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

Jo-Carolyn Goode | 3/17/2015, 12:32 p.m.
We all know that neglectful, dysfunctional, and/or abusive parenting patterns can have long-term negative effects on children. Marianna Klebanov draws ...
The Critical Role of Parenting in Human Development (Routledge, 2014, ISBN: 978-1-138-02513-4, $46.95, www.anewconversationonparenting.com) is available for purchase through Routledge, on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, and through a number of additional booksellers.

San Francisco, CA (March 2015)—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 (Routledge, 2014, ISBN: 978-1-138-02513-4, $46.95, www.anewconversationonparenting.com). "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.

"The bottom line is, a child who is subject to any level of abuse, mistreatment, or neglect will often grow up with lower intelligence levels and cognitive strength—consequences that obviously have a detrimental effect on his or her education," Klebanov explains. "Childhood trauma also impacts social and emotional intelligence, thus leading to relationship problems that additionally limit educational advance¬ment, success, and accomplishment."

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.