Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

When Our Kids Get it Wrong – Why Criticism Won’t Work, And What to Do Instead

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Kids and Criticism - Here's What Happens, and What To Do Instead

One of the things that makes parenting so tough is that we don’t always see the effects of what we do straight away. Sometimes, getting it right can look the same as getting it wrong, and other times they can masquerade as each other. Are our boundaries too loose? Too tight? Do our words nurture their growth? Make them question their worth? Is this a time for consequences? Connection? How do I have both? 

As we travel beside them from their childhood to adulthood, there will be many short-term goals, overarched by an all-important long-term one – to help them arrive at adulthood safe, happy, well-adjusted, and well on their way to claiming their place in the world. Along the way, we’ll make plenty of mistakes. We’ll speak when we should stay quiet, stay quiet when we should say plenty, get too distracted, too busy, too exhausted. There will be many times that we get it so exquisitely right, and there’ll be many that we get it spectacularly wrong. As long as these mistakes are balanced with enough love, connection, warmth, and presence, the mistakes we make won’t break them. Sometimes though, the things we do as parents can have long-lasting consequences that we don’t see coming – even when we do them with loving intent.

Our words are powerful. They can light our children up from the inside out or they can land on their shoulders like little spears. When criticism happens too often, those little spears will find their way deep into the core of them. They’ll do damage and they’ll leave scars. This is regardless of how that criticism is wrapped up – whether as discipline, frustration, teaching a lesson, or otherwise. New research explains why.

The research, published in The Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology has found that children who have critical parents learn to pay less attention to faces that express any type of emotions, both positive and negative. This limits their capacity to ‘read’ people effectively, a skill that is critical for building and maintaining relationships. It is also important for our own wellbeing, as it shapes the meaning we make about the intentions, needs and wants of others and their feelings towards us. The increased tendency to avoid positive emotion (as well as negative emotion) undermines their capacity to receive positive information. Researchers suggest that this could potentially create a vulnerability to anxiety or depression.  

The researchers suggest that the tendency to avoid paying attention to facial expressions is an adaptive measure – and it makes sense. We are wired to turn towards the things that feel safe, and away from the things that might cause us harm – and anything that makes us feel unsafe, or which calls into question who we are and our inherent ‘good’, counts as harm. The researchers suggest that children who are exposed consistently to criticism develop a greater need to avoid facial expression, as a way to avoid the feelings that come with parental criticism. When children are exposed to consistent criticism, they are primed to expect criticism not only from their parents, but from others as well. 

When our children get it wrong. What to do instead.

Let the focus be on their good, not their deficiencies.

For all children, the first messages about how the world sees them comes from their parents, or whoever is in charge of their primary care. When these messages are presented with compassion and warmth, and when they focus on the child’s potential rather than their deficiencies, children will be more likely to approach the world with a sense of belonging, self-respect and importance. We want that. We want them to soar, and they can’t do that if their hearts are heavy with self-doubt.

We might feel as though we have control and influence when we criticise, but the truth is, it’s an illusion. Criticism drives the need to avoid criticism, and this becomes the primary influencer of behaviour. Sometimes this will lead to good behaviour. Other times it will lead to secrecy and lies. Nobody wants to feel stupid, or bad, or less than, or as though they’ve let down (again) the people they care about. The risk with constant criticism is that children will be more likely to redirect their behaviour to avoid that criticism, rather than because of a more intrinsic sense of the ‘right’ thing to do. 

This doesn’t mean that we always lift them over their mistakes, and out of the way of discomfort. It’s important to let them know when their behaviour could do with some tweaking. Sometimes they will need redirecting towards a healthier way of being. What it means is responding to them with compassion and patience, and in such a way that gives them the space to safely explore the lessons they need to learn, without fracturing their sense of self. It means speaking to them in a way that shines the light on their strengths, rather than their deficiencies. This will also help to keep our connection with them strong, and we want this if want influence. When we have influence, we can use it to impart and strengthen the values on which they will base their decisions and their behaviour. 

