When Parents Criticize: Unintended Consequences, Unintended Damage

Here’s an excerpt from upcoming book two in the Compass Series: Family Compass

There’s a difference between parental criticism and discipline. Discipline, done in a healthy, balanced and consistent manner, is about guidance for children to learn appropriate behavior and values as they also hopefully see their parents model appropriate behavior and values. Parental entitlement, (“Do as I say not as I do”) doesn’t cut it. Parents who bully their children may gain rapid compliance, but their children also learn to bully others to get what they want. Children are not only shaped but strengthened by appropriate, non-shaming discipline. Hopefully they grow up taking responsibility for their actions, and learn to respect others and lawful authority. In some cases an appropriate form of punishment is part of the correction, as long as the punishment fits the crime and does not involve shaming, humiliation or physical assault. Some parents have taken to shaming and humiliating their children on street corners or on social media then deny their behavior fits the definition of bullying. The parents may “win” in the short term, their children can sustain long-term damage.

A female client called me recently, overwhelmed with grief and sadness due to the latest round of invalidating, judging, criticizing and shaming from her elderly mother. As we began to trace the long circuit of involuntary guilt and shame she felt, she remembered an episode at age seven, when she was in second grade. She describe that memory as “the day Mom broke my heart.”

She recalled it was Christmas time, so the teacher asked the class to draw some symbols of the holidays. She eagerly grabbed her box of crayons and drew, freehand, a slender red candle, the base nestled in a sprig of bright green holly with clusters of crimson berries topped with a yellow flame. The teacher liked it so much that she held it up for the class to admire “Tina’s beautiful work” then turned to Tina and said, “Are you going to be an artist when you grow up?” Tina nodded, beaming with pride. She couldn’t wait to get home to show her mother.

She hopped off the school bus and ran all the way home, bursting into the kitchen where her mother stood at the sink. “Mom!! Look what I drew today!”  Her mother glanced at the drawing, said, “You didn’t draw that,” and turned back to the sink.

The tears turned to heart wrenching sobs as Tina repeated those four words:  “You didn’t draw that.”

I said, “How did you feel and what did you decide after that?”

“Stupid, unloved and ashamed,” she answered. “I never drew another picture again.”

The wounding

Tina’s psyche also internalized, consciously and subconsciously, the following damage:

  • Shock
  • Betrayal of trust
  • Rejection
  • A broken heart
  • “I’m not good enough to draw excellently.”
  • “What’s the use of trying?”
  • “It’s never good enough.”
  • “I’m not good enough.”

Gradually, as Tina’s self-confidence shrank and eventually shut down under her mother’s withering attacks, she adopted perfectionism as a defense against the shame. The more she tried to be perfect to protect herself from her mother’s criticism, judgment, rejection and shaming, the more anxious she felt, because perfectionism is an unreachable goal. Eventually, her anxiety deepened into despair and depression. She felt increasingly insecure, “betrayed by love” and her vulnerable childlike trust and safety was shattered. She stopped laughing and talking spontaneously, because it was no longer safe to do so. When Mom rejected Tina’s drawing, she reasoned at age seven, Mom rejected HER.

Practical Wisdom:

When a parent, teacher or other influential adult in a child’s life criticizes and/or judges a child’s creative expression, “That’s not how you draw a tree!” or their gift, “Dandelions are not flowers, they’re weeds!” the child receives that as shame and a rejection of his/her SELF. Shame disempowers. It damages the self and in a child’s evolving mind, (which is different on just about every level from an adult’s reasoning mind,) can leave children with a sense of feeling worthless, undeserving of love and bad, such that they find ways to deprive and punish themselves. It erodes the confidence that every child needs to grow into a self-reliant, emotionally sturdy teenager and adult. Shaming a child is not an appropriate not effective parenting technique nor a form of discipline. It is emotional abuse and the damage can last a lifetime.

Practical Strategy:

Never criticize a child’s creativity. No matter what their artistic endeavor looks like or how tired or stressed you are feeling, be thrilled with it, thank them for it, love them for it and proudly enshrine their creation on the nearest refrigerator door. Just as it’s considered rude to criticize or refuse a gift between adults, it’s an act of hurtful rejection to children who all crave parental approval (“Watch me! I can do a cartwheel!”) and will do anything to get it. Children who gain self-esteem and confidence through consistent parental validation, balanced discipline and unconditional love grow up to be secure, stable adults.