Ten Serious Effects of Negative Parenting—and the Science Behind Them

We all know that neglectful, dysfunctional, and/or abusive parenting patterns can have
long-term negative effects on children. Marianna Klebanov draws on new research to
explain just how deep and significant the effects of bad parenting actually are.

"Ten Serious Effects of Negative Parenting—and the Science Behind Them"We all intuitively know that the way a child is parented has a deep and indelible impact on that child’s life. But now, thanks to ever-more-detailed brain scans and scientific research, we’re learning just how important parenting actually is. What happens during a child’s formative years directly impacts the brain’s growth and development—and not always for the better.

“When a parent’s behavior does not create a loving, supportive environment, a child’s brain develops in altered form,” says Marianna Klebanov, coauthor along with Adam D. Travis of The Critical Role of Parenting in Human Development ( “Dysfunctional, irrational, and destructive behavior patterns are literally programmed into the child’s brain, setting the stage for recurring issues throughout that child’s life.”

Among a host of scientific studies on these issues, Klebanov points to research from the Washington University School of Medicine, which shows that children of nurturing mothers have much larger, healthier brains. Furthermore, the hippocampi of neglected children were up to 10 percent smaller than those of children with caring, loving mothers. (See the image below from Bruce Perry, MD, PhD, for a comparison.)


“This is significant, because the hippocampus is the region of the brain responsible for memory, stress control, learning, and other cognitive tasks,” Klebanov explains. “But of course, it’s only when we translate this scientific lingo into real-life consequences that the serious implications of this research truly come to light.”

Here, Klebanov looks at 10 ways in which parenting affects children throughout their lives:

Parenting affects intelligence and education. As Klebanov has pointed out, a parent’s nurture (or lack thereof) affects the growth of children’s brains, as well as their ability to learn. Research has also amply demonstrated that children who receive corporal punishment (yes, this includes spanking) score lower on IQ tests and other tests of cognitive ability.

Parenting affects career success. When we struggle with problems in our careers, their roots can often be traced to childhood issues. Of course, lack of education, which in itself limits an individual’s career path, can be a consequence of arrested cogni¬tive development caused by less-than-optimal parenting.

Parenting affects morality. Parental affection and attention matter much more than many of us realize. Research has shown that fast responses to infants’ cries, physical contact and affection, breastfeeding, and co-sleeping all help children grow up to become adults with mature moral development, including a developed sense of empathy and moral sensitivity to others.

Parenting affects violence, crime, and war. When a child is parented with violence, neural connections form in an unhealthy fashion. (Klebanov states that violent parenting certainly includes severe trauma, but also covers “less serious” practices like spanking and slapping.) In particular, the child’s brain becomes overwhelmed with stress, leading to faulty stress response systems that contribute to irrational behaviors such as hypervigilance, violence toward others, and revictimization.

And once again, brain scan studies demonstrate that trauma during development stunts the growth of the child’s brain in various ways, which can lead to violent behavior due to limited cognitive abilities and difficulty controlling aggression in a healthy manner.

Parenting affects mental health. As Klebanov has explained, childhood trauma caused by parental mistreatment can lead to a host of mental health dysfunctions. And in fact, many studies have shown a significant link between childhood trauma and mental illness.

Parenting affects addiction. Studies have shown that adverse childhood experiences lead to an increase in addictive behaviors. Parental substance abuse, as well as the need to dull the pain caused by one’s own childhood maltreatment, may lead to substance abuse in the victimized individual. Frequently, children of substance abusers themselves replay their parents’ patterns.

“Whatever its cause, it’s no secret that substance abuse often leads to serious lifelong problems that impact individuals and society as a whole,” Klebanov says. “These problems include health issues, emotional limitations, obsessions and compulsions, serious financial issues, an inability to take responsibility for one’s actions, destroyed relationships, anger and/or violence, a lack of productivity, an inability to responsibly manage family obligations, and more.”

Parenting affects relationships. The relationship between a child and his or her parents serves as the foundation for all of that child’s future relationships. Infants and small children need to experience love and positive attachment behaviors from their primary caregivers in order to conduct relationships optimally throughout life. If these things are not present, children may grow up to be too needy or attached, too critical, withdrawn, unreliable, inconsiderate, and more as they recreate the earliest relationship they experienced.

Parenting affects physical health. Childhood trauma is proven to cause numerous physical illnesses and disorders including cancer, severe obesity, ischemic heart disease, chronic lung disease, skeletal fractures, and liver disease. It can lead to accelerated aging and inflammation, and has also been linked to chemical sensitivities and allergies, autoimmune diseases, and osteoarthritis.

Parenting affects personal economics and the economy as a whole. Children whose parents are strict about money and anxious about not having enough (whether because of actual circumstances or due to fear-driven thriftiness) grow up in an environment of limitation and stress, which may impact the child’s status with peers, ability to concentrate on studies, and feelings of anxiety.

Parenting affects prison costs, defense costs, and healthcare costs. While Klebanov has touched on these consequences of negative parenting already, their impact on spending (both public and private) is so significant that they deserve to be mentioned on their own.

“Ultimately, very few elements of our lives escape the impact of parenting, even though we may not consciously connect our difficulties, dysfunctions, and issues with our upbringing. My intention in sharing this information is not to shame or needlessly frighten parents, but to educate them in order to spark positive change. The majority of parents do want the best for their children, and are themselves victims of negative parenting and erroneous cultural beliefs.”

Klebanov adds, “As science and technology continue to reveal more about the effects of parenting on children’s brains, as well as on their overall growth and development, I hope we will begin to see meaningful change in the education provided to parents, in our nation’s policies and laws pertaining to the rights of children, and in increased funding in the area of mental health treatment.”

About Marianna Klebanov:
Marianna S. Klebanov, JD, is the coauthor of The Critical Role of Parenting in Human Development. She works as an attorney with a specialty in matters relating to child welfare and family violence. She writes a column for on issues relating to parenting, child abuse prevention, and brain development. In addition, she serves on the Board of Directors and on the Executive Committee of Family and Children Services, a large nonprofit organization focusing on mental health services.

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