When Our Kids Get it Wrong – Why Criticism Won’t Work, 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. 

24 Comments

BusyMom

I love your articles; they’re brief, to the point, yet so useful. Whenever I’d have a moment, I’d read them and it’s like healing my inner child. It makes me feel both sad and regret; sad that I could have been a better a parent and regret that I never received any of compassion from both my parents. However, my goal has always been to be the best parent I can be, and I’m able to readjust myself onto that path after reading your articles. It’s a challenge to heal yourself AND heal your child at the same time. But I’m trying.

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Karen Young

I love your insight and your obvious drive to be the very best parent you can be. That is all any of us can do. The rest will come. We are all learning and growing, but the important part is being open to this, and to the information that will nurture each of us in the direction of being the parents we want to be. You are doing this. Keep going. You’re more than ‘trying’, you’re doing it.

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Busymom

Thank you for your encouraging words. You’re right; I’m doing it-on certain days…while other days..? I can only say…I’m doing my best. I love my children very much, but there are times I feel disconnected. With my evolution, I’ve discovered it’s simply a disconnect w my inner child. That’s why reading articles like yours, as well as parenting book(whenever I’m able) is so helpful in reminding me to be present. When I’m present, I’m able to feel love and connect with my children.

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Madhvi V

Karen, I have started using these principles with my son and already seeing his self-esteem grow. I really enjoy reading articles from your site.

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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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BusyMom

I’ve found myself in the same situation and often felt helpless; however, there is healing in sight. What helped me is to heal that little girl within first, and then you’re able to be more empathetic with others. My children are growing up and it’s what motivated me to search within instead of being weighed down with guilt. One day at a time…and every little improvement is a huge milestone! You can do it!

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John D

You are not alone in this! I had troublesome childhood my dad was very critical of me, and I see this reflection in the way I am dealing with my boys. I don’t like this about myself, the negativity has caused low self esteem in my oldest son. I am working on improving this. My wife and I are changing the way we deal with their behavior. Using much more positive reinforcement, compassion and patience. They are still young and I pray with God’s help and forgiveness will heal any damage I have caused. Please pray for me. I need the compassion of Jesus for my boys and my family.

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Ranelle K

Thank you! Excellent article. I have a 14 year old son, need more articles like this one please!

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Alisha S

Just about every time you write Karen it is amazing. Articles like this one inspire. As a school social worker I often send your articles out to particular parents, this one will also be incredibly helpful.
Thank you again.
Alisha

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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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‘Brave’ doesn’t always feel like certain, or strong, or ready. In fact, it rarely does. That what makes it brave.♥️
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#parenting #mindfulparenting #parentingtips
We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting

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