Parenting Styles

How To Tell If Your Partner Is A Neglectful Parent

Neglectful parenting isn’t just a synonym for bad parenting.

Originally Published: 
A mom holds her son while sitting by a window, using her cell phone.
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Neglectful parents — defined by the American Psychological Association as unresponsive, unavailable, and rejecting — tend to raise kids affected by low self-esteem and lagging self-confidence. But neglectful parenting isn’t just hard on children. Trying to parent alongside an uninvolved parent can also be a lonely and frustrating experience.

It’s important to recognize a partner who is neglectful to their child — not only to keep the kid from turning to other, sometimes inappropriate, role models, but also to start the process of building better parenting styles and strategies as parents and as a team.

The Origins Of Neglectful Parenting

Neglectful parenting isn’t simply a description of bad child-rearing; it’s grounded in academic research. In the 1960s, University of California at Berkeley psychologist Diana Baumrind observed parents and formulated three different types of parenting styles — authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative — based on the amount of demand and care a parent shows their child. Stanford professors Eleanor Maccoby and John Martin added neglectful parenting to Baunmrind’s construct in 1983, noting that the style included both a lack of demand for children and a lack of care.

One of the limits of Baumrind’s research was that it was based on a culturally homogenous sample, primarily consisting of families associated with UC Berkeley. Later in her career, she included more diversity in her work, as did researchers who built on her findings like Maccoby and Martin.

How Can I Tell If My Partner Is A Neglectful Parent?

“Neglect is at play when the physical or emotional needs of the child are not getting met,” says Rachel Catham, a clinical mental health counselor at Whole Self Counseling. And although physical needs such as food and clothing tend to be top of mind when thinking of neglect, emotional needs shouldn’t be overlooked. “Since the basic emotional needs of all children include security, stability, nurturance, safety, protection, play, autonomy, freedom of expression and healthy limits, those needs not getting met would be a sign of parental neglect,” she says.

The first questions to ask when considering if a parent is truly neglectful is the extent to which they are ignoring the needs of their child and how that behavior is affecting the child’s self-concept. “One example of neglect is a parent who consistently puts their own wants and needs before the needs of their children, leaving the child feeling devalued, unimportant, or worthless,” Chatham says.

Uninvolved parenting looks different depending on the age of the child. A lack of interest in feeding, playing with, or comforting a baby can be a sign of neglectful parenting in the early months of childhood. Ignoring an older child when they are trying to speak, skipping extracurricular activities, and failing to set reasonable limits or consequences can also be indicative of neglect.

What Do I Do If I’m Concerned My Partner Is A Neglectful Parent?

Chatham advises that enlisting the services of a qualified mediator is critical to conversations between parents about neglect, because that professional will have the expertise to both diagnose neglect and facilitate healthy, non-accusatory conversation. They will also have insight into what parents can do if they want to move from a detached style of parenting to a more engaged way of interacting with their kids.

“Many people have children without fully understanding what goes into raising an emotionally healthy human being. I feel that education is always a good start, and that problem-solving comes next,” Catham says. “Helping parents to cultivate their own emotional intelligence is another great way to help them build a vocabulary and a skillset that they can take home to their families.”

How Can Parents Help Kids Adjust To A More Engaged Parenting Style?

In the long run, moving away from neglectful parenting will be far better for everyone involved. But everyone may also have a difficult time adjusting to changes. For kids, even healthy change can create a sense of uncertainty and even pushback if they have developed attachment issues. Setting healthy expectations and giving kids agency will help them with these transitions.

“Moving away from a neglectful style might include having a conversation with your child to create a new set of expectations going forward,” Catham says. “You might say, ‘Hey, kiddo, I know I haven’t been around that much lately, but that is going to change. I want to be more involved and spend more time together. I want to hear more about what’s going on in your life.'”

Asking questions and listening without defensiveness are also critical to the healing process, as the child may feel angry or sad about the parent’s neglect.

It’s important to acknowledge that the shift away from neglectful parenting won’t be easy. But it introduces the opportunity for a much healthier future than one for a kid who isn’t getting all of the love, support, and attention that could be available to them.

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