We all typically go into parenting with one primary goal: not to irrevocably screw up our kids. Okay, so it’s a bit more complex than that, but that pretty much captures the general gist of it, doesn’t it? The tricky thing about parenting, of course, is there’s no one right way to do it — and because of that, it can be difficult to recognize if and when you’re doing something quote-unquote wrong in your parenting method.
However, experts in the field of psychology are forever trying to sort this out for the rest of us (and for the sake of children everywhere), and they’ve identified four core parenting styles — authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and uninvolved. For the sake of this article, we’ll largely be focusing on one: uninvolved, or neglectful, parenting.
What are the four types of parenting styles?
In the 1960s, a developmental psychologist by the name of Diana Baumrind began conducting a series of studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research focused on people’s approaches to parenting and how those approaches correlated to their kids’ behavior. In doing so, she developed a paradigm based on the demands parents place on their kids and their responsiveness to their kids’ needs. She ultimately identified three qualitatively different patterns of parenting: authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive.
In the early ’80s, Baumrind’s parenting style model was expanded using a two-dimensional framework by researchers Eleanor Maccoby and John Martin. They further fleshed out Baumrind’s permissive parenting to create a separate offshoot — uninvolved parenting, also known as neglectful parenting.
Today, the four parenting styles (authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and uninvolved) still form the framework that many psychologists center their theories and research around.
What is uninvolved parenting?
When considering the “definition” of each parenting style, it’s helpful to examine them under a lens of Baumrind’s parenting paradigm as a whole.
“When we think about Dr. Baumrind’s four parenting styles related to attachment, we can imagine them on a four-by-four quadrant which considers the ‘demands’ a parent makes on the child, as well as how warm and responsive the parent is toward the child. Demandingness might sound negative but, in this context, it isn’t always bad,” Jen Lumanlan, founder of the Your Parenting Mojo podcast, told Scary Mommy.
A great example of how demandingness can be a desirable parenting trait is uninvolved parenting — because, essentially, this parenting style could benefit from much more of it. “Neglectful parents are low in both demandingness and support,” explained Lumanlan. “They don’t set limits on their children’s behavior, and they are emotionally ‘checked out.’ This parenting style is not associated with good outcomes for children.”
So, neglectful or uninvolved parenting is, in a nutshell, exactly like it sounds. “In real life, this looks like parents who care very little about their child’s schooling and do not attend to their child’s needs in a timely manner,” said Chris Drew, university teacher and founder of The Helpful Professor. Unlike authoritarian parents, who emphasize school work, grades, and performance, uninvolved parents couldn’t even be bothered by their child’s schooling needs. And while one method of parenting is all about rules, neglectful parents rarely set any rules for their kids.
What is an example of uninvolved parenting?
TBH, this is a parenting style that you hopefully don’t run across too often in your social circle. With uninvolved parents, children receive little to no guidance, discipline, or positive reinforcement from their parents. So, if you see a kid running amok at the park and either don’t see a parent or see a parent totally tuned out to what their child is doing, you may be encountering uninvolved parenting in action. Or, as it were, inaction.
Now, let’s say that child is running amok and you do see a parent who is, for example, preoccupied with their phone. This isn’t necessarily indicative of an uninvolved parent. Most of us actually have these moments of self-indulgence or distraction. But with an uninvolved parent, these aren’t just fleeting moments — it’s a pattern of behavior marked by emotional distance between the parent and their child.
Uninvolved parents are the ones who disengage from their children daily. They aren’t likely to help their kid with homework, participate in PTA meetings, or show up for extracurricular events. Communication is limited between the uninvolved parent and their child, as is any discernible discipline style. In other words, an uninvolved parent pretty much lets their kid do what they want — not because they care too much, like the permissive parent, but because they don’t care enough. With little to no interaction, there’s also little to no encouragement of the child during their milestone years, negatively affecting their development.
According to postpartum therapist Maddison Meijome, uninvolved parenting can range in degree and can start very early. “Uninvolved parenting could lie on a spectrum. Many parents may provide a lot of resources like a house and food security, but neglectful parenting could mean they aren’t offering social and emotional support,” she explained. “For example, a baby who isn’t cuddled, or treated with positive affection, could display symptoms of failure to thrive such as lack of weight gain, insecure attachment, and becoming socially inept.”
