parental criticism

The Effects of Highly Critical Parents

Constant, harsh criticism from parents can have lingering adverse effects on children long after they’ve reached adulthood. A study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found that children who grew up with highly critical mothers had impaired brain activity in response to rewards and losses.

Children who experience regular parental criticism may feel losses more acutely and feel less excitement from successes, triggering a cycle of self-esteem and validation-seeking issues that continues in adulthood.

regular parental criticism

It’s important to acknowledge that children don’t react to criticism in the same way as adults. We might be able to laugh off our mistakes or view criticism as constructive and positive, children simply do not have the same perspective just yet. Instead, they internalize criticism and take it to heart. This can lead to long-lasting emotional wounds and negative belief systems that may lead children to depend on external validation or doubt their own abilities for decades to come.

A 2018 study found that children of critical parents face an increased risk of depression and anxiety in life, and may struggle with their adult relationships in the future.

If you’ve grown up with highly critical parents who compared you to others, only acknowledged or paid attention to failures, or projected regrets onto you, you may already be aware of the lasting effects this treatment has had on you. It’s well worth exploring those feelings and the resulting emotional damage in a safe setting with a qualified therapist who understands the influence critical parents can have on their children and the long-lasting consequences of their behavior.

Effects of Highly Critical Parents

Even though many parents who are critical of their children have their best interests at heart, it can be damaging. There are a few common signs that indicate that growing up with critical parents may have had some long-lasting effects on your well-being:

1. Self-doubt and low self-esteem

When you’ve experienced constant criticism as a child, you may be left with the impression that the things you think, feel, or do are “wrong” in some way. You may have a hard time trusting yourself or place too much trust in others. As a result, you may even doubt your own ability to rise to the occasion or tackle a new challenge, preferring to play it safe. After all, if you don’t try anything new, you can’t fail.

2. Perfectionism

Everyone makes mistakes, but when someone who has experienced a lot of criticism in their early lives makes a mistake, their sense of self-worth takes a nosedive. Any error starts to feel like a confirmation that you aren’t capable enough. You may become overly perfectionistic because you are afraid of making mistakes and revealing your perceived shortcomings to others. This perfectionism can have a severe impact on your life as every task (from crafting an email to choosing a Christmas present) can take much longer than it should as you try to avoid any missteps. You may even miss deadlines or struggle at work as a result.

3. Constant apologizing or defensiveness 

Have you ever apologized for apologizing too much? If your parents made you feel like you were constantly in the wrong, you may think that others see you in a negative light and apologize profusely, even if you haven’t done anything wrong. Children who grow up with overly critical parents constantly anticipate potential attacks, which may lead you to respond in a defensive way or “take things the wrong way” during social or work interactions.

4. Negative responses to positive interactions 

Children who grew up with parents who constantly provided mixed messages (e.g. showering you with affection one minute and then using harsh and critical language the next) may also grow up to suspect that friends and family dislike them, despite evidence to the contrary. Even when others show love and support, they are left questioning whether those feelings are genuine. They may also deflect compliments or neutralize any positive feedback directed at them.

5. Social anxiety or depression

Those feelings of mistrust can lead to a fear of judgment or criticism from others. People who experienced a lot of criticism in their early life may become worried about embarrassing themselves in public or at work and may avoid social interactions altogether. The voice of their critical parent becomes internalized and lead to negative self-talk and feelings of inadequacy, which can lead to low moods or depression. They may even criticize themselves for being depressed to begin with, and delay seeking help.

6. Strained relationships

We tend to model the behavior we experienced as children ourselves. If you grew up with critical parents, you may find yourself looking for faults in others and become overly critical and unforgiving of their flaws. Many people who grew up with critical parents will experience difficult relationships with others (including their siblings) as it becomes harder to trust others

 7. Need for approval

When someone doesn’t feel good enough they try to make up for their feelings of inadequacy by overworking or constantly seeking external validation and approval from others.

behaviors and thought patterns

Breaking the Cycle

Not every person who grew up with an overly critical parent will develop these patterns of behavior, and not every person who has these patterns of behavior grew up with a critical parent or parents. If, however, you recognize yourself in these patterns it’s worth self-analyzing how your upbringing may have contributed.

It’s also worth noting that these behaviors and thought patterns are not set in stone. With awareness and support, you can turn things around. Get in touch with Ammirati Counseling if you would like to explore your past in a helpful, therapeutic setting.

Individual therapy with one of our licensed and trusted counselors can help you break this cycle of criticism by helping you identify and change the thought patterns and behaviors that are causing you distress. 

Our experienced family therapists can also provide a safe space for you and your parent to discuss your feelings and work towards healing together

Don’t hesitate to reach out to Ammirati Counseling to ask and inquire about support services that you can receive to help with overcoming feelings of depression, loneliness, stress or anxiety.

Ammirati Counseling is a boutique counseling group practice offering specialized clinical care in Deerfield, Illinois. Teletherapy and in person services are offered to children, tweens, teens, young adults, adults and couples and family therapy.
Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor at Ammirati Counseling
Terri A. Ammirati, LCPC, has 25+ years of clinical experience. She is a Certified Gottman Therapist and presents Gottman's "The Art and Science of Love" couples workshop.

Terri specializes in empowering clients to strengthen their relationships. She works with all aspects of relational distress and provides solution-focused therapy.
Terri A. Ammirati