National Child Abuse Prevention Month Reminds Us of the Serious Effects of Negative Parenting—and of the Need for Big Change

As we move through National Child Abuse Prevention Month this April, Marianna Klebanov points to new research that explains just how deep the effects of bad parenting actually are—and calls for signi

Jo-Carolyn Goode | 4/16/2015, 12:17 p.m.
As we go through National Child Abuse Prevention Month, many of us will see eye-opening stories and public service announcements ...
About the Book: The Critical Role of Parenting in Human Development (Routledge, 2014, ISBN: 978-1-138-02513-4, $46.95, is available for purchase through Routledge, on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, and through a number of additional booksellers.

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.

"Furthermore, if our parents were unsupportive, engaged in obvious or subtle put-downs, or modeled destructive relationship and communication patterns, these issues will become wired into our brain circuitry during our development," Klebanov comments. "This can lead to limits on upward mobility, problems with earning capacity, lack of respect for and from others, negative relationships, and other career-sabotaging problems."

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.

"Children's primary caregivers directly impact the child's primary and fundamental neural connections at times of prime brain plasticity," Klebanov states. "Ironically, many people throughout history and today have applied the concept that children must be strictly corrected so that they do not grow up to be immoral individuals. But in reality, kind, loving, and responsive parenting leads to emotional maturity and empathetic morality. Cruel, distant, and critical parenting leads to children who become cruel, distant, and critical adults."

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.

"Parents who are violent toward their children often rationalize the behavior based on the concept of retribution," Klebanov shares. "That is, if a child behaves badly, he or she 'deserves' a painful punishment. When the majority of a society's children are parented with violence—which is certainly the case in the United States—that society's prevailing belief becomes that escalating violence, retribution, and cruelty are somehow constructive. It's easy to see how this belief plays out not only in individual households, but in violent crime, gang warfare, and the perpetuation of war."

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.

"Specifically, childhood trauma has been linked to PTSD, attachment disorders, dissociative behaviors, developmental delays, disordered psychological patterns, inappropriate response and interaction in social situations (including ambivalent, hypervigilant, contradictory, or excessively inhibited responses), higher levels of internalizing, and deviant behaviors in adolescence," she notes. "Childhood trauma can also lead to anxiety and depression. All of these psychological issues have tragic impacts on individual lives, and collectively, they cost our society dearly."