As a psychotherapist, One of the most common complaints I hear from my tween and teen clients is that their parents always focus on what they are doing wrong and never recognize all they do right. As a mom, I have even heard this from my own kids. While in some rare cases parents really can be too critical of their adolescents, far more often one of two things are happening, and often it’s actually both.
One of the primary things driving kids’ beliefs that parents only see what they do wrong stems from our desire to help them. That desire translates into a never-ending flow of constructive criticism.
As parents, we often think part of our responsibility is to help our kids develop into their best selves. Often, that can sound like a list of what they have done wrong. “Your room needs to be cleaner,” “You should spend more time on your homework,” “You should have…” It sounds even worse in list form!
Criticism, even when it is constructive, can wear down our self-esteem
It doesn’t mean we are wrong for pointing it out.
These comments are sometimes necessary but possibly less often. I recommend to clients’ parents to try and be more mindful of how they word their “suggestions” and the tone of voice they use. The same comment said in frustration is heard differently when said in a gentle manner or with a joke.
I also encourage us all to be mindful of the ratio of these constructive criticisms to verbalized praise. I am actually pretty aware of how many awesome things my kids do and when they improve. That awareness doesn’t always translate into communication. It turns out my kids can’t read my mind and see all the warm thoughts I have about them during the day. Moreover, I hate to admit it, but when I am exhausted and rushed, I am far more likely to put words to my complaints than to my compliments. I have heard similar reports from the parents I work with.
I try to make sure my compliments and appreciative comments outweigh my suggestions and corrections by a ratio of 2:1. Not that I have the brain space to actually count them out. I just hope that keeping the ratio in mind gets me closer.
What is mental filtering?
That leads me to the second thing we as parents do that reinforces our kid’s beliefs that we only see the negative. Whether or not we actually express more criticism than praise, teens and tweens are particularly susceptible to a distorted way of thinking referred to as mental filtering.
Mental filtering is when we hear people’s negative comments and filter out all the positive ones. We truly believe the positive comments were never said! When I suspect clients are falling victim to this distortion, I often have them keep a written list of compliments they get.
The results can be shocking.
For that reason, I encourage us all to put the positives in writing. My dad taught me the power of leaving notes. I loved getting them when I was a teen. Given my kids’ preference for their phones, I often text. If I am at work, or they are out, and a nice thought comes to mind, I put it in writing to them.
I confess, there is some small part of me that hopes by sending these texts, I will have proof to refer to on the likely day in the future when they complain that I always criticize them. But that’s not my primary motivation.
Everyone always talks about how tweens and teens don’t listen when they are asked to do things. It feels like we’re constantly having to repeat ourselves to get things to sink in.
But it may not occur to us that our teens weren’t necessarily hearing the good things either.
It is understandable that many parents dismiss complaints of frequent criticism because they don’t intend to criticize, or because they know they also lavish teens with praise. Yet, whether teens’ perceptions are based in fact or distortion, the belief can be very detrimental to relationships with parents.
The teen years can be filled with a lot of stress, frustration and drama. But they have not yet developed the maturity and the tools they need to cope with it all. That’s why it is our job to understand what is driving their emotions and perceptions and to support them the best way we can. They may not always be grateful now, but if we invest the time in building them up and making sure that we’re doing what is necessary for them to hear us when we praise them and take it to heart, it will pay off in the future both in healthier teens and stronger relationships with them as they move into adulthood.
This is a contributed post by Alisa Crossfield. She is currently enjoying the roller-coaster ride of parenting a teenage son and teenage daughter. She is also a Clinical Psychologist practicing in Westport Connecticut. Her private practice focuses on adolescents and young adults with emotion dysregulation as well as parent consultation. Her professional and personal roles serve to inform each other. She shares these experiences in a personal blog entitled “Psychdiary” and a Psychology Today blog entitled “Emotionally Healthy Teens.” This article was previously published on Psychology Today
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