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Kids May Turn Their Anger Inward When Criticized by Adults

Our dissatisfaction and blame can be overwhelming to them.

Key points

  • Just because our teens do not actively agree with us doesn't mean they're not getting the message.
  • Teens may try to make it clear what we say doesn't matter to them, while the opposite may be true.
  • Teens internalize parental criticism and anger in ways that cause them to feel bad about themselves.

When children misbehave, we want to be good parents and discipline them. We want them to know what they did was wrong and should not be repeated. The truth is, we often lay it on pretty thick, especially when kids don’t seem to be getting the message.

Sometimes they act like they’re not listening or don’t care what we have to say. Sometimes they look down at the ground and don’t respond when we ask them questions about their behavior. These types of responses often cause us to think they’re not getting our message and can cause us to become more emphatic in letting them know they messed up.

I have facilitated well over a thousand group therapy sessions with at-risk teens. My experience is that they get it. They know when they’ve messed up. They know when their parents are unhappy with their actions. They may not show it, but they can internalize the criticism and anger in ways that cause them to feel bad about themselves. They may start to feel like they’re a bad person or that they don’t have value. This can also cause them to carry shame and guilt with them daily.

Guilt and shame can be destructive.

When this goes unchecked, it can manifest in destructive behaviors like substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, and even suicidal ideation. It is important that we, as adults, recognize kids are not miniature adults. They are still forming their views and opinions about themselves and the outside world. We loom large in their consciousness as figures of authority. When we disapprove of them, they get it. Kids may try to put on a brave face, but our disapproval can crush them.

Starting when they are small, parents and other caregivers need to realize that adults are imposing figures on small children. It’s not just our physicality but the fact that we provide their sense of security. Often, the words we say are internalized deeply within their psyche. When we are displeased with their behavior, it can be overwhelming to a small child. We are often seen as their source of survival. If we are displeased, it can throw their whole sense of safety into disarray and be terrifying for a small child.

Teens can be extremely self-critical.

Parents want their kids to listen to them. They want to know that they are taken seriously and that their child recognizes their misdeeds. When adults discipline kids, they hear us. They may not act like it sometimes, but they do hear us. When a child misbehaves, the adult must make clear that the child’s behavior is being criticized, not the child as a person. This is a tricky concept that the child is not always clear on. However, the goal is for adults not to let their emotions overwhelm the child. It also helps if adults wait until their own emotions die down before talking with their child.

When children believe that the adults in their lives think they are “bad people,” they can internalize these beliefs and lose their sense of having value. Many teenagers I’ve talked with are more self-critical than any adult could ever be. They sometimes hate themselves or think they are worthless and have no value.

They carry that with them, and it can cause self-destructive behaviors. Often their thoughts have come from years of listening to parents who have overreacted to situations and lashed out with their emotions rather than their logic. When parents lose their temper and emotionally lash out at a child, it can be extremely scary to children.

Children need to understand how important they are.

When kids grow up believing there is something wrong with them; that they are disapproved of as people; and have little respect for themselves, this is when they can become at-risk. Teenagers who don’t believe in their own value are teenagers who may experiment with drugs, become involved in inappropriate relationships, or even have suicidal ideation. Adults must realize that it’s in nobody’s best interest for children and teens to believe they are bad people. Even children that continually act out can learn to behave more appropriately.

Right now, some children and teens don’t recognize their value; they may not understand how special they are or believe they are bad people who don’t deserve to live a happy life. Adults can change that way of thinking by being more understanding and caring and not letting their emotions of the moment potentially impact their children’s perception of themselves for days, months, or even years.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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