Does uninvolved parenting “work”?
As you may have guessed from all of the aforementioned information, uninvolved parenting isn’t considered a particularly effective style of parenting. Children need limits. They need guidance. And they definitely need love and affection from their parents in order to thrive. Since uninvolved parenting is characterized by a distinct lack of these things, it should come as little surprise that this parenting approach not only isn’t effective but can actually be detrimental to a child’s development.
As with any parenting style, there are nuances. If you look hard enough and long enough, you’ll be able to point out at least one positive. For instance, uninvolved parenting does teach children to be more self-reliant. But experts tend to agree that the cons of uninvolved parenting outweigh the pros.
What are the possible effects of uninvolved parenting on a child?
Unfortunately, in the absence of nurturing and expectations, children are likely to develop various issues. “As a teacher, I find children of uninvolved parents have a hard time settling into school,” said Drew. “They’re not used to authoritative figures setting rules and guidelines. They often struggle to concentrate in class as they’re not used to the structure you find in a schooling environment. I’ll also often have trouble getting uninvolved parents to attend parent-teacher meetings, which further hinders their child’s schooling.”
Other possible effects of uninvolved parenting on the child include, but are not limited to, depression, low self-esteem, anger and hostility, impulsivity, self-isolation, trouble regulating emotion, and difficulty forming lasting bonds. As they grow, these issues may take the form of more serious mental health problems or destructive behaviors, such as suicidal thoughts or substance abuse.
What is the difference between uninvolved parenting and permissive parenting?
In terms of the four spheres of Baumrind’s parenting styles, the upper two quadrants are characterized by a high level of responsiveness and warmth. The bottom two quadrants are marked by less responsiveness and warmth. The quadrants on the right side are characterized by a higher level of demandingness. The quadrants on the left side lack demandingness or control. Both permissive and uninvolved exist on this left side.
However, permissive takes the top quadrant. This means that — while lacking in demandingness and control — it’s high in responsiveness and warmth, like authoritative parenting. Permissive parents are indulgent and lenient, but very much involved with their children. Uninvolved, the lower left quadrant, is marked by a lack of responsiveness and warmth as well as a lack of control and strictness.
So, unlike permissive, there’s a discernible lack of nurturing that might compensate in some way for the lack of demandingness. Permissive parents and uninvolved parents tend to let their kids do what they want. The motivation for allowing so, though, is different. Permissive parents only want to please their children. Uninvolved parents are just generally disinterested.
What should you do if one parent is uninvolved and the other is not?
According to Damon Nailer, a parent educator with the Children’s Coalition of Northeast Louisiana, communication is the key if you come to the conclusion that one parent is uninvolved and the other is not. He suggested, “If there are differences in parenting styles, parents must establish mutual strategies and agreements on how they will balance out the rearing of their child(ren). Each parent will have to compromise and allow the other parent to institute the effective elements of whatever parenting style he/she utilizes.”
However, as mentioned previously, uninvolved parenting occurs on a spectrum. If one parent is not an uninvolved parent and the other is an uninvolved parent on the far end of the spectrum, even healthy communication may not be enough.
“Neglectful parenting is often a sign that the relationship has a pattern of toxicity and/or covert-aggression, where the toxic one is (intentionally) emotionally disconnected and stays clueless about the day-to-day emotional needs of [the] child and family,” said Teagin Maddox, a relational harm avoidance, dating safety and life coach as well as the creator of The Date Differently Programs.
If the uninvolved parenting is on the lesser end of the spectrum, though, there’s hope…. with persistent healthy communication. “In the absence of toxicity, compromises can be reached and things can improve, but if there is toxicity, changes won’t stick and you’ll always be parenting alone,” underscored Maddox. “If you can’t come to terms with that and make concessions, that’s when kids pay the biggest price.”
What should you do if you realize you’re an uninvolved parent?
It’s never fun to do a self-audit and come face-to-face with the less desirable sides of ourselves. But it’s a necessary part of self-growth — and we can all agree that when it comes to our kids, we want to (and should) do what’s best for them. That includes admitting when we have issues we need to work on.
So, ask yourself: Do you tend not to keep tabs on where your kid is or who they’re with? Do you admittedly not spend much time with them? Are you hands-off when it comes to things like PTA, after-school events, remembering their friends’ names, and more? If so, you might be an uninvolved parent.
