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How to Deal With a Critical Parent & 9 Harmful Effects They Cause

| What is Critical Parenting | Effects | How to deal with a critical parent |

Children whose parents are critical often tell this story:

“This is a picture of my mother. She was a perfectionist. She had high expectations for me and my 3 siblings. Her high expectations didn’t just make us feel bad, they turned us into perfectionists. I was constantly worried about doing everything perfectly and worrying about making mistakes. My fear of making mistakes kept me from taking risks. The constant criticism caused me to be more critical of myself as I felt like I couldn’t do anything unless I could do it perfectly.”

father points at mistake for son

What is Critical Parenting

Critical parents point out their children’s mistakes constantly. They are antagonistic, negative, cruel, and harsh. They are never satisfied with their children’s achievements, even when everyone else praises them. 

Critical parents use belittling and blaming statements when they criticize​1​. Although they demand a lot from their children, critical parents are not responsive to their needs in return​2​.

This hostile parenting style is often used by controlling parents, strict parents, narcissistic parents, and authoritarian parents.

Most parents want the best for their children. They teach and criticize to help children learn. Providing parental feedback is a common parenting method and negative statements are inevitable.

But critical parents differ from parents who want to teach by the type of negative feedback they give and the emotion they express.

Critical feedback is belittling and blaming. Overt criticisms involve putting down and disparaging the child. The expressed emotion is highly criticizing and hostile.

Harsh comments create an unsupportive emotional climate in the home, affecting the child’s development and family dynamics.

Critical Parenting Effects

Toxic Environment

Conflicts and fights often result from criticizing children.

Criticism from parents can activate more brain activity in the emotional area of the brain than the thinking or social areas. Consequently, children can become easily emotional and reactive when they are criticized. More often than not, an argument instead of a discussion will occur​3​.

High levels of criticism in childhood will make negative parent-child interactions escalate quickly. Constant family conflicts result in an environment filled with toxic stress​4​.

Parental criticism can trigger children’s bad behavior and in turn challenging behavior can make parents develop a more critical attitude, creating a cycle of criticism.

Family bonds are weakened or nonexistent. Parents and children have a difficult relationship.

Youth well-being is affected biologically, neurologically, and psychologically by this type of distressing behavior.

Behavioral problems

Critical parenting is associated with the development of a child’s externalizing behavior problems such as delinquency.

These children exhibit high levels of conduct problems at an early age that can have direct impacts on society in terms of damaged property and disruption of lives. In addition, serious forms of conduct problems are highly resistant to change​5​.

Mental health issues

Low family support​6​, high family conflict​7​, and poor family relations​8​ predict mental illnesses in children such as depression and generalized anxiety disorder.

Depression is not only more common in children with critical parents, but it is also harder to treat and easier to relapse once onset has occurred​9,10​.

Worse executive functions

Executive functions are functions of the prefrontal cortex, including impulse control, working memory, and attention shifting. They are associated with a child’s academic achievement and behavioral adjustment.

Negative parent-child interactions, such as exposure to criticism during childhood, are associated with weaker executive functions​11​.

Less motivation

Critical parents would always point out their children’s flaws and make them feel that they cannot do anything right. 

Unlike constructive criticism, harsh criticism triggers negative emotions in children and undermines their motivation​12​.

Negative self-image

Constant criticism on children conveys the message that they are not capable and are not accepted by their parents. The perception of rejection promotes either defense (defiant behavior) or withdrawal (negative self-image) in child​13​.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

Criticizing a child may seem like it will help them change, but it can actually have the opposite effect.

Teenagers who receive daily criticism for a specific behavior or attitude may start to view themselves that way​13​.

This is why criticism of children is often counterproductive.

Procrastination

While some children who grow up with critical parents become unmotivated, others strive for perfection and never feel like they measure up. 

Excessive concern over mistakes, self-doubt about abilities, rigorous self-evaluation standards, and a desire for order are all characteristics of perfectionism​14​.

Unhealthy perfectionism is a predictor of procrastinating behavior​15​ and obsessive behavior​16​.

Future relationships

Children with critical parents are less likely to have secure attachments to them.

Having an insecure attachment affects their views of themselves, others, and their relationships.

They may be unable to form healthy romantic relationships if their insecure attachment persists into adulthood​17​.

How to deal with a critical parent

If you are a child with critical parents, seek help from your school counselor, physician, or teacher. Also, check out How to Deal With Strict Parents as a Teenager.

If you are an adult, growing up with critical parents may leave you feeling insecure about yourself and your relationships with others.

Here are some steps you can take to achieve happiness.

Draw your line

There are different types of critical parents. 

Some are stubborn, controlling, and narcissistic. Some are critical out of a genuine desire to help you improve and they don’t realize how damaging it is.

Which type is your critical parent?

If your parent falls into the first category, it is unlikely you can change them. Decide whether you want to stay near them or keep a distance for your own sake.

Discuss and set boundaries

If you think your parent is open to change and if you want to keep your relationship with them, talk about your feelings with them.

To have a productive discussion, avoid getting into fights by using “I” statements instead of “you”.

For example, replace “Your criticism hurts me” with “I feel hurt when I am spoken to critically.”

Talk to your parents about how you’d like them to treat you going forward. 

Use “I” statements as much as you can.

Consider family therapy

Lifelong patterns of criticism are hard to break, despite your parents’ best efforts.

Consider seeking therapy and attending counseling sessions together.

An experienced therapist will moderate the discussion so that both you and your parents can discuss your feelings in a safe space.

Positive self-talk

A childhood of criticism means you have an inner critic who is constantly telling you what you are doing wrong. That inner voice needs to be changed.

Replace it with positive self-talk

Make a point of affirming yourself every day.

It doesn’t matter who told you or what they told you, you are a worthy human being. 

Let that sink in and replace the feelings of criticism with positive statements.

Develop a support network

Surround yourself with people who are supportive and nonjudgemental.

Relationships heal relationship wounds.

A healthy network of friends and family can not only be a source of comfort in times of need, but it can also heal relationship wounds​18​.

Accept imperfection

Don’t let fear of criticism stop you from trying new things or reaching higher goals.

Allow yourself to be imperfect. 

There is no such thing as perfection.

An unrealistic standard like that sets anyone up for failure.

Meditate

Meditation can help you catch your own critical voice or behavior.

Adult children who have become parents will especially benefit from this.

You may criticize your own child unknowingly because criticism feels natural to you in family life. 

With mindful practice, you can stop yourself from doing this in time.

Additionally, meditation can calm your nervous system, reducing your vulnerability to triggers​19​.

Recognize your triggers

You may be more sensitive to criticism because of early-life criticism.

As a result of continued parent criticism, any criticism, even minor ones, may become a trigger for anxiety or anger.

Take a deep breath whenever you feel that you are about to be triggered and be mindful of what can set you off​20​.

Medical treatment

Don’t forget to seek medical treatment if you have depressive or anxiety disorder symptoms.

Also See: Strict Parents

References

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About Pamela Li

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University).

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