Coming home each day from school as a child, I would never know what kind of mood my mother would be in; one day she might be deeply depressed, the next excitable (in this mood she would often sing, diva style, her favourite songs from the Mikado – ‘ the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra-la, have nothing to do with the case…’ I can’t remember how the song goes from there, but you get the general idea?). Or she might be seething with anger and full of intense loathing for me, conveying her feelings of deep disgust, evoked by my most unwelcome reappearance, by shrieking insults at me through the kitchen window before I’d even set foot inside the door. (I have written about this elsewhere.)
Whilst there has not been a great deal of research conducted upon the effects of unpredictable and inconsistent parenting on children, there exists evidence to suggest (eg. Luxton, 2007) that those who experience it are at increased risk of developing low self-esteem and depression as adults. (Also, it seems that consistent maternal care may be a particularly important factor in the generation of high self-esteem).
Healthy families are relatively stable and predictable and the child knows that the parents can be depended upon both physically and emotionally. For example, if a parent says s/he will pick the child up after school, the child can be confident s/he will do so; and if the child is distressed, s/he can depend upon the parent to sooth and comfort him/her; the child knows, too, that if the parent feels the need to discipline him/her, s/he will do so in a fair, reasonable and consistent manner.
Inconsistent Parenting :
In unhealthy families, however, parents may behave towards their children in inconsistent and unpredictable ways. The environment in which the child is compelled to live, therefore, tends to be unstable, chaotic and fraught with potential danger. Because of this, the child is likely to feel constantly anxious – ‘walking on eggshells‘ and fearing what the unpredictable parent may do next.
In such a household, the behaviour of the parent may fluctuate wildly and dramatically (this can be for clinical reasons such as alcoholism, drug addiction, cyclothemia or bipolar disorder). Inconsistency may occur in relation to both physical and emotional care. For example, a parent may leave a lone child at home, promising to be back by 6pm, yet not return until 3 in the morning. And the manner in which the parent uses discipline may be highly unpredictable. Or when the child is distressed, s/he may not be able to depend on the parent for psychological support.
To reiterate, then, according to research, such inconsistent parenting is associated with those individuals who are on the receiving end of it being placed at higher risk of developing depression and having low self-esteem as adults.
However, to gain a fuller picture, more research needs to be conducted – it is known, for instance, that significant and protracted child abuse puts the abused individual at increased risk of developing a whole range of psychiatric conditions, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) and complex post traumatic stress disorder (cPTSD), in adulthood; it therefore follows that when inconsistent parental behaviour crosses a certain threshold (i.e. when it amounts to chronic, significant abuse), the seriousness of the implications speak for themselves.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).