The Critical Voice

Criticism – constructive criticism, specifically – is a useful tool to improve our skills, modify our behaviors for the better, and learn from our mistakes. The critical voice that some of us carry in our heads is a whole other kettle of fish.

As I read the mother-daughter relationship essays contributed here by so many fine writers, I note several recurring issues: the child’s desire for approval, the extent to which we carry our mothers’ voices and examples in our heads, the ways in which we choose to emulate them or, take a different path.

This leads me to consider criticism, and how it erodes our self-esteem when excessive. Where is the line between “constructive criticism” and constant criticism with its damaging effects? At what point does the critical voice of a parent take up residence in permanence? Man or woman, does this leave us wrestling the demons of insecurity all our lives?

Is Constant Criticism a Form of Abuse?

In a society where we have a tendency to “name that syndrome,” I hesitate to draw any conclusions around what is or isn’t “abusive.” I believe that context and individual responses are both factors in whether or not we could accurately term any behavior as abuse.

Yet I wonder about the ways in which some parents constantly criticize a child – this may occur overtly through the words used, or more subtly but no less effectively, through tone of voice, body language, or even the silent treatment. I think back on my mother’s use of all of these methods (and more), and it’s hard to conceive that constant criticism could accomplish anything except obliterating self-confidence, as well as kicking up a host of reactions that range from wanting to withdraw from the world altogether or to lash out in anger.

As for that much needed self-esteem in order to become a secure adult, how could it possibly take root in an environment in which nothing you do is ever “good enough?”

Specifically addressing issues between parents and children, Psychology Today suggests that a constant barrage of harsh judgment can become a highly destructive pattern in family dynamics. As this 2012 article states:

… In many families, parents and children have become locked in vicious cycles of unhealthy family interactions. Criticism and punishment lead to anger and defiance or secretiveness and withdrawal; this leads to more criticism then more defiance and withdrawal…

The article goes on to mention that these cycles escalate, and as they do, each party feels increasingly justified in their respective positions.

Criticism, Verbal Abuse, and Damaging Effects to Esteem

The author of the Psychology Today article, Dr. Kenneth Barish, PhD, Professor of Psychology at Cornell University, reminds us:

When frequent criticism persists, all other efforts to improve our family relationships are likely to fail… Children, when they are not angry and discouraged, want to do well. Your children want to earn your praise and approval, and they want you to be proud of them…

But what of the damage done when a parent is unable to listen, to observe, to recognize that their words and behaviors are destructive?

This 2009 article on the effects of constant criticism on children paints a picture of these harmful impacts, and sadly, to some of us, this won’t come as news.

… Harsh criticism can shake the very foundation of a child’s self esteem and make children feel like they are bad, worthless, and useless… If the child is not given support, he or she becomes an adult with low self-esteem… In adulthood, people suffering from low self esteem often hold themselves back from great opportunities because they just do not feel “good enough.”

“Not good enough.”

Oh, how those words resonate for many of us.

Cycles of Verbal Abuse: The Chicken or the Egg?

Of course, some of us are on the receiving end of verbal abuse from partners, which may mirror a dynamic in childhood, and in turn influences our behaviors toward our own children.

Or, we may unconsciously repeat a parent’s approach, in which case we could tangle ourselves up in which comes first, the chicken or the egg.

On the issue of verbal abuse inflicted by parents on their children, the article continues:

… verbal abuse often has more psychological impact and subsequent psychological damage than physical abuse. The sad part is that parents are not always aware that they are verbally abusive and that their criticism is not helping shape the child into a productive vibrant individual, but rather a shell of a person who is very insecure, very afraid of life, and afraid of doing something wrong…


The words I have cited describe my life up through my early 40s – with some periods that were better (more confident) than others. In part, those good periods were the result of putting distance between myself and my highly critical mother. I was able to achieve, and feel reasonably good about my accomplishments.

As for relationships, that’s another story, with my share that were dysfunctional (the result of the same lack of self-esteem), as I surely internalized the “not good enough” voice and made it my own.

I still struggle with feeling that any output is my “best work,” and that I am disappointing others (or myself). While I’m certainly not afraid of life, I live with pockets of fear in specific ways, and I force myself to push through in order to achieve what I set a mind to. And in the relationship realm, I like to think I’ve made significant progress.

The Value of Constructive Criticism

Naturally, as a parent, we do our children no favors if we laud their every move or expressed thought; I am not a believer in the “trophy for every child” approach. I am, however, firmly convinced that balance and delivery are crucial to providing constructive criticism to those we love.

Don’t we need constructive criticism in the workplace? Don’t we need it from those who know us best, when they genuinely see us behaving in ways that are harmful to ourselves? Doesn’t constructive criticism help to refocus or re-prioritize our efforts, encouraging us to reconsider our methods, and potentially become more successful at whatever we set our minds to?

If we’re offering constructive criticism to our children, we need to pick our moments wisely, choose our words well, keep our tone civil, and use simple techniques like presenting context, not to mention listening to what they have to say for themselves.

And listening isn’t so easy. It isn’t as simple as sitting next to a kid and keeping quiet for a few minutes. It’s attempting to step into their experience, their view point, and it’s holding off on “defending” ourselves as they (hopefully) can be encouraged to express what they’re really feeling, without fear of harsh judgment.

So how does this work if we need to punish a child? Can we, the adults, distinguish between constant criticism and disapproval, versus periodic and necessary correction of inappropriate behavior?

Well, that’s part of the challenge of parenting, now isn’t it. And when some of us are still working on repairing ourselves – parenting ourselves, if you will – the challenge is even harder. Yet perhaps, the experience of a verbally abusive, perpetually judgmental, or constantly criticizing parent can remind us what it feels like to be on the receiving end. Perhaps we can use that experience to do better.