“How nice, you got all As on your report card, except one…why didn’t you get an A in that class too?”
“Why didn’t you…?”
“Why can’t you…?”
If you have heard these things, and others, you might be dealing with overly critical parents. Whether you are an adult, or still a teen or even a younger child, this can have a profound effect on your life.
Criticism isn’t always overt; sometimes is can be rather insidious and creep into a conversation unawares. If two-edged compliments are your parents’ style, if they insert negatives in the midst of a train of more positive sentences, and if you come away from the conversation feeling a bit down – your parents might be more critical than you realize. If, for example, you spend the day cleaning your house for a parental visit, and your mom finds the one piece of furniture you neglected to dust – and brings it to your attention while praising the rest of your work – she’s being overly critical. You might miss it in the heat of the moment, but it will likely linger.
The news media is full of stories of bullies, and how to counteract them, and how to deal with them, or even how to decide if you are being bullied or are in need of protection. No one seems to consider that parental bullying can have long-term consequences, as well as immediate ones.
Most kids want to please their parents, instinctively; most will try hard to do so and a little praise for an accomplishment is not considered harmful, although meaningless and constant praise for every miniscule achievement has been shown to be detrimental.
Some parents, however, nitpick on the smallest negative behavior or action and ignore the hard work or the awards for things in which a child may have succeeded. These parents often don’t see their behavior as negative, they simply believe they are being realistic and expect the child to view this as “teaching”. Yes, even as the teaching of adult children.
It can be difficult to deal with overly critical parents, and even harder to overcome their commentary; often these things are remembered for years, or even decades and they certainly can effect one’s personality and future endeavors.
Often, when parents are unaware, a simple conversation is best, in which the child can point out to the parents that their comments are hurtful. This won’t make change happen overnight, but it can be a start. More than likely, even the unaware parent has made negative commentary a habit, and habits take time to break.
Especially with adult children, parents can be even more resistant to changing. They still will insist that it’s for the child’s own good; they’ll continue trying to “parent” the child, even though the “child” may be in his 40s with a career and a family of his own. These parents simply don’t know when to let go, and the child may need to set some strong boundaries.
Boundaries can be conversational or even physical. The child can tell the parents that he will no longer discuss the “problem”, or that, if a negative comment comes into the conversation, he will end the phone call or simply leave. Sometimes boundaries need to be reinforced or repeated many times. Sometimes even that won’t work, and parents will continue to be critical; this can be a source of eventual estrangement if, as can certainly happen, a parent refuses to see his errors or to make an attempt to change.
Committing to breaking up a family over negative conversations can seem, to many, the ultimate in betrayal over such a small thing. However, years of putting a person down, decades even of constant negativity, can wear one out to the point of saying, “Enough.” It’s hard to cut ties with a parent, even one who has been denigrating you for so long, but it can also be liberating. You can start to work on “you” and build yourself back up to a more normal level of functioning.
You maybe hadn’t realized the toll the criticism was taking on you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Estrangement doesn’t necessarily mean forever, either; sometimes it’s needed to give everyone time to think, time to re-learn who they are and what they need from family.
Of course, a third choice is always viable: continue to listen to the criticism and negativity, but make a concerted effort to ignore it. You know who you are, and what you have accomplished and what you can do. Counseling may be helpful. You can always change your reactions, but you can’t change someone else’s actions.