Do you find your child lacking in certain areas? Do you roll your eyes when you talk to others about your child? Do you say “what is wrong with you?” when your child does something wrong?
If so, it is likely that you are providing your child with “parental criticism,” an extremely dangerous behavioral habit that we can and must stop.
Parental criticism is strongly correlated with numerous psychological disorders, including eating disorders . Parents are never to blame for the development of an eating disorder, but we can make a tremendous impact on our child’s ability to heal if we learn about parental criticism and stop criticizing our children.
First, it’s important to know that parental criticism is distinct from a complaint. A complaint focuses on a specific behavior, act, or failure to act. A criticism, however, is a complaint about the child’s way of being. The easiest clues to reveal a criticism are:
1. Criticism attacks the individual and places blame on the individual. The key word is usually “You.”
2. Criticism is general vs. specific. The key words are usually “Never” and “Always.”
3. Criticism positions the criticized person as “bad” and the criticizer as a victim.
Criticism compared to complaint
Here are some great examples of criticisms vs. complaints adapted from the book Why Marriages Succeed or Fail.
Complaint: I would like it if we talked more often.
Criticism: You never talk to me anymore.
Complaint: It upset me when I came home and there were dirty dishes in the sink. This morning we agreed that you would wash them.
Criticism: You left dirty dishes all over the kitchen again. You promised me you wouldn’t. I just can’t trust you, can I?
Complaint: I expected you to come home right after school. When you didn’t, I felt anxious and scared.
Criticism: I hate that you’re the type of person who never thinks to call and tell me you’ll be late coming home. You always leave me hanging. You care more about your friends than you do about your own mother.
Why parents criticize
Criticism typically arises when we become exasperated by the repetitive behaviors and actions of a child. The fact that our child keeps doing the same thing EVEN THOUGH WE TOLD THEM NOT TO! must be a sign of disrespect, right? If indeed it is a sign of disrespect, we feel driven to correct the behavior by telling our child that UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES WILL YOU DISRESPECT ME!
These beliefs underlie parental criticism and feel terrible and scary to the parent. A parent who criticizes their child is an insecure parent. It is devastating to think that we are screwing up this whole parenting thing, so we walk around feeling helpless, wounded and victimized by our children. It’s a sad and scary place for us, but we must snap out of it – and fast!
When we feel this way, we damage our children deeply. No matter how tough and rude our children appear to be, children who receive parental criticism suffer deeply in terms of self-worth, self-identity, and self-esteem . These are the very qualities that we must rebuild during treatment for an eating disorder.
How to stop criticizing your child
At the heart of parental criticism is a lack of trust in the child’s ability to know right from wrong. Parents who criticize make negative assumptions about a child’s morality, integrity, and intelligence.
We must work hard as parents to find a way to accept our children for who they are. It is only when we are able to accept our children and trust them to build their identity, morality, work habits, life standards, and other critical components of success, that we can reverse the damaging impacts of parental criticism.
Working towards accepting our children takes time and a lot of effort. In the meantime, here are some steps to immediately interrupt criticism.
1. Notice your words. Never begin a sentence with the following phrases: you never, you should, you always, you don’t. Instead, think about what specific action or behavior you would like to address. Here is a great model adapted from the book Eating in the Light of the Moon:
When you <insert behavior>, I feel <insert your feeling>.
When you don’t take out the trash, I feel angry.
When you don’t do your homework, I feel scared.
When you come home late, I feel worried because I think that something has happened to you.
2. Notice your thoughts. Listen for thoughts like: I’ve told her so many times!; Why doesn’t she get it?; Do I have to spell everything out for her? She should know this! These thoughts indicate a lack of acceptance. Wait until you can think compassionate thoughts like:
This is hard, but we’re all doing the best we can.
I love my child, but jeez this is difficult.
I want to scream, but my child needs me to be an adult right now.
3. Notice your body. Pay attention to whether you are rolling your eyes, avoiding eye contact, sneering, or clenching your fists while your child is talking to you. These are physical signals that you are feeling contempt for your child. Leave the room and take at least 20 minutes to soothe yourself before you re-engage with your child.
4. Learn to soothe yourself. You are not a bad parent. You’re just having a hard time parenting right now. The key is to soothe yourself. Talk to yourself kindly and with compassion. Say things like: This is so hard right now, I’m having a really hard time. Stroke your arm, your face, or some other exposed skin on your body. Close your eyes and allow your feelings to flow in and out of your mind. Cry tears of futility and acceptance. This sucks right now. Don’t get stuck on any single thought, and don’t start planning your next conversation, just let the feelings exist for a while without you trying to control them.
We deserve self-compassion even if we have been criticizing our child. The more we accept ourselves compassionately, the more fully we can accept our children.
 M. Apparigliato, F. Fiore1, G.M. Ruggiero, C. Mezzaluna, C. Lamela, S. Sassaroli Psicoterapia Cognitiva e Ricerca. Parental criticism, responsibility, and humiliation in eating disorders