This paper was intended to distinguish between poor parenting and child emotional maltreatment (CEM), to inform child welfare and public health policymakers of the need for differentiated responses. Scientific literature was integrated with current practice and assumptions relating to poor/dysfunctional parenting and child emotional maltreatment, with a primary focus on the parent-child relationship context (rather than abnormal parent behavior alone). Numerous factors that impinge on the distinction between these acts were considered, such as the child’s age, the frequency, and severity of behavior shown by caregivers, cultural norms, and parental beliefs and goals in childrearing. The literature on child emotional maltreatment has advanced beyond the descriptive phase of scientific understanding, and principles and practical criteria for distinguishing such behavior from poor parenting are presented. Recommendations focus on practical guidelines for assessing risk and activating appropriate prevention and intervention: (1) parental actions and relative risk of harm to the child are both important ingredients in defining and distinguishing child emotional maltreatment from other forms of poor parenting; (2) poor parenting methods fall along a broad continuum and fit within a population health mandate aimed at reducing incidence of all forms of negative parenting methods; (3) child emotional maltreatment can be defined categorically based on qualitatively more extreme and potentially more harmful behaviors (than poor parenting), which requires a focused intervention response. Additional recommendations for training, research, and community-based public health initiatives are presented.