Parenting Styles

Subtle Signs You're A Hostile Parent

Overly harsh punishments and too-long timeouts are the obvious signs. But there are less severe ways of being a hostile parent too.

Originally Published: 
A mother lecturing her son as they sit on a sofa.
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No one wants to be described as “hostile” — especially not in terms of their parenting style. But hostile parenting is a lot more than just routine physical punishment and punishing kids erratically or unpredictably, or isolating children for long periods of time when they misbehave. Other signs you’re a hostile parent can be much more subtle, especially when it comes to psychological hostility, says Melissa Huey, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the New York Institute of Technology. And you might be more likely to see yourself in these signs than you’d think.

That’s a problem, because hostile parenting has serious effects on kids’ development. A recent study from the University of Cambridge and University College Dublin found that young kids exposed to hostile parenting are at significantly greater risk of developing persistent mental health problems. Specifically, kids subject to harsh discipline and other forms of hostility at age 3 were 1.5 times more likely to have high-risk mental health symptoms by the time they turned 9, the study of more than 7,500 Irish children indicated.

Here, Huey highlights two of the more subtle signs of hostile parenting — and better alternatives for parent-child interactions.

Hostile Parents Yell

Parenting means dealing with lots of situations — interruptions in the middle of the night, constant messes, and loud crying and screaming — that lead moms and dads to have short fuses. Those frustrations are bound to bubble over sometimes, and you might raise your voice. Or, even if you’re not annoyed, you may find yourself yelling if your child is in the other room and you need their attention, rather than taking the time to walk over and calmly express yourself.

Regardless of the reason, there are times when parents shout. And when yelling becomes frequent, it’s problematic on multiple levels.

“Yelling is a habit people don't necessarily associate with hostile parenting, but it can have long-lasting effects on the child,” Huey says. “Yelling can damage a child's self-esteem, it creates a tense environment in the household, and it's an indicator that the parent has lost control.”

It can also raise a child’s anxiety because being screamed at by an adult a scary experience that can make them feel unsafe. Even if the child doesn’t feel directly threatened, the notion that their parent isn’t in control of a situation can be anxiety-producing, raising subconscious questions about whether that parent can be depended upon when needed.

“The amount of anxiety and depression that young kids are experiencing is quite alarming,” Huey says. “Kids thrive in a calm environment where the parents are maintaining control. And if they're not, the child will get anxious because there's a misbalance in the household.”

Hostile Parents Use Sarcasm

Sure, it’s possible to use sarcasm in fun and humorous ways. But it’s also easy to hurt someone’s feelings with a sarcastic comment, and people will often use sarcasm as a cloak for being downright mean. And as much as sarcasm can cause hurt feelings in adult conversations, its power for destruction is ratcheted up when aimed at young kids because they haven’t fully developed the ability to think abstractly. As a result, they’re more likely to take even the most playful sarcastic comments to heart, which can erode their self-esteem.

“If your child is at a place where they can’t understand sarcasm, it could be considered hostile parenting. So I would steer away from it unless you're 100% aware that the child can comprehend the dynamic of sarcasm,” Huey says. “Even then, parents want to make sure that they aren’t inundating their kids with sarcastic comments or using it as an excuse to take digs at them.”

In other words, saying something in a sarcastic tone that’s not directed at your kid — “Oh, I just love when the basement floods,” is very different from saying, “Good job, genius,” when your kid makes a mistake. Instead, Huey suggests that parents communicate clearly and directly with kids and try to put a positive spin on criticisms, like, “That’s a good start, but let’s try to take it a step further.”

Sarcasm will likely shut a kid down or cause them to become avoidant or give up, instead of putting them in a position to make a positive decision. But clear and gentle correction or redirection invites kids to engage. It provides them a path forward and allows parents to follow correction with positive reinforcement.

“If you're not empowering kids to [make good decisions], they won't have any practice trying new things or dealing with failure when they enter the real world,” Huey says.

How To Nip Hostile Parenting In The Bud

Chances are, parents who want to become less hostile have some internal work to do. A parent who yells too much, for example, would be well-served to identify the source of their anger and develop habits that help them stay calm when their emotions heat up.

Whether that’s a solo process or something guided by a therapist, clearly communicate with your kid that you’re trying to change how you parent. Because yelling and sarcasm are habits that can be difficult to turn off instantly, explain to your kid that you might mess up at times — and then apologize when you do.

“Healthy parenting requires vulnerability. Portraying yourself as a person who's never wrong and never makes mistakes is a dangerous place to be because kids need to learn that you make mistakes too,” Huey says. “When you practice vulnerability, you’re also teaching kids that it’s okay for them to make mistakes, and you give them a template for what to do when they are in the wrong.”

Treating these conversations as a dialogue where kids are free to ask questions can help parents understand how their kids have interpreted and processed hostility. It may also reveal some of their other hostile behaviors that they have been unaware of.

Parents who have shown a pattern of hostility will also have some ongoing relationship-building work ahead of them. It will take time to facilitate a more positive relationship and for kids to heal from the hostility-anxiety cycle.

“The best way to establish a healthier relationship is to give your kid meaningful attention,” Huey says. “Instead of a dynamic where the only time you’re interacting with your kid is when you’re correcting them or need them to do something, take frequent opportunities — even just 15 or 30 minutes each day — to let them choose an activity, and then just have fun with them.”

Although change can be intimidating and difficult, the fact that play and fun are two elements for growth ends up being a pretty good deal for all involved.

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