Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Criticizing your adolescent.

Parental criticism of teenagers makes matters worse.

It's tempting for parents to criticize their adolescent.

After all, normal developmental changes make the young person harder for them to live with as he or she breaks the boundaries of childhood to create more freedom to grow. Consider the three engines for independence that drive adolescent growth (separation, opposition, and differentiation) and the aggravation for parents that these changes can cause.

In service of SEPARATION the adolescent pulls away from nuclear family to form a new family of friends. Now the young person becomes less communicative to create more privacy about this separate social world. Now he or she wants less involvement with family and more in the company of friends. So parents criticize: "You never talk to us and you never want to spend any time with us!"

In service of OPPOSITION the adolescent pushes against the rules and restraints of parental authority to assert more power of self-determination. Now the young person tests limits to see what can be gotten away with. Now he or she may even decide that the punishment for taking unauthorized freedom is worth the crime. So parents criticize: "You ignore what we want and argue with everything we say!"

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In service of DIFFERENTIATION the adolescent starts experimenting with new interests, images, and relationships in order to try on and off new identities. Now the young person fits less well into family. Now he or she is drawn to models and ideals of self-definition that are unfamiliar to parents, hard to understand, and often harder to accept. So parents criticize: "How can you like that sort of thing and want to dress yourself that way?"

As the compliant and endearing child becomes the more resistant and more abrasive adolescent, parents miss the old communication, companionship, and closeness that has been lost. Now the adolescent suffers by comparison to the child.

In the words of one saddened parent, stricken by the loss: "Who stole my child, that's what I want to know?" At worst, from this comparison parental criticism can grow. They can resort to name-calling, using abstract descriptors to negatively characterize the adolescent.

Criticizing the adolescent's disorganized ways, parents may call the young person "messy."

Criticizing the adolescent's reluctance to do chores, parents may call the young person "lazy."

Criticizing the adolescent's forgetting about homework, parents may call the young person "irresponsible."

Criticizing the adolescent's self-preoccupation, parents may call the young person "inconsiderate."

Criticizing the adolescent's impulsiveness, parents may call the young person "thoughtless."

Criticizing the adolescent's argumentative ways, parents may call the young person "disrespectful."

Comparing the adolescent to the child, it is easy for parents to criticize unwelcome change. And it is a great mistake. Parents essentially blame the young person for growing up. Better for them to accept normal changes that come as part of the adolescent process, then hold the young person accountable for how he or she chooses to manage that change.

Do this is a non-evaluative manner. Instead of attacking character, take issue with decisions the young person has made.

"We know with so much growth going on, it is easy for you to become more disorganized, but we still need to have you keep your room cleaned up on a regular basis."

"We know that you dislike doing chores more now that you are older, but we still need to have them done."

"We know that you will want to argue with us more about freedom, but how you argue must be done in a civil way, and there are limits to how long we will argue back."

What most parents fail to understand is that their criticism catches the young person, particularly the early adolescent (ages 9 - 13), at an extremely vulnerable time. Why? Because she feels so insecure from having cast off the familiar role of child and not yet replaced it with an older definition that feels comfortable and right.

At a loss about how to be, the young person compares herself to popular friends and media models, and comes up lacking in the process. She accuses herself of deficiency - in appearance, social skills, in performance, for example. "I'm never going to look attractive!" "I'm no good at meeting people!" "I can't do anything well!" At this age, the young person is extremely self-critical and so extremely sensitive to criticism from others.

She definitely doesn't need more criticism from the most powerful people in her world, her parents, particularly in the form of any kind of teasing, taunting, or sarcasm. This is the most destructive form of criticism there is. It is the kind that insecure young people now use more frequently with each other as the age of social cruelty begins (see my book, "Why Good Kids Act Cruel.")

This is the age when young people put each other down to keep themselves up, when they cause others to feel worse to feel better about them selves, when virtually no one feels like they can afford to give compliments to anyone else for fear of empowering the competition. Developmental insecurity from early adolescent change can make potential enemies of them all as everyone becomes more self-critical and acts more critical of others.

Of course, when parents do criticize the adolescent, she takes pride in not letting the injury show, expressing that standard statement of bravado, "I don't care what you think!" This is a lie.

Pretending she doesn't care, she actually takes their criticism very personally, using their perception as a trusted mirror to reflect of how she is becoming. Now she gets more down on herself in response. "I don't care" really means, "I care too much to let my caring directly show."

Indirectly, however, she will let them know. Nothing that I have seen fuels adolescent rebellion like unrelenting parental criticism. So she takes the hurt received, turns it into resentment, and uses resentment to become more resistant to the powers that be.

At which point an angry parent compounds the problem by saying: "And I'm going to keep criticizing you until your attitude improves!" Not likely. As for parents who yell (criticizing at the top of their voice) "What's the matter with you!" that doesn't usually clear the matter up. It just makes matters worse.

When parental criticism rules, caring and cooperation from the adolescent is diminished. Criticism is nothing but negative, and for the adolescent it just reduces positive value of the relationship. Why comply with a parent when feeling bad is all you get for your efforts, when there's nothing good to work for?

Criticism and the threat of criticism from parents can make communication feel unsafe. Adolescents will shut up instead of speak up, and what needs declaration will not be said. Even more important, avoidance of speaking up to stay out of criticism's way can be a legacy of behavior that the young person carries into their adult years and later relationships to their unhappy cost. 

To recover this relationship, parents must replace criticism of the young person with expressions of concern, affirmation of constructive behavior, and a willingness to talk about whatever is going on.

So my advice: don't criticize your adolescent. Not only will it hurt the young person more than she will ever let you know; it is counterproductive. Misguided parents think that criticism will correct adolescent misbehavior, when in fact the opposite is usually true.

For more information about parenting adolescents, see my book. "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE," (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry -- Punishing your adolescent: Part one of three.

Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Austin, Texas. His most recent books are: The Connected Father, The Future of Your Only Child, and Stop Screaming.

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