1. Psychology

How to Deal With Critical Parents in Adulthood

For some people, maintaining a good, healthy relationship with their parents can be challenging, especially when the parents are quite critical.

In this article, we asked experts to share their insights on how to deal with critical parents in adulthood.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula

Ramani Durvasula
Clinical Psychologist, Author, Professor of Psychology

Communicate with your parents

This may be the hardest one of all. Talk to them. Don’t be accusatory but share with them your feelings and experience.

In some cases, they may just shut you down but it is also possible they will listen, and change their behavior. This is actually a good place to start because it may open the road to communication.

Set realistic expectations

Critical parents have often been critical for much of your life. And you have been trying to win them over for much of your life. It’s easy to keep going to them like the 5-year-old you once were – showing them the picture you made in art class, and then wondering why the tree was taller than the sun.

If you’re an adult you do not need to keep bringing them your report card, or pay stubs, or certificate you got at work – it’s set up, after years of this happening, they are not likely to turn around and say “good job”.

You just be your best self, and if your parents learn about it and congratulate you – then great, but going hat in hand will leave you disappointed.

Don’t personalize it

It’s easy to believe that it is you, not them. Unless it is useful feedback, criticism, especially from parents, does not always spur growth.

Your parents may have a range of reasons for being critical and this may be who they are – they may be the people who snipe at strangers, criticize other family members, and judge and shame other people – so it’s them. As a result, be judicious on how you share life news with them.

Set boundaries

If you have critical parents, they may not be the best sources of guidance or support at a time of challenge. If you want guidance or advice, it’s easier when it is not wrapped in a critical bow.

That means you having to enforce boundaries for yourself and don’t always be an open book with them. And if they come sniffing around about your life then be careful in your responses to avoid their usual stuff.

Dr. Carla Marie Manly

Carla Marie Manly

Clinical Psychologist | Author, Joy From Fear

In order to understand and accept why critical parents can be so triggering, it’s important to know that parents who are critical in adulthood were often critical and overbearing in childhood.

As a result, the adult interactions with parents can be super-charged by a long history of negative interactions. A few steps can be very helpful in addressing the current negativity as well as working to heal wounds from the past.

  • Journal about the criticism from your parents. Allow yourself to notice childhood patterns and current themes. The purpose is not to blame the parents but simply to know where and how the patterns arose.
  • Using your journaling work, think about how strong and resilient you have been throughout your life.
  • Journal about all of your good qualities, taking great care not to let the critical voice of your parent(s) step in.
  • The journaling work will allow you to feel more self-compassion and overall awareness. This awareness will increase your self-esteem and allow you to feel more empowered.
  • When you interact with a critical parent, step into the role of being an adult observer rather than the hurt, criticized adult child.
  • As a result of working on your self-awareness, you will slowly but surely become less triggered and reactive when interfacing with a critical parent.
  • Convey your message. When you feel ready—and if it feels appropriate—get into the habit of firmly and consistently telling the critical parent, “I feel hurt when you criticize me. I feel much better about our relationship when you are kind and respectful.”
    Although the critical parent might respond with criticism and negativity, simply do not engage. Repeat your message. In time, the critical parent generally will realize that the critical attitude is harmful and toxic.
  • A time-out can be helpful. If a parent does not begin to shift as a result of your new, stronger boundaries, feel free to take a time-out from the relationship until when (and if) the parent is able to treat you with respect.

Jennie Steinberg, LMFT, LPCC

Jennie Steinberg

Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist |
Owner, Through the Woods Therapy Center

Acknowledge the caring behind the criticism

Criticism from your parents feels terrible, but it’s often coming from a place of wanting to help you be happier. This might be misguided or grounded in the erroneous idea that what makes you happy and what makes your parents happy is the same thing.

Regardless, it can be helpful to meet your parents at their intention before asking for your needs to be met.

For example, you might say, “I know that you make suggestions about my love life because you want me to be happy and that it comes from a place of deep caring. But it hurts my feelings when you make constant digs about me being single.”

Consider cross-cultural factors

Many cultures have a deeply embedded belief that a parent’s job is to promote growth in their children, even their adult children, and that the best way to do this is through criticism. This can be particularly challenging for second-generation Americans whose parents immigrated from another country and were raised with very different norms than they were.

If you are from a culture where this is true, you are still allowed to set boundaries and ask for your needs to be met, but you may need to tread lightly when doing so.

Set boundaries

You are allowed to compassionately but firmly set boundaries and ask for what you need. Effective boundary setting starts with an ask, such as “Mom, please don’t make comments about my weight. It makes me feel bad.

If the ask falls on deaf ears, you may need to slowly turn up the volume on your request: “When you make comments about my weight, it makes me want to visit you less often. Other than these comments, I really love visiting you, and it breaks my heart that I’ve started dreading our time together.”

And, if necessary, “Mom, I love you, but I’ve asked you not to make comments about my weight. I’m going to leave right now because these comments really hurt me. This isn’t a punishment, it’s just my way of taking care of myself. I look forward to seeing you again soon.”

