The Untold Story of Harsh Parenting – What Are Its Causes and Effects?

“The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer

We have all seen parents in the street hurriedly yanking their child’s arm roughly because they’re in a hurry, or yelling at him because he keeps asking questions. It’s uncomfortable to watch, and I’s sure that like me you’ve often thought “if this is public, then what happens behind closed doors – how bad is their behavior?”


No, it’s not legally defined as child abuse; but is harsh parenting – and I’ve seen parents from all demographics indulge in it, to the detriment of their children

But recent research shows that low-income and poverty stricken parents tend to practice harsh parenting more often. And now we know more about the science of exactly how children in poverty suffer from its practice.

Harsh parenting causes  toxic stress in children, which actually changes the structure and functionality of their brains, heightening chances for negative behavior, and even potentially casing a tendency towards heart disease in later life. “This is an incredibly important public health issue,” said Joan Luby, professor of psychiatry at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. After studying 145 children over 12 years, she authored an article about the effect of poverty on children’s brains in the journal JAMA Pediatrics in October.

“Think of harsh parenting as an agent as destructive as lead poisoning”, said Daniel Taylor, a pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in North Philadelphia. Such parenting, often involving “quick ‘do-as-I-say’ orders from Mom or Dad without the buffering effect of a loving, supportive attitude” causes the release in children of stress hormones such as cortisol that are toxic to developing brains”, Taylor said.

The Science

One possible consequence is damage to a child’s amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates emotion. The child becomes hyperactive, gets into fights, has attention deficits and cannot be calm. Toxic stress also damages the hippocampus, a part of the brain that affects memory, he said, so such children may have trouble remembering things, which impairs reading ability and test performance.

If toxic hormones are released constantly, children will suffer elevated blood pressure and sugar levels, as well as accelerated heart rates, making a person with toxic stress just as likely to develop heart disease as someone with high cholesterol, said social worker Marcy Witherspoon, an expert in Philadelphia on child welfare and brain development.


Taylor and others extrapolate that poor neighborhoods likely hold countless families suffering from compromised brain development, generation after generation.

“If a child’s developing brain was being damaged by high lead levels, landlords would be sued, houses repaired,” Taylor said. “If a child’s brain was being damaged by mercury in the water, the system would be changed “Who is going to pay, who is responsible for ensuring our children are not affected by the toxin of child poverty in America? “We all are, and we’ll pay the price of neglecting to build strong children.”

Not all poor children suffer toxic stress. “Some parents do a good job of protecting their children’s brains by being engaged and attentive”, said Maria McColgan, medical director of the Child Protection Program at St. Christopher’s.

Conversely, middle-class people are quite capable of delivering toxic stress to their children, a 1998 California study showed. More recently, a Philadelphia study prepared in September for the Institute for Safe Families by the Public Health Management Corp. showed that more than 33 percent of Philadelphia adults experienced emotional abuse during childhood. High poverty correlated with high levels of abuse.

Parents don’t have to be harsh to do damage. A poor mother distracted by lack of food can become incapable of engaging her children, which can also cause toxic stress, said Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York. "For good mental health, parents and children need to engage in “serve and return” mode, meaning that a child says something or makes a sound and a parent always responds, akin to serving and returning a tennis ball. The dynamic supports development of language and emotions," McEwen said. "But", he added, if a parent stops responding, “it’s a form of emotional abuse.”

The Good News?

Despite the pain of toxic stress, there is some good news: “You can heal from it,” Witherspoon said.“As long as one adult in a child’s life has his back, believes in him, creates hope for the future, that’s a positive.”


There is untold damage being caused to a generation of children every day because of the evils of poverty – until and unless there is a shift in the thinking of the decision makers who consider think that “big government spending” on the welfare, education and health of everyday families is a bad investment in our society’s furture ( while corporations are making the largest profits in history without being made to shoulder some of the burden).

“Investing in [children] is not a national luxury or a national choice. It's a national necessity. If the foundation of your house is crumbling, you don't say you can't afford to fix it while you're building astronomically expensive fences to protect it from outside enemies. The issue is not are we going to pay -- it's are we going to pay now, up front, or are we going to pay a whole lot more later on.
Marian Wright Edelman”

Our children ARE the future, and no amount of financial profit can simply improve society’s physical and mental health without that investment. There are over 47 million millionaires worldwide, and there are more obese people than starving people – okay, I can quote statistics until we are blue in the face, but the plan needs to be executed now.

If parents are educated in parenting skills and kindness as a starting point, then at least their children will have a starting point, and I call upon anyone who reads this to try and help the struggling parent next to them without being judgmental about their shortcomings, in order to give our young a fighting chance. If we make the powers that be to understand this issue, and investment in our children and families, maybe they will start to realize that a parent who has education, health and a job will be be a greater long-term investment for the future than any hedge fund.

My mission as a dad is to try and build a hub for other dads to learn skills, improve and engage with their children and families, so that mutual respect is learned from infancy to adulthood, and to create a legacy of a nation of great fathers. Join me at The Every Thing For Dads Foundation