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One Good Parent Is Not Enough to Undo Harm Done by the Other

The Short of It

Uh oh. A study finds that one good parent can't outweigh the harm done by a bad one.

The Lowdown

Harsh parenting—even when entirely non-violent—can cause lasting damage to a child. So much so, in fact, that according to a new study in the journal "Social Science and Medicine," even having one parent who is nurturing is not enough to undo the harm caused by another who uses harsh tactics.

The study—which followed kids from age 12 to 20—is one of the first to review data from observed interactions between parents and their kids and to find changes in the children's health over several years. Researchers videotaped the interactions of 451 two-parent families to assess parenting behavior, with "harsh parenting" being defined as parents who reject and coerce or who are physically aggressive and self-centered.

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The results? The children with harsh parents were more likely to suffer from poor physical health and were also at increased risk of obesity. And when only one of the two parents acted harshly—the old good cop, bad cop routine—the same effects were observed.

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The Upshot

As parents, we all want what's best for our children. So maybe we don't always see ourselves as excessively harsh, which makes these habits so hard to change.

"We're fighting against that emotional connection to our own caregiver, who parented us that way," said study coauthor Thomas Schofield in a press statement. "If we accept that the behavior is damaging, we have to accept that our parent who loved us did something that may have been bad for us."

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But since harsh parenting has been linked to chronic stress, which can have a lasting effect on the developing brain during childhood and early adolescence, change is exactly what we need.

"Harshness leads to problems with physical health, and no matter how hard a spouse tries, they may not be able to erase those effects," Schofield said. "If we want to make sure we're protecting children's health into young adulthood, the best and safest conclusion is to avoid being harsh."

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