Are You Unintentionally Critical of Your Teen?

Are You Unintentionally Critical of Your Teen?

If you’re the parent of a teen or tween, these days it might be harder to remember that kids respond better to praise than to criticism. In the face of post-pubescent children’s snarky comments and provocative behaviors, it may be challenging to rein in your own negative, knee-jerk reactions. After all, you may be generally more anxious now; with kids poised to begin their futures, the stakes seem higher. You also may be conscious of how little time you have left to influence their core values and teach them necessary skills to thrive after leaving home.

Keeping in mind their self-esteem and well-being, you’re probably not criticizing teens and tweens constantly or harshly. Yet, my clinical work has taught me that it’s not overt or even over-the-top disapproval that most often insidiously erodes teens’ confidence and initiative, but rather everyday comments and questions that parents may not even think of as critical. A recent The New York Times article, “Growing Up on Easy Street Has Its Own Dangers,” which described mounting evidence that a privileged upbringing predisposes young people to developing anxiety, depression, and substance abuse, reminded me of the subtleties of parental criticism.

Because scientists attribute the increased risk of mental health issues to the pressures of growing up in the shadow of highly successful, powerful parents (or, for kids from middle class families growing up in affluent areas, comparing themselves to their neighbors), their suggestion to parents is: Don’t be critical. But beyond refraining from violently berating or cruelly disparaging teens and tweens, what does this actually mean? Especially given kids’ sensitivities, how can you avoid unintentionally coming across as critical? How can you prevent teens from perceiving what you say and do as evidence you’re disappointed in them? These all-too-common parent-teen situations can be eye-opening, regardless of your financial resources.
What You Say

In my experience, teens and tweens often interpret the most common comments and questions as critical, regardless of how helpfully you intend them. Below each parental statement is a translation—that is, what kids actually hear when you say them. The common thread? Teens or tweens get the message that in your mind they’re falling short of your expectations, could be doing do better, or aren’t living up to their potential.

Parent: After seeing less than 90% on an exam: “Do you want me to take you in for extra help?” or “I’ll make an appointment with your tutor.”
Teen: “You expect me to be perfect”

Parent: “When I was your age, I never got less than an A.”
Teen: “I guess I’ll never be as smart or successful as you.”

Parent: “Your sister got along so well with this social studies teacher when she had him.”
Teen: “You think it’s my fault that he hates me.”

Parent: “Your brother always stayed in to study on Friday nights/rarely went to parties.”
Teen: “You think I’m a screw-up, and I’ll never get into as good a college as he did.”

Parent: “You did so much better first semester! Why are your grades slipping/Why aren’t you keeping your grades up?”
Teen: “You assume I’m slacking off, but the work’s gotten much harder after the review at the beginning of the year:”

Parent: “You’re wearing THAT?”
Teen: “You always think I look bad.”

Parent: “Your friend is such as good student/always looks so nice/is so polite.”
Teen: “…and I’m not.”

Parent: “Do you really want to eat that?”
Teen: “You obviously think I’m fat!”

Parent: “You have the potential to be a great basketball player.”
Teen: “If only, what? What am I not doing right?”

What You Do
It’s not only what you say directly to your teen or tween, but also how you treat others, that can convey critical thoughts. If you discourage kids from associating with young people who look unusual or have different sexual orientations, for example, they may think they have to conform to your exact standards—that is, look and act like everyone else in the family. The trouble is, during adolescence it’s normal and developmentally necessary for kids to try on different personas, clothing styles, and friendship groups to figure out who they are and where they fit in most comfortably. It’s painful for kids to think they can’t be authentic or show who they really are without making their parents unhappy.

If you’re still posting academic work on the fridge or bulletin board, or forwarding it to adoring grandparents, beware of focusing only on the 100% tests or A+ papers. Be equally proud of creativity and acknowledge mastery of challenging material (even—especially—if it isn’t perfect). These actions speak far more loudly than words about valuing effort and perseverance. Teens who feel they have to be perfect can’t take the intellectual risks necessary to fully explore their interests or express their ideas.

In many families where siblings have vastly different capabilities, parents often struggle with how to praise children equitably. Although it’s natural to make a special effort to recognize the achievements of kids who struggle with learning issues or developmental challenges, teens and tweens usually are aware of being held to different standards. What they’ll say is, “My parents get all excited if my brother does his homework, but they flip out if I get a B.” Or, “They try to downplay my successes and even hide my report cards so my sister doesn’t feel bad.” No matter how well teens may grasp the situation intellectually, emotionally they may feel resentful. It’s awfully hard to parent “fairly,” and these issues make such a goal all but impossible. But be cautious about building up one child’s self-confidence while tearing down another’s.
None of these parental examples, in and of themselves, are so terrible or harmful. But if over time teens and tweens perceive a critical subtext in what you say and do, they’ll come to feel that in your eyes they’re always lacking. Instead, convey that you’re pleased and impressed by kids’ efforts so they continue trying. Repeatedly reassure them that perfection isn’t the goal so they’ll feel empowered and hopeful. Regardless of how privileged teens are, those who are convinced their parents believe in them are less likely to become distraught, numb their pain with substances, or turn to other unhealthy behaviors.

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