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Feeling Constantly Criticized

What may perpetuate this belief in teens.

John Hain/Pixaby
Source: John Hain/Pixaby

One of the most common complaints I hear from my tween, teen and young adult clients is that their parents harp on what they do wrong and never recognize all they do right. At times, I have heard it from my own kids as well. Though there is the rare occasion when this is an accurate reflection of what parents think, more often one of two things are happening, and often both.

One of the culprits in maintaining kids’ beliefs that parents only see what they do wrong stems from our desire to help them. That desire translates into a never-ending flow of constructive criticism.

As a parent, I think part of my responsibility is to help my kids develop into their best selves. Often, that can sound like a list of what they have done wrong. “Your room needs to be cleaner,” “You should spend more time on your homework,” “You should have…” It sounds even worse in list form!

I am confident I am not alone in making these types of comments. Furthermore, I think these comments are necessary, though possibly less often. However, as I recommend to clients’ parents, I am trying to be more mindful of how I word my “suggestions,” and the tone of voice I use. The same comment said in frustration is heard differently when said in a gentle manner, or with a joke.

I also encourage us all to be mindful of the ratio of these constructive criticisms to verbalized praise. I am actually pretty aware of how many awesome things my kids do and when they improve. That awareness doesn’t always translate into communication. It turns out my kids can’t read my mind and see all the warm thoughts I have about them during the day. Moreover, I hate to admit it, but when I am exhausted and rushed, I am far more likely to put words to my complaints than to my compliments. I have heard similar reports from the parents I work with.

I try to make sure my compliments, and appreciative comments outweigh my suggestions and corrections by a ratio of 2:1. Not that I have the brain space to actually count them out. I just hope that keeping the ratio in mind gets me closer.

That leads me to the second culprit in kids developing a belief that we only see the negative. Whether or not we actually express more criticism than praise, teens and tweens are particularly susceptible to a distorted way of thinking referred to as mental filtering. Mental filtering is when we hear people’s negative comments and filter out all the positive. We truly believe the positive comments were never said. When I suspect clients are falling victim to this distortion, I often have them keep a written list of compliments they get. The results can be shocking.

For that reason, I encourage us all to put the positives in writing. My dad taught me the power of leaving notes. I loved getting them when I was a teen. Given my kids’ preference for their phones, I often text. If I am at work, or they are out, and a nice thought comes to mind, I put it in writing to them. There is some small part of me that hopes they keep these texts, so I can refer to them on a likely day in the future when they complain that I always criticize them.

Everyone always talks about how kids don’t listen to them when they ask them to do things. Did you know they weren’t necessarily hearing the good things either?

It is understandable that many parents dismiss complaints of frequent criticism because they don’t intend to criticize, or because they know they also lavish teens with praise. Yet, whether teens’ perceptions are based in fact or distortion, the belief can be very detrimental to relationships with parents. Instead of invalidating their belief, we can work to change it by highlighting praise. In that way, our kids continue to view us as an ally.