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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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