Proceed with caution when considering estrangement

There’s a difference between a strained relationship with a parent and an abusive one. If your parent is abusive, you should not feel guilty about removing them from your life. But if your parent is just a difficult person, think long and hard before cutting them out of your life completely.

Instead, identify the things about your relationship that are healthy, even if it’s just a passion for old movie musicals, and limit your engagement to those things.

Set boundaries around everything else. It’s also worth noting that this is likely to lead to a process of grieving the relationship you wish you could have with them, so give yourself some grace as you navigate this.

Emily Griffin, MA, LCPC

Emily Griffin

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, Clarity Through Counseling

Communicate your thoughts

If you feel your parents are being critical, it is important to tell them that you do not like the way that they are speaking to you.

First, point out that you understand that they are well-intentioned, then state that when they make a comment about you with the specific tone or word choice, that it makes you feel hurt, upset, incapable, etc.

Then you want to state your needs. This will either be “Please do not make comments about my parenting, career, financial situation, etc.” or “Please ask me if I want feedback before giving it.”

Communicating these needs takes consistency, and is not a one time only type of situation. We must set boundaries when we are feeling hurt by others, or they may never change.

We cannot assume that they know what they are doing is hurtful, because some people have no idea due to how they were raised.

Empathy

Sometimes, empathy can be used to understand why a parent may be overly critical. If someone grew up in a family or household where everything was criticized, or the child felt like they needed to be “perfect” to avoid abuse or criticism, they learned that criticism is “normal” within a family.

Most of the time this means that the person learned that “love” equates to criticism. Though this is not healthy, it happens more often than people think.

When we can have understanding and empathy as to why someone functions as they do, it can help us make it less personally.

Make concrete boundaries

If you have tried communicating your needs, and your parent has not respected that communication, it may be time for more concrete boundaries. You always want to state a boundary directly. For example, “If you make a critical comment about my dating life again, I am going to leave.”

And if we set a boundary, we must follow through. If we allow the criticism once we set the boundary, we are non-verbally showing them that their criticism is okay with us.

Use fact-based reasoning

If you are feeling hurt by your parents’ critical comments, it could be helpful to use a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approach to help take different perspectives.

When you are criticized often, you tend to start making that criticism your own view. We want to combat that negative self-talk with facts that we know are true.

For example, if your parents make comments about you not being successful, make a running list on your phone or a piece of paper of all the things you feel you are successful at.

This can be as small as doing the dishes every day, or as large as getting acknowledgment from your job about your work. This list can help redirect you when you notice you are self-criticizing.

Audrey Hope

Audrey Hope

Trauma Therapist | Relationship Expert

This is what I call a “soul wound.” the primal deep core wound that haunts us our whole lives until we heal it. This is because the truth of healing is “it is not what other people do to us that is the problem, but what we do to ourselves because of it.”

This means that what our mom or dad did to us with criticism, we now do to ourselves. Self-love and ending criticism is essential to all healing.

Understand them, just as you want them to understand you

Know they might never change and might always be stuck in who they are. Don’t expect them to change but instead armor yourself with self- love. Do not look for validation from them or anyone outside of you.

Stop all negative thinking about yourself and notice when you do it

Be on alert for it, and break the habit. Every person needs to be on their own team and support themselves. Be kind and gentle to yourself. And if you did something you don’t like- simply fix it.

Don’t punish yourself by beating yourself up with negative self- talk. Find the opposite thought that is positive. Cultivate taking care of yourself through positive thinking and care.

Related: How to Get Rid of Negative Thoughts?

Find the time to talk to your parents

Tell them you are healing and creating new boundaries for yourself. This means that if they are critical or hurtful in any way, you are not going to allow it. You will leave or hang up the phone but you won’t accept this behavior anymore.

Hold strong to these boundaries of self- love and self-care and train people to treat you well. Do not allow it.

Imagine that inner little child ( however old she is in your memory) and close your eyes and tell them you love them. Tell them that you appreciate the beauty of who they are and you won’t be critical to them anymore. This exercise is very powerful to heal the inner child that has been living inside of you no matter how old you are now.

It is never too late to set boundaries of self- love. Affirm, “I will no longer allow anyone to treat me badly… especially myself.”

Tracy Crossley

Tracy Crossley

Behavioral Relationship Expert

It starts with self-respect. Why does it matter? If you do not respect yourself, how is it that you can have others respect you?

Look at how you communicate with your parents

Do you look to them to rescue you? Many of us do unconsciously speak to our parents still looking for approval and answers. When you are still needing that it probably stems from them being very critical, to begin with.

When you want to break the chain, you not only need to become very aware of how you communicate and what you are trying to get, you then need to take that information and look at yourself for those answers.

When you look to yourself, you may not trust that you have answers or that you may not do things right, but you need to start trying to trust your choices. Many who were raised with critical parents have an inner critic which constantly second-guesses their choices. You may feel anxious about that but making a decision that works for you gives you freedom.

