I am often asked, “What is the most common problem you encounter in your work with children and families?” For many years, my answer has been simple and unequivocal: “As parents, we are, unwittingly, too critical of our children.”
This statement has surprised some of my colleagues and is at odds with much of the conventional wisdom about modern parents – that we are over-protective or over-indulgent, too ready to be our child’s friend rather than an authority, and too afraid to say, ”No.”
Research findings from many studies, however, provide ample evidence to support my personal experience. Although it is at times difficult to distinguish cause and effect, clinical research consistently finds high levels of criticism (and fewer positive statements) in the interactions of parents and troubled children. A recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, for example, found that criticism by mothers was a significant risk factor for depression in children. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15374416.2012.703122#.UZY5DXDPY9E
Persistent criticism breeds resentment and defiance, and undermines a child’s initiative, self-confidence, and sense of purpose. We need to prevent the buildup of these unhealthy attitudes in the minds of our children.
Criticism from parents evokes in all children a complex emotional response. Every harsh criticism triggers some defiance as well as some demoralization and withdrawal. I have come to regard this sequence of events (with admitted exaggeration) as the psychological equivalent of Newton’s Third Law: For every parental criticism there is an equal and opposite defiant reaction. As in physics, the nature of the opposing reaction (the child’s defiant response) depends upon other forces that are present (the child’s temperament and personality) and may not be openly expressed or immediately observable. Children may express their defiance at a later time, perhaps as defensiveness or argument, and then, increasingly, as resentment and grievance.
It seems necessary to ask, “Why are we so often critical of our children?” We all know, from our own lives, how criticism feels. We may have experienced the demoralizing effect of frequent criticism in the workplace; or we may have suffered the eroding effect of frequent criticism on satisfaction in our love relationships. It is surprising, then, how often we fail to consider this in relation to our children.
Much of our criticism is well intentioned, motivated by a desire for our children to improve, and eventually succeed, in a competitive world. In these instances, we criticize because we are anxious about our child’s future. We regard our criticism as constructive, or not as criticism at all, but rather as instruction or advice.
Many parents feel justified in their criticism when they make an effort to balance criticism with praise. Because they are willing to offer praise for their child’s good behavior, these parents do not regard themselves as critical. Other parents are aware of their criticalness. They believe that it is their “right and responsibility” to be critical of their children, in order to prepare them for the demands and responsibilities they will face as adults. In giving this criticism, these parents believe that they are doing the right thing. They therefore continue to criticize, despite its bad effects.
From this perspective (shared by some of my colleagues) a child’s defiance or withdrawal, or his unwillingness to communicate, especially in adolescence, is an unavoidable consequence of responsible parenting.
Of course, we need to let children know of our disapproval, and all children can be expected to respond with some form of protest when limits are set. Persistent criticism, however, is destructive, often deeply destructive, to our relationships with our children, and a “balance,” or equal ratio, of praise and criticism has been shown to be unhealthy, both in marriage and in parent–child relationships. When frequent criticism persists, all other efforts to improve our family relationships are likely to fail.
Too much criticism and instruction can also take the fun out of activities that children and adolescents would otherwise enjoy. Ask Andre Agassi. Agassi’s tennis instruction, described in his autobiography, Open, is, by any standard, extreme. When he was 7 years old, Andre hit 2,500 tennis balls a day. He became a great player, but he hated tennis.
Sometimes, we do not realize how hurtful our words have been. When children respond poorly to criticism, with defensiveness or withdrawal, parents may say, “He is too sensitive.” Perhaps. But we are all sensitive to criticism. And he may not be overly sensitive; rather, we may have been too critical and not sensitive enough.
There are also deeper causes of persistent criticism, causes rooted in our character and life circumstances – how well we are able to cope with painful feelings in our own lives and how burdened we feel by the demands of raising our children. In my therapeutic work, I have found that parents who are critical of their children are often critical of each other, and less able to repair conflicts in their marriage and their work relationships.
Often, however, we simply don’t know another way. In next week’s post, I will offer solutions – alternatives and antidotes to this common family problem.