct parenting practices that are associated with disruptive behavior in their children:
- Punitive discipline (yelling, nagging, and threatening)
Lack of warmth and positive involvement
Physical aggression (hitting, beating)
- Low levels of warm involvement were associated with oppositional behaviors. Punitive parenting practices were practices that included punitive interactions that were associated with elevated rates of all child disruptive behavior problems.
- Lack of warmth and positive involvement were particularly characteristic of parents of children who showed elevated levels of oppositional behaviors. Physically aggressive parenting was linked more specifically with child aggression. In general, parenting practices contributed more to the prediction of oppositional and aggressive behavior problems than to hyperactive behavior problems, and parenting influences were fairly consistent across ethnic groups and sex.
Many researchers think that disruptive behavior problems start with oppositional behaviors such as whining, noncompliance, and talking back. This is the first step, and parents can avoid punitive and inconsistent responses to these behaviors and intercept the progression from opposition to outright physical aggression.
When your child whines, don’t yell. When your child doesn’t whine, reward.
The highest levels of child aggressive behavior are, not surprisingly, correlated with the highest levels of physically aggressive parenting.
Warm involvement, love
Even parents who are not forcefully negative but who have low levels of warmth may contribute to problem behaviors, mainly due to feelings of insecurity and the lack of any opportunity for emotional regulation in the child.
Negative parenting — or a lack of parental support — can also lead to depression in children, researchers have found. A study by Dallaire et al. examined the combined and cumulative effects of supportive–positive and harsh–negative parenting behaviors on children’s depressive symptoms. A diverse sample of 515 male and female elementary and middle school students (ages 7 to 11) and their parents provided reports of the children’s depressive symptoms. Parents provided self-reports of supportive–positive and harsh–negative parenting behaviors. Structural equation modeling indicated that supportive–positive and harsh–negative parenting behaviors were nearly orthogonal dimensions of parenting, and both related to children’s depressive symptoms. Supportive–positive parenting behaviors did not moderate the relation between harsh–negative parenting behaviors and children’s depressive symptoms. Results have implications for family intervention and prevention strategies.
There’s a lot of research showing that supportive or positive parenting moderates a variety of issues, both how closely the parent supervises the child, or how strict the parent is, and the child’s own traits. Even parents who are “controlling” but warm have children with fewer behavior problems than parents who are controlling but not warm.
And if you need an “excuse” to be happy, consider this: maternal well-being has been proven to mitigate against antisocial behavior, even in the presence of negative parenting.
Here are some basic tenets to remember when it comes to avoiding negative parenting:
- Your goal is to build family relationships, no matter how old the child.
- Being a parent is a learning experience — you won’t be perfect the first time.
- Each child is different, so no matter what you have heard about “the rules,” only trial and error will tell you what works with your child.
- Your child is also learning; you cannot expect him or her to be perfect either.
- As the parent, it is your right to decide what behavior is acceptable and what isn’t, but that isn’t the same as control. When your child gets older — preteen and teen, and even earlier — that child will gradually develop autonomy.
Bottom line: No matter what, love your child. You do anyway, regardless of the research. Just let him or her know you do. And stop beating yourself up about it. It’s not about you — or it shouldn’t be.
Dallaire DH, Pineda, AQ, Cole, DA, et al. Relation of positive and negative parenting to children’s depressive symptoms. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol 2006 Jun; 35(2):313–322.
Stormshak EA, Bierman KL, McMahon RJ, Lengua, LJ. Parenting practices and child disruptive behavior problems in early elementary school. J Clin Child Psychol 2000 March; 29(1):17–29.