The Destructive Effects of Constructive Criticism

by Susan Stiffelman, MFT 

My mother insists on giving me what she calls constructive criticism. She thinks it’s her job to tell me everything I’m doing wrong. For instance, when my three-year old whines, my mother gives me dirty looks and later lectures me on how I need to be more strict. I am a single mother and wish she respected my choices and understood how hard I try to do right by my children, who are good kids.

It is difficult for parents to hold back when it comes to sharing with their grown children what they’ve learned from their own parenting trials and tribulations. What I find useful when anyone’s behavior is upsetting is to consider what might be fueling it. By looking at the underlying source of your mother’s concerns you may be in a better position to address them directly.

Many grandparents tell me that their “constructive criticism” stems from anxiety about their children or grandchildren. They worry that their adult son or daughter is in over their head, lacking the knowledge, patience, or commitment to “properly” address their childrens’ challenges and needs so they step in–uninvited. (By the way, we do this with our kids, spouses, and friends, too! I call it Crashing the Party.)

Anxiety can cause us to turn common problems into imagined futures that are troubled and bleak. For instance, if little Cathy tends to whine, Grandma may decide that she’ll never have friends because she can’t cope with not getting her way. By trying to convince her adult daughter or son to be more firm with their little girl, Grandma is attempting to deal with her own worries about Cathy’s future.

Of course, children who are whiners at three don’t usually end up living bleak and lonely lives. Still, the mind can tell all kinds of stories about what our children’s lives will be like based on their behavior today, and grandparents are not immune to this phenomena.

The fix? The next time your mother offers unsolicited advice about what to do when little Cathy starts whining, resist the urge to defend your approach. Instead, ask her to tell you what she’s afraid will happen if the behavior continues. By getting her fears out into the open you can more successfully–and compassionately–address them.

First, acknowledge what she has shared: “I understand you’re afraid that if we don’t scold Cathy for whining, she may end up friendless. I appreciate how much you love Cathy and how important it is to you that she know the joy of having good friends.”

Then make your request–as an adult! “Mom, I’m very glad you take an interest in your grandkids and want you to be a big part of our lives. You’ve helped me in so many ways. (Here, you may want to list two or three things you’ve learned about parenting from your mother.)

And when you let your worries run loose, it puts me in a position of trying to manage them. That’s too much pressure.

I have a request to make, and I hope you’ll honor it. You can tell me what you’re worried about with the kids, but then I want you to respect that I am hearing you and taking into account your concerns, even if I approach the situation in a way that you don’t agree with. Can we try that out?”

Be simple, direct, and to the point; avoid delivering a long list of complaints about the many times she has questioned your parenting decisions.

Of course, no matter how old we are, it’s easy to revert to feeling like a child when our parents criticize us. But this is part of the ongoing work of becoming an adult. Recognize the self-doubt or insecurity that gets triggered when your mother delivers unsolicited advice. Acknowledge the desire you have for her approval. Allow yourself to feel sad when she comes across as critical. These are complicated human emotions, and perfectly normal.

We never stop growing, and growing up. While it may be tempting to shout at your mother when she criticizes you or tie yourself up in knots as you try convince her that you’re being a good mom, neither is necessary. Identify the anxiety that may be fueling your mother’s constructive criticism, and acknowledge it directly–as an a adult. I promise you, the practice will come in handy. You may well need it when your own kids grow up and have children of their own!

We all need support to be the parents we want to be. Check out my Parenting Without Power Struggles Monthly Membership Program to learn how to apply the strategies I’ve developed over thirty years of working with children and parents to your real life challenges.

You can also join our Facebook page; I post ideas and tips nearly every day. Thank you for taking steps to learn and grow as a parent!