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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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