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  • Lori K Walters

Breaking the Cycle of Criticism in your Family

None of us intends to be critical of our kids. We love them deeply and see their beauty at every turn. At the same time, I know that it’s easy to fall into this habit. Even though you swore you’d never talk to an innocent child like that. Even though you know how it damages their spirit. But it sneaks in. Derogatory words fly out of your mouth before you even see them coming… You’re filled with regret every time you see them in your rearview mirror. You wonder how this negativity became ingrained in your everyday communication patterns. ~ The Family Cycle of Criticism Some families have long patterns of criticism: name-calling, disparaging remarks, humiliation, outright contempt, emotional abuse, teasing, bullying and manipulation. Toddlers are berated for spilling their cereal and given hurtful nicknames. School kids hear things like, “Can’t you even wash the dishes properly?” or are never given the opportunity to go buy milk on their own. And teens? Teens receive a lot of criticism and, whether it’s direct disapproval or unspoken judgements, they feel it all. They’re dissed for being distracted, making mistakes, being lazy, having weird friends, struggling in school, being uncoordinated, foolish, inconsiderate, unmotivated, etc. Going back down the family line, there were probably parents who believed that pointing out their children’s mistakes would make them stronger and more likely to succeed out there in the world. There were probably tired, overwhelmed parents who needed their children to step up. There were probably parents desperately bent on having things done their way. There were probably frustrated parents who could see how much better things could be if only... All of these personality types can contribute to a habit of criticism in a family. How the habit gets carried into subsequent generations is complex. Research has shown that small children with critical parents often develop a habit of avoiding looking into their parents’ eyes as a way to decrease their exposure to the disapproval. While they adapt and learn to ignore the negativity, their ability to receive positive information and make positive social connections is undermined. Shutting out the harshness, they also shut out love and joy. Read that again: shut out love and joy. The wounds are deep and long-lasting and may lead to:

  • Being defensive. When children are regularly put down for their ideas and actions, they develop strategies for protecting themselves. They may withdraw into their own world, raise iron walls around themselves and tell themselves they don’t care. And it follows them into adulthood. Meg stiffens when her teenage son reminds her to slow down when she’s driving through the school zone. She instantaneously interprets this as direct criticism and feels a need to defend herself. She gets angry and turns on him.

  • An acute sense of inadequacy. When a child is chastised for making mistakes, their brain tells them to pull back to avoid screwing up any further. They gradually internalize the feedback and come to believe that they are not good at certain things or not good enough as a kid at all. As teens, they suffer from a lack of confidence that they can measure up to the social, school or work expectations. As adults, they might end up pointing out their kids’ shortcomings, as if failure and defectiveness are things everyone should feel.

  • Perfectionism. Constant criticism drives some children to strive harder and harder to get everything right. For example, Lara was yelled at a lot as a child and she became anxious and worked hard to stay under her parents' radar. Now, a sense of order is the only thing that calms her down. She yells at her teenagers for making a mess and being so uncaring. They think she’s a crazy b*tch.

Around it goes. Hot lava spewed out onto others because you’ve been scorched. A heavy weight passed along, as if it’s how it must be.


Let me be clear: not all kids who were raised by critical parents become critical parents. In fact, some of those kids avoid the pattern altogether and become permissive parents. Subconsciously, they don’t want their children to feel that awful pain and they don't want to cause a distance between them, so they withhold criticism. Sometimes they also withhold direction, clarity and support and, ironically, the lack of guidance can create a distance between them and their kids.

~ Breaking the Chain The good news is that we can learn about ourselves and evolve. We can choose to not pass habits on, not leave the work to our children and grandchildren, and to take a step toward healing. Here’s where we begin: 1 Self observation. Start by looking in your rearview mirror. In a situation when you’ve just been critical of your child, take a moment to notice what just happened. Check your three centers of intelligence – head, heart and gut. What thoughts were running through your mind? What emotions came up? What was happening in your body? Take note of this for a couple of weeks adn then ask yourself what patterns are emerging. What happens right before you criticize? 2 Catch yourself in the act. When you know the thoughts, feelings and sensations that accompany your impulse to criticize, you will start noticing them before you lash out. Create a little signal for yourself for those moments, something that says, “I’m stopping the criticism loop.” For example, if you tend to feel shaky in the moment before you criticize, you might rub your arms gently. If you tend to blurt, you might put your hand over your mouth. What would be your way of interrupting the old pattern and letting your body know that something different is going to happen? 3 Regain your composure. What is something simple you can do, right in the moment of the interaction with your kid, to recenter yourself? Close your eyes? Rub you fingertips? Breathe into you belly? Lower your shoulder blades? Give yourself the gift of a pause to come back into your self and into the here and now. 4 Reconnect to your intention. Decide how you want to practice being with your big kid in moments like this. And then devise a cue – a word or image that will bring that intention instantly to mind. Here are some examples:

  • I want to listen to what he actually says without jumping to conclusions or making my own meaning out of it. Cue: curious.

  • I trust that they already know they made a mistake and I don’t need to say anything. Cue: hold my lips together.

  • I choose to notice what’s going well, recognize their effort and offer encouragement. Cue: thumbs up.

  • I am practicing making my comments specific and useful. Cue: imagine handing him a tool.

  • I am lowering my expectations because they are too high and causing my daughter stress. Cue: smile and wiggle a tiny bit.


Being a young adult means trying different things, making mistakes, navigating relationships, withstanding social pressures, managing a complete change in body chemistry, trying to be independent and still needing guidance, figuring out a career path and more, all with a partially developed brain. It’s a LOT. May we stand beside them as they screw up and find their way. And may we give ourselves grace for finding our own way through the childhood wounds we carry with us in our heart, minds, muscles and bones. We don’t have to end up how we were brought up. Breaking the cycle asks us to turn toward the wound, not to cut it wide open again, but to look at it with tenderness and curiosity and gently massage around it until it comes to peace.

With you on the journey, Lori

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