If I were asked to identify the most common problem presented to me in three decades of therapeutic work with children and families, my answer would be unequivocal: "As parents, we are, unwittingly, too critical of our children."
This statement has surprised some of my colleagues and is at odds with conventional wisdom about contemporary parenting:
That we are overprotective or overly indulgent
That we fail to provide children with needed guidance and limits
That we are too ready to be our child's friend, rather than an authority.
Research findings from recent studies, however, provide ample scientific evidence to support my personal experience and this, admittedly, anecdotal claim.
We all know, from our own lives, how criticism feels. We may have experienced the demoralizing effect of frequent criticism in the workplace or in our love relationships. It is surprising, then, how often we fail to consider this in relation to our children.
In many families, parents and children have become locked in vicious cycles of unhealthy family interactions. Criticism and punishment lead to anger and defiance or secretiveness and withdrawal; this leads to more criticism then more defiance and withdrawal.
As these cycles escalate, parents feel increasingly justified in their criticism and disapproval, and kids, for their part, feel increasingly justified in their resentment and defiance. Parents say: "He never listens." The child says:"All I hear is criticism." "They are always yelling at me."
Much of our criticism, of course, is well-intentioned. We criticize because we are anxious about our child's future. We want her to improve, and eventually succeed in a competitive world. We think of our criticism as constructive, or not as criticism at all, but rather as instruction and advice, and we regard our child's defiance or his unwillingness to communicate (especially during adolescence) as an unavoidable consequence of responsible parenting.
When frequent criticism persists, all other efforts to improve our family relationships are likely to fail.
The solution to the problem of frequent criticism begins with this fundamental fact: Children, when they are not angry and discouraged, want to do well. Your children want to earn your praise and approval, and they want you to be proud of them.
There is no better antidote for frequent criticism and argument, and no better way to help children bounce back from the common frustrations and disappointments of childhood, than patient and respectful listening.
Listening, of course, does not mean agreement or giving in to unreasonable demands. When we listen, we make a genuine effort to understand and appreciate our child's point of view and to acknowledge what is right about what he is saying before we point out what is wrong.
Ten Minutes at Bedtime
I recommend that parents regularly create moments that are conducive to this kind of patient listening. Set aside some extra time, perhaps 10 minutes at bedtime, for you and your child to talk. In these brief daily conversations, we should encourage kids to talk about whatever they were upset or angry about during the day, to say what they liked or didn't like, or what they may be anxious about the following day. And when kids have nothing to talk about, we can make use of this opportunity to talk about the events of our day, perhaps to share a moment of frustration or a moment of humor.
Children look forward to these moments, just as they do opportunities for play. It is, again, surprising how infrequently we make this a regular part of a child's day. Often, when parents set aside time to listen and talk with their children, they report immediate improvement in their child's mood and behavior.
At these times, it is also important to acknowledge your errors and, when appropriate, apologize to your child. We should say, for example, "I feel bad that you were so upset earlier today. I know I was very angry at you. Maybe I got too angry."
Some parents express concern that, in apologizing to their children, they may implicitly condone disrespectful or defiant behavior and diminish their authority as parents. This fear is understandable, but unfounded. Your apology does not excuse your child's bad behavior. ("You still should not have hit your sister.") To understand your child's mood is not to indulge his mood; the needs of others always have to be considered.
When a parent offers an apology, he has modeled an important lesson in interpersonal relationships and gains authority with his child, because our children's acceptance of adult authority is, ultimately, based on respect.
In my next post, I will continue this discussion, and offer additional solutions to the problem of frequent criticism.
Copyright Ken Barish, Ph.D.
Ken Barish, Ph.D. is the author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child's Emotions and Solving Family Problems.