Respect yourself

Many who have critical parents do not understand how to respect themselves. Make sure your words and actions match. When your words and actions match, you learn to trust yourself.

Reflect on why do you say and do what you do. Is it for approval or is it because you really want to do something? If you do it from a place of desire and motivation for yourself, it will usually feel like freedom.

Although you may feel guilty at first, you have to keep moving forth through the feelings. It will allow you to not feel hung up on others, and at the same time, that freedom may lead to more generosity with boundaries. It is always about how you treat yourself, it is the only way to truly change.

Related: What Is Self Respect and Why Is It Important?

Karen R. Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed.

Karen R. Koenig, M.Ed., LCSW

Author | Psychotherapist

Children raised by critical parents received conditional love which makes them grow into adults who don’t love themselves unconditionally. This leads them to continue relying on their parents and other people for approval and to feel good about themselves.

Critical parents make their children feel undeserving and unworthy of love and they grow up with a feeling of default defectiveness. Adults who tolerate critical parents forget that they no longer need to do as their parents say because they’re no longer dependent on them.

Now that they’re independent, they are free to do what they want. What was adaptive as children are maladaptive as adults. The approach to dealing with critical parents in adulthood is as follows:

  • Develop your own strong sense of self by refraining from looking at your parents for praise or approval. Instead, focus on self-praise and pride for doing what is best for yourself.
  • Recognize that what your parents say comes out of their mouths and is, therefore, from their own imperfect minds, even if it has your name attached to it. Understand that your parents are providing an opinion that is no more valid than your own opinion.
  • Make it clear to your parents that you know they love you but you are not interested in hearing their comments unless you ask for them. Call them on their critical comments even though it makes you uncomfortable because that’s how you’ll build a strong, stable sense of self.

Elizabeth Brokamp, MA, EDM, LPC

elizabeth brokamp

Licensed Professional Counselor, Nova Terra Therapy

Adults can find themselves triggered by the hurtful comments of their critical parent and transported back in time to the role of a vulnerable child.

Recognize their purpose

Rather than absorbing the emotional blow of these verbal “zingers,” it can be helpful to recognize their purpose: they are designed to undercut, undermine, and unsettle adult children, all in an effort to restore the parent’s sense of power.

Identify the tactics they commonly use

Adult children do not have to play by these old rules, however. Instead, it’s important to see the criticisms as tactics, and take the additional step of labeling each “strategy.”

Some critical parents love to use “The Sibling Comparison” tactic, for example, which involves elevating one brother or sister with praise while putting another down.

Others use “The Parade of Passive-Aggressiveness,” in which they sneak in criticisms with “jokes” or seemingly off-hand barbs. There are many more of these destructive leveling strategies that critical parents employ, some of which are so subtle that only a family member may recognize them.

Armed with a checklist of the parent’s top five tactics, adult children can go into the interaction better psychologically prepared to see the criticisms for what they are, rather than taking them personally.

Related: 8 Signs Your Family Doesn’t Care About You & How to Deal with It

Set boundaries

Aided by their checklist, adult children can also set important boundaries around their visits. For example, after checking off three passive-aggressive comments by their critical parents, they may choose to take a break or leave the situation entirely.

Developing personal boundaries about how much negativity to absorb is self-protective and allows the adult child to exercise their personal power and control.

Mollie Birney, M.A.

Mollie Birney

Clinical Coach and Recovery Consultant

Despite what opinions critical parents may voice, we know we’ve crossed the line into responsible adulthood when we can give ourselves the freedom to be disobedient, and trust our own judgment.

Trusting ourselves and prioritizing our own judgment over their opinions is actually a profound testament to their parenting; it indicates that they helped us cultivate critical thinking and self-esteem.

Develop some intelligent compassion

Most criticism in parents is driven by anxiety, so when we respond to those criticisms, engaging with the content will likely only exacerbate the situation, but speaking to their anxiety can actually create some intimacy.

For example, I’m currently 33 weeks pregnant with my first child. My husband and I have been slow to put together the nursery because we’ve been juggling a variety of other work projects, and my mom has recently begun nagging me about it with increasing levels of concern.

Rather than hearing her concern as a judgment on my (pre-)parenting skills exploding with frustration at the content (“Mom why don’t you trust me to put together the nursery!”), I have to speak to her anxiety. “Mom it sounds like you’re really anxious we won’t get the room together in time, that sounds really stressful for you.

Paige Arnof-Fenn

Paige Arnof-Fenn

Founder & CEO, Mavens & Moguls

Try harder to see where the critical feedback is coming from

Even if it is tough to hear, there are elements of truth that need to be addressed so try to decouple the emotion and the message. Try to see it as constructive and that they want to see you succeed and are genuinely trying to help. How would you feel if that same comment came from someone you admire and respect like a mentor or professor?

Assume good intentions and do not take it personally.

I would give anything to hear my parents’ opinions and pushback today. I realize now they did the very best they could, there is no manual for tough love. Parents want the best for their kids.