This Is, Hands Down, The Worst Parenting Style

Kids hate it, experts loathe it, so why are parents doing it?

A frustrated father holds his head in his hands as his daughter cries, burying her head in her arms.
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Ask a group of parents which parenting style is the best, and the answers will be both passionate and varied. Presenting the question to a Facebook group or parenting subreddit is comment section rocket fuel. It’s much easier to find consensus around which parenting styles to steer clear of — and eggshell parenting sits at the top of that list.

Eggshell parenting is a new label for what psychologists have commonly referred to as authoritarian parenting since the 1960s. The concept is a play on the idea that kids have to constantly "walk on eggshells" because their parent’s behavior is highly inconsistent, unpredictable, and at times overly harsh or explosive.

For example, a child’s environment might feel unstable if they get in trouble for not eating dinner one night, and then they get severely reprimanded for eating too fast the next night. Shifting and arbitrary expectations and harsh reactions make them feel like they can’t do anything right.

“When we are around unpredictable and volatile people, it’s like we feel that sensation of walking delicately not to break the shells below us, though this is an impossible task,” says pediatric psychologist Kelsey M. Latimer, Ph.D. “In the case of eggshell parents, no matter what kids do, they are frequently and unfairly cast in the wrong.”

How Do People Become Eggshell Parents?

Obviously, parents don’t set out to become eggshell parents. And although there’s no blanket explanation for why parents develop unpredictable and hostile habits, there are some common reasons.

“Parents who tend to react this way are not consciously choosing this reaction pattern,” Latimer says. “Perhaps the parent has a short fuse and is unaware of how to have a healthy moderation of their emotions; they may be reactive instead of proactive; or they may push down their emotions consistently, which can lead to an explosion on the other side.”

Latimer points to underlying mood disorders or personality disorders as possible contributing factors to eggshell parenting. But for many people, these habits are learned behaviors and emotional wounds from their own childhood that they have yet to resolve.

“Some eggshell parents are replaying the cycle of what happened in their family,” she says. “We often learn how to have relationships by the first attachment figures in our lives, which are our primary caregivers. If we as children became 'insecurely attached' because our parents or caregivers were unpredictable, then we are prone to repeat those patterns.”

Eggshell Parenting Hurts Kids — A Lot

One of the most common effects of eggshell parenting on kids is hyper-vigilance. These kids are constantly operating out of fight, flight, and freeze responses because they rarely feel secure enough to let down their defense mechanisms. But those responses are meant to kick in only occasionally, and it’s not mentally or emotionally healthy to be in that elevated, stressed out state all the time.

When people are in those systems for the long term, it can lead to emotional burnout, in which they become exhausted, depressed, irritable, and isolated. Developing children can also become detached and mistrustful when their home environment is defined by the instability of eggshell parenting.

“In children, we can see an attunement into those around them — they are often looking around to 'read' the faces of those around them and trying to predict what will happen and how they should respond. That shuts them off to their own experience of the world and makes them view the world through a threatening lens,” Latimer explains.

She connects the suspicion and anxiety that eggshell parents cause in kids to mistrust. Kids with eggshell parents can regress in their capacity to trust if they can’t rely on their caregivers to respond to their basic needs, one of which is safety. Additionally, eggshell parenting can actually increase the risk of kids developing anxiety and depression, which can manifest as an inability to sleep or eat well and a decreased resilience to cope with very basic life challenges.

Rebuilding Trust With Your Children

There is hope for eggshell parents who recognize their unhealthy behavior and how it affects their kids, Latimer says. Repairing those relationships is grounded in self-awareness, sincere apologies, and behavioral change.

It starts with apologizing when you lash out, reprimand too harshly, or act inconsistently. “I have seen parents use these moments to engage and connect with their child and strengthen the bond. When a parent leans in and says, ‘I'm sorry; I should not have done that,’ those words can be very healing,” Latimer says. “However, it is really important to not just 'excuse' the behavior or brush it under the rug.”

She suggests following up apologies with a conversation that includes the child's voice by encouraging the child to say how the bad behavior impacted them. They may not want to open up right away when they don’t view their parent as a safe person, so receiving guidance from a trained therapist will likely be part of the repair process for recovering eggshell parents.

“The key here is also in not continuing to make the same mistake or pattern over and over — that shows that apologies do not really mean anything,” Latimer says. “If you’re struggling to regulate your emotions as a parent, you are not a bad person. But you’ll likely need help from a professional resolving the underlying factors of eggshell parenting.”