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The Power of Parental Criticism With an Adolescent

Use it to inform and direct growth, never to attack self-esteem.

Key points

  • Part of parental responsibility with an adolescent is a critical one—to monitor and direct youthful growth.
  • All criticism is not the same: Helpful criticism is advisory and educational, but harmful criticism is judgmental and punitive.
  • Because of growing changes and social comparisons with peers, adolescence is a more self-critical age.
Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D.

Part of parental responsibility with an adolescent is a critical one: monitoring youthful conduct and growth to encourage what is healthy and to discourage what is harmful. In the process, parents rely on their longer life experience and more seasoned judgment to decide what is wise—which youthful behaviors work well, and which do not.

Helpful and harmful criticism

Not all parental criticism is the same.

Their criticism can be helpful when it informs understanding and improves functioning: “Having my parent correct my papers usually makes them better.” This is advisory criticism, sharing the wisdom from longer life experience.

Their criticism can be harmful when it attacks image and injures self-esteem: “Having my parent put down my friends hurts and make me angry.” This is evaluative criticism, negatively judging based on personal preference.

In the first case, one can feel improved; in the second case, one can feel attacked. Parents need to be ever-mindful of this difference.

While their teenager may discount the painful impact of parental criticism—“I don’t care what you think of me!”—they lie. In truth, they care too much to let that caring show. They still want to shine in parental eyes at a time when it is harder to shine in their own.

Self-critical adolescents

Adolescence is a doubly critical age. The young person typically becomes more self-conscious about appearance and more comparative with peers, on both counts increasingly self-critical for how she or he is and isn’t developing: “I wish I didn’t look like this!” “Others are growing older faster!”

And she or he becomes more critical of parents—how they are and what they want: “Why do you have to be like you?” “Stop getting on my case all the time!” Feeling hurt or offended by youthful criticism, now parents can become more negative and critical in response, which injures the relationship.

While the cuddly little child was often a play companion, at times the separating adolescent can often feel more like a family adversary. On the youthful side, parental authority that once was inspiring can now become harder to put up with.

While love still holds as always, growing separation makes getting along sometimes harder to do. So, keep perspective. On both sides of the relationship, developmental change is at work. Much abrasion that develops is about the adolescent process, not just the other person.

The matter with friends

Then there is the social pressure of keeping up with peers, some of whom are always ahead of where you are—better looking, older growing, life experienced, greater achieving, higher performing, more popular and cool. As for getting ready for the school day each morning, two critical encounters cannot be avoided because there is no escaping growing self-consciousness—how one looks in the mirror and what one will wear to school. Enter the law of defensive dressing: “Make the most of the good and cover up the bad.” Now personal appearance can take center stage, as one becomes more vulnerable to criticism from self and others.

As for popular entertainment, fashion, and advertising media, they are no help—parading ideal-looking and outstanding-performing young people with whom, by painful comparison, you are never going to measure up: “I’ll never look that good!” “I’ll never do that well!” “I’ll never be that cool!” Comparison incites criticism.

Important to remember, particularly during the vulnerable middle-school years when acts of social cruelty—teasing, bullying, exclusion, rumoring, and ganging up—become more unhappily common, put-downs become the most painful social criticism there is. With the onset of puberty, feeling out of control of bodily changes, self-consciousness can often be a cruel companion: “Look how I look!”

All of this is just to suggest that adolescence is a more self-critical age, and, so, it really helps if parents keep the family free of evaluative criticism and teasing.

In the family

Thus, parents should only criticize to instruct; not to punish or diminish, coupling discipline with injury. Now the pain of being negatively judged by the most powerful adults in your life gets in the way of whatever lesson they were trying to teach. Now some measure of safety with parents, and trust in the relationship, has been lost as personal injury has been sustained.


  • Never criticize in anger.
  • Never criticize to retaliate.
  • Never criticize to correct or punish.

Only use criticism to

  • Provide a personal perspective.
  • Increase knowledge and understanding.
  • Offer insight from older and experienced opinion.

And, of course, avoid all adequacy complaints like “What’s wrong with you?” “Are you stupid?” “You’ll never learn!” “You can’t do anything right!” Statements of extreme parental frustration or exasperation such as these can be destructive: “From being criticized, I’ve learned not to like myself.”

So, parents: Don’t hurtfully criticize your adolescent. She or he may act as if it doesn’t matter (“I don’t care what you think!”), but that is a lie. They care too much to let their caring show. While criticism from peers like teasing can certainly hurt; criticism from parents, the most powerful adults in your world, those who love and know you the best, can hurt worst of all. They speak on highest authority.

Alternatives to criticism

Criticism is not a good parental corrective because it can injure the teenager’s self-esteem, put the young person on the defensive, arouse resistance, reduce trust in safety of the relationship, make her or his listening to you harder to do, and may inspire criticism in return. So, instead of expressing criticism of your teenager, consider some less damaging and more productive alternatives:

  • Making observation: “This is what I saw.”
  • Expressing concern: “Are you feeling OK?”
  • Offering suggestion: “You might try doing this instead.”
  • Stating disagreement: “I don’t see things the same as you.”
  • Inviting discussion: “Can we talk about what just happened?”

Your relationship will benefit when you do.

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