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How Good-Cop, Bad-Cop Parenting Can Harm Children

By Eirian Hallinan

Anyone who has grown up in a household with two parents knows that one parent tends to be easier than the other when it comes to getting their way. This is usually the result of one parent being more comfortable as the disciplinarian than the other. While this can create a nice balance in some cases, a recent study has found that this good-cop, bad-cop parenting can have a negative impact when the difference in parenting is extreme.

The Study

A study published in the journal, Social Science and Medicine, followed 451 two-parent families of children in the seventh grade in 1989. The parents and children first filled out a series of questionnaires on the family’s economic status and personalities. During a second visit which took place within 2 weeks, researchers videotaped the families while they interacted and used the information from the videos and questionnaires to rate each parent as either warm or harsh.

Researchers followed up with the children at age 12, 13, 14, 15, 17, 18, and 20 and recorded their body mass index (BMI), and asked them about their overall physical state.

The results showed that harsh parenting led to poor physical health and a higher BMI in adolescents, which isn’t really all that surprising. What was surprising was that having the warmth from the second parent didn’t make a significant difference in the child’s self-reported physical health or their BMI, and actually seemed to make things worse.

One guess as to why this happens is that inconsistency at home can cause children stress. Chronic stress has been linked to excess hormones and inflammation, poor health, and obesity.

Chronic Stress in Children

Stress is often perceived as an adult problem, but children, even those as young as preschool age, can suffer from chronic stress.

A yearly survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) included a survey for young people in 2010. The results of the survey were shocking and showed that many children suffer from chronic stress, many of them listing seeing their parent’s stress as the reason.

Chronic stress was also found to have a significant impact on their physical and emotional health. Almost one third of children reported that they’d experienced health problems in the previous month that are often related to stress:

  • 38 percent said they had trouble falling asleep or staying asleep through the night
  • 33 percent reported having headaches
  • 31 percent had experienced upset stomach in that time

These numbers were higher in children who were overweight.

It was also found that overweight children were more likely to report that their parents were often or always stressed in the previous month. The report also noted that overweight or obese children and adults had a tendency to feel stress more often, showing again the impact that stress can have on their weight and health.

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