Dealing with your parents — 28 February 2007
How to handle criticism from a parent

Whether you are a child or a baby boomer you are likely to be strongly impacted by criticism from your parents. Few comments smart more than parental disapproval, disrespect, put downs or discounts. Many people who have to contend with these behaviors are at a loss to combat their occurrence or extinguish the pain they inflict.

Parents are the primary source of every being’s self-definition and esteem. Children learn to value themselves as their parents value them. The survival need programs every individual to please the primary caregiver. One way of pleasing is accepting the adults description of the child’s nature and conduct. Being labeled as a ”bad boy” is frightening for a young child primarily because of survival danger and the helplessness about change.

As rebellious as adolescents may be, they still get impacted by their parents’ view of them and still “crave the rave”. Research by Dr. Irving D. Harris at the Institute for Juvenile Research found that 50% of teenagers studies reported being criticized by their parents as: disobedient, lazy, messy or selfish and that the more criticism they received the more likely they were to view themselves as being that way.

Even adults, whose parents are critical of them, keep yearning for the approval, positive feedback, pride and words of love throughout and sometimes beyond their parents’ life. Some adults hope to hear the craved words: “I love you” as late as their parent’s last breath.

Men and women at the juncture of great accomplishments such as: receiving degrees, getting promoted, or experiencing any milestone still yearn for their parents words of pride to wholly embrace their own achievements.

The absence of positive recognition is half as distressing as the presence of negative input. Being criticized destabilizes one’s security, autonomy, worth and wellbeing and compounds the fear about being unacceptable, faulty or less valued.

Some parents who criticize their children say that they do so to help the youngsters improve their lives. Some even believe that criticism is an effective guidance mode that provides incentives for improvement.

Other parents repeat what they know and what was modeled to them by their parents. Yet others justify their critical ways by ascribing to the notion that positive input will only inflate their children’s view of themselves and cause them to be arrogant and entitled. Still another segment of critical parents are unaware that they are critical and hurtful to their children and would deny that their words of shame represent their unexpressed negative view of themselves.

Whatever the cause of the consistent criticism, discounts and disapproval, the recipients of these behaviors deeply suffer. Young children do not have the capacity to understand that they are not the cause of this treatment and are the passive victims. Adolescents often rebel and may live up to the worst titles hurdled at them by their parents, such as: losers, worthless, stupid, promiscuous, headed to juvenile-hall. Adults who are told that they cannot succeed, make the wrong decisions, marry poorly and are bad parents struggle to hold on to their own view of themselves in these areas.

Even when the criticism is much milder, by definition it is still destructive, hurtful and debilitating. Parents, who find faults, discourage opportunities or frustrate their children’s goals, criticize their style of doing anything or just use a negative tone when asking why certain choices have been made, create feelings of doubt and defeat in their children.

What can adults do about their critical parents?

• Realize that the criticism is not intended to sabotage you. It is either erroneously seen as constructive or comes from the parent’s personal deficit.
• Understand that sometimes the disapproval originates from parental fear. A fearful parent cannot help but be discouraging about behaviors he/she sees as risky.
• Accept that the need to be affirmed and validated by a critical parent is unrealistic. Once you are an adult your physical and emotional survival no longer depends on your parents and thus their opinion of you need not be accepted as a fact.
• Balance your self-esteem by the approval, validation and support of your other loved ones, colleagues, friends and relatives.
• Understand that your yearning for acceptance and validation from your parent is instinctual and will be a lifelong quest. Allow yourself to grieve the loss of not having been blessed with an approving parent and “adopt” senior mentors who can supply for you the validation you deserve.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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