Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Criticism of our Kids

Ever go to bed mad at yourself for being too critical of your kid? Ever worry that your kid doesn't respect your advice anymore now that she's sixteen?

What follows is the first of two guest posts about Criticizing our children by Ken Barish, PhD, a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychology, at my alma mater, Cornell's Weill Medical College; a practicing psychologist in Westchester County, and the author of his recently published Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems.

The Harmfulness of Criticism

If I were asked to identify the most common problem presented to me in three decades of therapeutic work with children, adolescents, and families, my answer would be 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 contemporary parents - that we are overprotective or overly indulgent; or that we fail to provide children with needed guidance and limits; or that we are too ready to be our child’s friend, rather than an authority.

Research findings from many studies, however, now provide ample scientific evidence to support my personal experience and this, admittedly, anecdotal claim.

We all know, from our own lives, how criticism feels. We may have experienced the demoralizing effect of frequent criticism in the workplace or in our love relationships. It is surprising, then, how often we fail to consider this in relation to our children.

In many families, parents and children have become locked in vicious cycles of unhealthy family interactions. Criticism and punishment lead to anger and defiance, or secretiveness and withdrawal; and then to more criticism; and then more defiance, and more withdrawal.

As these cycles escalate, parents feel increasingly justified in their criticism and disapproval, and kids, for their part, feel increasingly justified in their resentment and defiance. Parents tell me, “He never listens.” Teenagers tell me, “All I hear is criticism” or “They are always yelling at me.”

Much of our criticism, of course, is well intentioned. We criticize because we are anxious about our child’s future. We want her to improve, and eventually succeed in a competitive world. We think of our criticism as constructive, or not as criticism at all, but rather as instruction and advice, and we regard our child’s defiance or his unwillingness to communicate (especially in adolescence) as an unavoidable consequence of responsible parenting. I disagree.

When frequent criticism persists, all other efforts to improve our family relationships are likely to fail.

The Solution

The solution to the problem of frequent criticism begins with this fundamental fact: Children and adolescents, when they are not angry and discouraged, want to do well. Your children want to earn your praise and approval, and they want you to be proud of them.

There is no better antidote for frequent criticism and argument - and no better way to help children bounce back from the common frustrations and disappointments of childhood - than patient and respectful listening. Listening, of course, does not mean agreement or giving in to unreasonable demands. When we listen, we make a genuine effort to understand and appreciate our child’s point of view and to acknowledge what is right about what he is saying before we point out what is wrong.

I recommend that parents create moments, on a regular basis, that are conducive to this kind of patient listening. It is especially important, in these brief daily conversations, to acknowledge a child’s grievance – what he feels is unfair in his life. We should also acknowledge our own errors and, when appropriate, apologize to our children. We should say, for example, “I feel bad that you were so upset earlier today. I know I was very angry at you. Maybe I got too angry.”

Some parents express concern that, in apologizing to their children, they may implicitly condone their child’s disrespectful or defiant behavior and diminish their authority as parents. This fear is understandable, but unfounded. Your apology does not excuse your child’s bad behavior. To understand your child’s mood is not to indulge his mood; the needs of others always have to be considered.
In my opinion, when a parent offers an apology, he has modeled an important lesson in interpersonal relationships and gains authority with his child, because our children’s acceptance of adult authority is, ultimately, based on respect.

In my next post, I will continue this discussion, and offer additional solutions to the problem of frequent criticism.

Ken Barish, PhD


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