Example: ‘I know how hard it is to tell the truth sometimes. It’s especially hard, and especially brave when you’re worried about getting into trouble. I know you’re honest and I know you’ll make the right decision. You’re really great like that. Now, can we talk about what happened?’

Don’t take their behaviour personally. It’s a marathon not a sprint, and they’re doing exactly what they’re meant to be doing – even their mistakes.

It’s so easy to take the behaviour of our children personally. We been beside them, gently steering and influencing them since the beginning of them. What does it mean then, when they’re rude, moody, or when they lash out or push against our boundaries with warrior force and daring? It means they’re normal. It means we’re raising small humans into big ones, and giving them the space to do it their way, to make the mistakes they need to make, to learn the lessons they need to learn. It means they aren’t perfect, which is a relief – perfection comes with way too many problems of its own.

There are precious opportunities for learning in the mistakes our children make, but some of those lessons will take time. Sometimes a long time. We squander those opportunities when we try to direct them through fear. Fear might be a short-term motivator, but it’s quite useless in imparting values and strengthening our influence in the long-term. Our children have a long time to learn the lessons they need to learn. In the meantime, their most valuable compass is us. If we want them to listen to be open to our influence and our guidance, we need to give it in a way that is easy for them to receive, not in a way that makes them want to shut down. 

When we try too hard to control them through criticism or through any other means that fractures their spirit, we lose them. We might force compliance in the moment, but any behaviour that is driven by the need to stay out of trouble will always be more fragile than behaviour that is driven by the need to do the right thing. The more we can let go of the need to be perfect parents, the more we can respond to our children with compassion and wisdom, and in a way that opens up our influence. When we treat them as though they already are the people we want them to be, we give them a powerful lift towards getting there. This doesn’t look like harsh discipline or criticism. It looks like a gentle, affirming conversation which lights the way forward and widens the lens on the good inside them and what they are capable of. And it’s okay if this takes time.

And finally …

When we’re dealing out compassion, we need to serve a healthy dose to ourselves too. We’re human, and being parents doesn’t make us infallible. We’re going to get exhausted, distracted, and frustrated, and sometimes we’ll say the wrong thing. Our children won’t break if we get it wrong sometimes. We’re their heroes, and if they can see us getting it wrong sometimes, it gives them permission to get it wrong sometimes too. We want that. We want them to be brave, and to stretch. We want them to test their limits and ours. And when they stretch too far, which they will, we want them to know that it’s okay, that we’re there, and that none of that takes away from the fact that they’re our heroes too. 

What’s important is that when we make a mistake, we name it, own it and apologise. Then we reconnect. It’s equally important that when they make a mistake, we respond with compassion and warmth and make it about their behaviour, not about who they are. There will be times we need to call their behaviour into question, and give them what they need to learn and grow, but it’s important that this is done in a way that doesn’t cause them to question their inherent worth, and their inherent goodness. Criticism might work better in the short-term, but building strong, healthy, happy humans takes time and there are no shortcuts. By speaking to their strengths, even when they get it wrong, and by doing this with warmth and compassion, we make it safe for them to open up to our influence, explore their behaviour, and discover better ways of being. 

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13 Comments

Nim

Great article – tahnk you. I’m going to print it out and show it to my father. Fear and control were his parenting go-tos, and he finds it hard to accept that I want to work WITH my child to teach him about good, kind behaviour rather than intimidate him into compliance.

My son is a brave, kind, sociable little person. He doesn’t always do the right thing, of course – who does? – but I’m extremely proud of who he is and the way he chooses to express himself, and I’m proud of myself for not criticising him into good behaviour.

When you’ve only been on the planet for a few years, it’s normal that mistakes are made. Plenty of people who’ve been around a lot longer are still making them!

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Lisa

I was heavily criticised as a child, what you have written about is quite true. I have two precious boys of my own and desperately trying not to give them the same experiences I had. I’m struggling so much with this, we have had some very stressful circumstances over the past few years with little respite in sight. And now I find myself talking to my kids the same way I was spoken to, and the fruits of that starting to show. I’m failing in this area in so many ways….

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