Neglectful parents might often be the result of their own childhood experience and trauma. An uninvolved parent may raise a child who follows the same pattern, whether they’re doing so consciously or not. As adult children of such parents, they may also be suffering from depression, mental health problems, or substance abuse that impedes them from giving their own kids the attention and affection they need.
What’s important to know is that, sometimes, uninvolved parents aren’t that way intentionally. This could be due to mental health issues or substance abuse problems. It could be because the parent is forced into a situation due to hardship — i.e. financially they have no choice but to work around the clock, and therefore unwittingly become uninvolved parents. If you’re overwhelmed with work, bills, and just making ends meet, that may precipitate a pattern of indifference to the particulars of your child’s life.
“Unfortunately, I’m increasingly seeing this ‘uninvolved parenting’ trend in an era where both parents often have to work 40+ hours a week to make ends meet,” lamented Drew. “Many parents are just too busy with work and forget that their child needs a parent who is present in their lives.”
Of course, if that is the scenario, it’s not exactly easy to snap your fingers and change your conditions. Try implementing small but meaningful changes to start — like dedicating one evening a week to spending time with your child. Carve out whatever time you can. Start asking questions. If you feel stuck in the same pattern and are frustrated by it, consider reaching out to a family therapist for counsel or even your children’s educators for advice on how to be more involved.
Quotes about uninvolved parenting
“The uninvolved parent demands almost nothing and gives almost nothing in return, except near—absolute freedom. This style is low in both demandingness and responsiveness. At its worst, it can verge into neglect.” — Dr. Maryann Rosenthal, author of Be A Parent, Not A Pushover
“In this parenting style parents demonstrate very little involvement in setting expectation, rules, and implementing any disciplinary actions. Children’s basic needs are met, but parents are generally detached from their kid’s life. In extreme cases children are rejected and therefore neglected. These children are found to perform poorly in all life domains, lacking self-control, [have low] self-esteem, and are less competent than their peers and classmates.” — Soribel Martinez, clinical social worker and therapist
“Emotional Neglect was automatically passed down from your parents. There are answers, and it’s never too late to change your way of parenting. It is never too late to begin emotionally validating your children. Now read on, no guilt allowed…. Emotionally neglectful parents may be loving and well-intentioned but they still, perhaps through no fault of their own, fail to notice your feelings and respond to them enough. And by failing you in this way, emotionally neglectful parents fail to teach you the emotion skills you will need for your lifetime.” — Jonice Webb, Ph.D
“If John Lennon was right that life is what happens when you’re making other plans, parenthood is what happens when everything is flipped over and spilling everywhere and you can’t find a towel or a sponge or your ‘inside’ voice.” ― Kelly Corrigan, author of Lift
“If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do matters very much.” — Jackie Kennedy, former First Lady of the United States
“Having kids — the responsibility of rearing good, kind, ethical, responsible human beings — is the biggest job anyone can embark on. As with any risk, you have to take a leap of faith and ask lots of wonderful people for their help and guidance. I thank God every day for giving me the opportunity to parent.” ― Maria Shriver, journalist
“I don’t remember who said this, but there really are places in the heart you don’t even know exist until you love a child.” ― Anne Lamott, author of Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year
“Early relational trauma results from the fact that we are often given more to experience in this life than we can bear to experience consciously. This problem has been around since the beginning of time, but it is especially acute in early childhood where, because of the immaturity of the psyche and/or brain, we are ill-equipped to metabolize our experience. An infant or young child who is abused, violated or seriously neglected by a caretaking adult is overwhelmed by intolerable affects that are impossible for it to metabolize, much less understand or even think about.” ― Donald Kalsched, Trauma and the Soul: A psycho-spiritual approach to human development and its interruption
“My father gave me the greatest gift anyone could give another person, he believed in me.” -Jim Valvano
“The reality is that most of us communicate the same way that we grew up. That communication style becomes our normal way of dealing with issues, our blueprint for communication. It’s what we know and pass on to our own children. We either become our childhood or we make a conscious choice to change it.” -Kristen Crockett
“Parenthood…It’s about guiding the next generation, and forgiving the last.” -Peter Krause