It’s a question we’ve probably all asked ourselves after a particularly rough day: “Am I a bad parent?”
It’s easy to feel like your parenting skills are below par in a moment when nothing seems to be going your way, and you’ve exhausted your patience completely.
But the fact that you’re concerned about whether you’re making the right parenting choices is a good sign that you’re not, in fact, a bad parent.
Sometimes it can feel like every choice we’re making is monumental and every mistake significant. We worry about the long-term effects of our choices, especially when it comes to negative interactions with our children.
We stress over whether we were too harsh when we yelled at them earlier, if we could have handled that tantrum better, or whether we doled out the appropriate consequences.
But every parent has those moments where they lose their cool. We’ve all made less-than-stellar parenting choices in a moment of frustration or confusion.
That’s why we asked two mental health experts to share tips on how to spot the signs of what we’ll call “bad parenting” and the effect it may have on a child — to help clarify what’s actually worth worrying about.
We’ve also got some tips on focusing on the positive when it comes to parenting — because when we’re in the trenches, it’s oh-so easy to dwell on the negative.
There are some things that are generally considered “bad” by anyone.
Physical abuse, neglect, emotional abuse, and sexual abuse are the most serious and damaging behavior traits that most of us equate with bad parenting. These are things that should be immediately addressed with professional help.
But beyond child abuse and neglect, there are also things that parents may do or say that can, even unintentionally, lead to adverse outcomes for a child. Recognizing whether you’re doing those things can help you to feel better about your parenting.
Taking an honest assessment of your parenting style isn’t always an easy task. That’s why it’s important to first separate the behavior from the person.
Calling yourself or someone else a “bad parent” isn’t something to jump to based on a difference in beliefs or parenting style. It’s also important to recognize there is a difference between having a bad moment and being a bad parent.
Losing your temper every once in a while is not the same as telling your child, “I’m smart, and you’re dumb” or “I’m right, you’re wrong, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Although some people disagree on what is “good” or “bad” parenting, most parents have both positive and negative parenting traits.
It’s easy to see less than desirable parenting behaviors when you consider the extremes.
Over or under involvement
On one end, you have the uninvolved parent who is neglectful and fails to respond to their child’s needs beyond the basics of shelter, food, and clothing.
While not as damaging as a neglectful style, an over involved parent (aka helicopter parent) can also cause more harm than good by taking control of decisions and doing too much for their child, hindering them from learning by doing.
Little or no discipline
According to Sharron Frederick, LCSW, a psychotherapist at Clarity Health Solutions, children who have little or no discipline are left to fend for themselves, which can result in injuries and also creates a child who does not understand boundaries.
“Children look to parents to define what boundaries are and the consequences that can occur if the child crosses the boundaries,” she says.
Strict or rigid discipline
Unlike parents who enforce little to no discipline, Frederick says parents who practice strict or rigid discipline (aka authoritarian parenting) do not allow their child to explore their world, which often leads to a child who becomes fearful and anxious or rebellious.
Withdrawing affection and attention
“Ignoring a child is telling them that your love is conditional,” says Frederick. Withdrawing affection because a child does not do what they are told causes similar harm.
“These types of behaviors can cause a child to have low self-esteem and low confidence, which can result in a child not expressing their wants and needs,” she says.
Over time, Frederick says this can lead to co-dependency, in which the child will adapt to how they feel a person wants them to act. “Many times, this can lead to relationships that are abusive,” she adds.
Whether in public or private, children who are continually shamed can develop issues with perfection and a fear of failure. This can lead to depression or anxiety.
Children without positive parenting are more at risk for their own relationship troubles, depression, anxiety, and aggression, among other negative outcomes.
The below effects are the result of ongoing patterns of negative behavior. That time you yelled at your toddler for breaking your favorite coffee mug is not the same as a consistent pattern of criticism or physical violence.
A parenting misstep that can have lasting consequences is the overuse of negative labels and shaming.
“Consistent use of negative labels such as name-calling deeply impacts a child’s sense of self and contributes to long-standing negative self-narratives and self-fulfilling prophecies,” according to psychotherapist, Dana Dorfman, PhD.
Shame, she says, is a powerful and paralyzing emotion that becomes deeply embedded in the psyche and sense of self. Given its strength, Dorfman says many people, including parents, engender it to deter negative behavior or motivate toward positive behaviors.
