Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

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The Use and Abuse of Parental Criticism with Adolescents

The responsibility to evaluate their adolescent's conduct must not miscarry

It is because parents possess so much power of affection, authority, and approval that good standing in their eyes can be so important to children and (despite what they may boast to the contrary) to adolescents too. Part of exercising adolescent independence is often pretending that now one has grown beyond caring what parents think of them. This apparent emotional detachment is only a posture. The truth is that the young person, now made more insecure from transformational change, cares too much to let parents know how much shining in their eyes still matters, and how much failing to do so can hurt.

Just as parental compliments can be very affirming, parental criticism can be painfully taken to heart. Does this mean parents should never criticize? Not at all: but it does mean that parents should be sensitive to hurt their criticism can do, using it for the good, not so that it inflicts harm. It’s a tricky issue.

To navigate this complexity, consider three kinds of criticism – Constructive Criticism, Corrective Criticism, and Corrosive Criticism.

CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM is of the balanced kind, and is taken in a helpful way. It is instructive and can be requested, as when the teenager wants his mother, who writes well, to look over his paper or application essay and make suggestions before he turns it in. Or it can be helpful when young athlete wants her father, who is athletic himself, to give her feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of her performance in the game. Or it may not be requested by the adolescent, but offered by the parent: “Can I give you a suggestion for handling that situation with your friend differently the next time it arises? I think there may be a way that would work better for your relationship.” Couching criticism in concern for the adolescent’s welfare can make it more welcome to receive.

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CORRECTIVE CRITICISM is also balanced because whatever conduct the parent is saying is not okay and needs to change is always placed in a larger positive context. “Most of the time you really make an effort to keep me adequately informed and I really appreciate that. This time you didn’t, and I know this is the exception, and not the rule. Let’s talk about how you can continue doing what you usually do so well.” In addition, because correction addresses mistakes or misbehavior the parent needs to have changed, it is critical enough and so no additional censure or complaint is required. Keep corrective criticism non-evaluative, and focus on the adolescent’s choice of behavior, not on failings in his or her character.

A statement of corrective criticism might sound like this. “I disagree with the choice you have made, this is why, and this is what I need to have happen in consequence.” And if punitive consequences for a serious violation must be paid, they too are free of criticism: “Just pay the penalty off (or work it off) so we can put this incident behind us.”

Misguided corrective criticism can occur when parents believe that expressing stronger discontent will have positive motivational power. “And I’ll keep being dissatisfied and disappointed with your performance until you decide to start working harder and doing better!” From what I’ve seen, this “corrective” approach begets more adolescent resistance than reform.

CORROSIVE CRITICISM is usually given in anger, so the first piece of advice is never criticize in anger. Doing so when feeling injured or wronged, a parent can be at risk of giving deliberate injury in return. “You never learn! You can’t do anything right! Why don’t you try thinking for a change?” Sarcasm can be corrosive criticism at its most destructive: “Way to go, you just succeeded in screwing up again!” To put down, to embarrass, to humiliate, to shame are acts of criticism that have lasting value of a very unhappy kind. And while adult apologizing for hurtful words may be sincere, it can’t take back what was said or undo the harm that was inflicted. The only parental apology that counts in such situations is committing to never repeat this kind of mistreatment again.

At worst, the ultimate power of corrosive criticism is the poison of self-rejection as the young person, taking parental criticism as truth, becomes a believer in their own inferiority or inadequacy. In this way, corrosive parenting can wear down an adolescent’s self-esteem. Repeatedly denigrated by parental authorities for disappointing their expectations, the young person can feel guilty as charged. Now she or he comes to see themselves in worthless terms. “My parent never had much good to say about me, and as an adult I don’t either.” 

Of course, there is a child choice in play here: whether to take parental criticism personally or not. For example, consider two grown siblings. Sibling number one says, "I always knew it was my fault that I could never please my parent." Sibling number two says: "I always knew I had a critical parent who was impossible to please." First sibling takes the crticism personally, and second sibling does not. First sibling believed the criticism reflected something wrong in them; second sibling believed the criticism reflected something wrong in the parent. It can make a huge difference which conclusion the child chooses to draw.

All this said, it can be hard for parents to resist the temptation to criticize their adolescent because now they are often subject to more criticism from the teenager than was true from the child. With the attached, adoring child they could do little wrong, but now with the detaching, disapprovngl adolescent they can do little right. What’s going on?

Well, part of what’s happening is that come adolescence the teenager feels more pressure to treat parents as the primary models for adulthood that she or he is now striving to reach. The problem is that, looking up to Mom and Dad, the child idolized them into perfectly wonderful people. So how can the adolescent hope to emulate such ideals? The young person can’t unless these powerful adults are cut down to ordinary size with failings, frailties and faults now part of a more realistic human picture. Criticizing them is part of how this downsizing can be done.

I believe the best advice for parents undergoing this demotion in adolescent eyes is not to take the criticism personally, not to be offended or acted defensively in kind, but to see it simply as a necessary component of adolescent growth. For the adolescent to grow up, parents must be taken down from the pedestal on which the adoring child placed them, must be planted in the earth, now having “feet of clay” like everybody else.

Parents can often lessen the adolescent need to criticize them by humanizing their adult image – talking about their defeats, admitting mistakes, apologizing for offenses, declaring their limitations, pointing out what the teenager is better at knowing and doing, even lightly putting their own modest capacities and efforts down. “Just so you understand, I’m not very good at this.” They can honestly say, “We’re not perfect, you know. We can only do our uneven best, and that’s all we expect from you.”

For those fathers or mothers who once harbored the desire to be a “perfect parent,” their child’s adolescence is a good time to give up that self-serving dream and the relentless review that went with it. The danger of this ambition is that the measure they tend to use for achieving perfect parenthood is having a “perfect” adolescent. Now what loving parents would want to put their teenager under that kind of critical pressure?

And so in a blog about criticism, I end on a critical note.

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

Next week’s entry: Adolescence and the Need to Please Parents

 

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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