However, when shaming and negative labeling become a common tactic, Dorfman says children then begin to internalize and embody these negative messages.
“They learn to speak to themselves the way they have been spoken to — perpetuating negative feelings and becoming harshly self-critical,” she explains.
Long term, people with negative self-perceptions often seek relationships that will reinforce the messages they’re accustomed to hearing.
Control issues and rebellion
Children who experience overly rigid or strict discipline can have issues with control of others, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other anxious behaviors, together with the mindset that the world is dangerous, according to Frederick.
On the other end of the spectrum is the rebellious child who fights with their parents, breaks the rules, and engages in negative behaviors.
Emotional and behavioral problems
Harsh parenting, which includes verbal or physical threats, frequent yelling, and hitting, along with immediate negative consequences for a specific behavior, can lead to children having emotional and behavioral issues, such as aggressiveness and following directions at school, according to a 2014
Although negative parenting behaviors can put children at risk, it’s not the only factor that determines outcomes.
Even parents with a positive style of discipline and interaction can have children who struggle with behavioral or emotional issues. Just like a single bad day doesn’t make you a bad parent, doing the best you can doesn’t mean that your child will never struggle or have problems. And that’s OK.
Parenting is an ongoing process, and it’s often challenging. If you’ve struggled thanks to less-than-ideal examples from your own parents, it might feel even harder. But you can work to overcome the negative messages you’ve been taught and build a healthy relationship with your own children.
Your own parents may not have been good role models, but you can find support and positive encouragement in other parents to create your own parenting path.
If you find yourself falling into bad parenting habits more often than you’d like, remember that you are capable of making changes.
Revamping your parenting style can require patience, honesty, and a lot of hard work. The good news is it’s never too late to start. Any positive change you make can result in a better outcome for your child. Here are some tips to help you focus on the positive.
Listen to your child’s thoughts and feelings
We all want to be heard. And although we do not always agree with what others say, Frederick says we all need someone to listen to us.
When it comes to your kids, she says to hear their concerns and frustrations, validate their feelings, and explain that they have a right to be angry — but not to act out (like throwing their crayons across the room). Instead, provide alternatives for them for different emotions.
Provide appropriate consequences
When using discipline, Frederick says it’s critical to provide consequences that teach your child a positive lesson. “Hitting a child teaches them nothing about consequences, and can result in resentment and anger, together with that child going to school and hitting other children,” she says.
Instead, use a rewards chart or have them earn time doing something they enjoy. When taking something away, do not take it away for a week, instead, take it away for the afternoon. Make sure that the consequence is suitable for the behavior you’re correcting.
Label the behavior, not the child
“If parents want to ‘label,’ they should make sure that they’re labeling behavior, not character,” says Dorfman. For example, when a child is acting out, remind them that it’s the behavior of a bully, rather than saying, “You ARE a bully.”
Don’t withhold attention
We all get angry with our children, but Frederick says ignoring them only confuses a child. “Explain that you are angry, and although you are angry with them, you still love them,” she explains.
If you need a moment, try putting them in time out (1 minute for every age they are) and calm down, collecting your thoughts and feelings.
Show love and affection
Displaying love and affection means more than just telling your child that you love them. It also comes from supporting and accepting your child, being physically affectionate, and spending quality time together.
Let them make mistakes
Life is messy, so let your children explore being creative and making mistakes, without shaming or criticizing. When they make a mistake, ask your child, “What could you have done differently?”
Use your own mistakes as an opportunity to show them that learning never stops, and that we can all have our bad days. Admitting when you’ve made a mistake, apologizing, and trying to improve is good for everyone.
Being a parent is emotionally challenging. It’s also a huge responsibility that requires patience, consistency, love, compassion, and understanding.
We all have days when we worry about our parenting choices. We love our kiddos so much, it’s natural to only want the best for them.
Remember that you’re learning as you go, and every day is a chance to start fresh. With the right tools and with patience for our children — and ourselves — we can all choose the parent we want to be.
Also remember that we all need support — some days more than others. If you’re feeling stretched or overly stressed, seek help, guidance, advice, and perspectives from friends, colleagues, family, or mental health professionals whom you trust and respect.
Parenting is the hardest job in the world. Hang in there — you’ve got this!