Judy Kuriansky, PhD, clinical psychologist, sex therapist and adjunct faculty, Columbia University Teachers College, New York City. She is the author of five books, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to a Healthy Relationship (Alpha). DrJudy.com
Your grown son tells you that you talk too much or that your views are foolish…your grown daughter says that your diet is terrible or that you’re too stingy with your money.
Ouch! After lavishing love and encouragement on your kids while they were growing up, it can be annoying and hurtful to have them turn around as adults and pick away at your own behaviors and, yes, imperfections.
In such circumstances, it’s tempting to try to make your children feel guilty (After all I’ve done for you, this is the thanks I get?)…or strike back with a verbal barrage of your own (Stingy, am I? Well, you’re just an overgrown brat with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement)…or withdraw into hurt silence. But those reactions won’t get you the respect or behavior change you want…and they could wind up doing serious damage to your peace of mind and/or your relationship.
So what should you do when an adult child gets overly critical? Clinical psychologist Judy Kuriansky, PhD, has some wise suggestions…
Honestly appraise whether the criticism is justified. Because your child knows you well, he may see traits in you that you have trouble recognizing in yourself. So when he criticizes you, instead of immediately dismissing his observation (and getting hurt, defensive or mad), consider whether there’s a worthwhile lesson—and even loving concern—behind his message. Maybe you really do talk too much, and your blabbering is alienating others…maybe he yearns to see you develop a deeper relationship with your grandchildren by listening to what they have to say.
Clue: The more a criticism seems to hit home, the more truth it probably carries. “It takes courage to acknowledge your own faults and failings, but you can grow from a warranted critique. The key is to acknowledge the kernel of validity in the complaint, consider it constructive and then adjust your own behavior accordingly,” Dr. Kuriansky said.
Watch out: If you find yourself focusing on the manner in which a criticism was delivered rather than on the content itself, you may subconsciously be trying to shield yourself from a painful truth. Consider whether your child’s comment was intentionally cruel, in which case you are well within your rights to object…or whether his words were merely clumsy, in which case you’d do well to focus on the underlying message itself rather than fixating on the specific words.
The apple doesn’t fall far: Also take a clear-eyed look at whether you have unwittingly set a poor example by constantly correcting your child’s behavior. “Did you always nag your daughter about cleaning her room and now point out her lax housekeeping, even though she’s overwhelmed with work and mothering? Did you often have harsh words about your son’s girlfriends and now you’re similarly displeased by his choice of wife? If so, you’ll need to mend your own critical ways before you can expect your offspring to mend theirs,” Dr. Kuriansky said.
If two or more of your children voice the same complaints about you: In this case, it’s even more likely that there is some truth to their observations—so it’s even more important to examine your own behavior, acknowledge responsibility and demonstrate willingness to change. But you can ask for love and support, too, to ease the hurt. “Since you’ll surely feel ganged up on, isolated, betrayed, deflated or even like a failure as a parent, ask your children to also point out what you do right and what they appreciate about you,” Dr. Kuriansky said.
Consider what’s happening in your child’s own life. If your child is being uncharacteristically unreasonable or unkind to you, chances are that something is going wrong for her. After all, people tend to take out their frustrations and tensions on their nearest and dearest—in a way they never would do with strangers or acquaintances—because they know that they will be loved (and tolerated) no matter what. So if you respond to your child’s criticism of you by flinging a barb back at her, you only add to her stress and increase the distance between you.
Better: Show empathy—“You seem to be irritated with me, but I am wondering if it’s really all about me or if you also might be upset about something else. Are you struggling with some problem, and is there anything I can do to help?” Your understanding might help your child face up to the real source of distress, Dr. Kuriansky said, and her appreciation for your empathy might soften her behavior toward you.
Voice that suggestion gently so it doesn’t seem like you’re just trying to shift blame. If your child still insists that you are the problem, admit your own failings and tactfully explore whether the trait she is criticizing in you is one that she also sees in herself. For instance, you can accept that it’s in your nature to be sloppy, tardy or indifferent to politics (and that perhaps you’ve set a bad example in that regard)…but if she dislikes that trait, it’s something that she may want to work to change in herself.
Acknowledge your vulnerabilities. As we get older, our family roles change. Where once you as the parent were powerful and in charge, now your child is on equal adult footing—or is even taking over certain responsibilities that you can no longer manage. It’s natural at this stage to feel less confident about your own abilities and more reliant on approval and help from others…which is one reason why a grown child’s criticism may feel increasingly hurtful. “If you’ve had a thin skin all your life, chances are you’ll become even more vulnerable to the slightest hint that you’re less than capable or adored for whatever you say or do,” said Dr. Kuriansky.
Practice self-disclosure: Being honest about your feelings and fears surrounding such changes can help your child better understand and accept the role reversals that come with advancing age. For instance, you might say, “I can see why you’re annoyed that I phone so often, and I understand that you consider it intrusive. I feel anxious about getting older and losing my independence. When I talk to you on the phone, I feel reassured. Can we set up a calling schedule that won’t seem intrusive to you but will still satisfy my need to feel connected?”
But: Don’t try to lay a guilt trip on your child. If you catch yourself using a whiny voice or asking rhetorical questions meant to convey blame or instill shame (What have I ever done to you?…or How can you talk to your mother/father that way?), chances are good that you’re playing the guilt card. And that never works. “Such statements, which come from a weak place that implies your own neediness or low self-esteem, are likely to incur more irritation,” Dr. Kuriansky cautioned.
Do expect respect. None of this is to say that it’s OK for your adult child to be disrespectful or to purposely shame, ridicule, embarrass or humiliate you. Don’t just withdraw into hurt silence—find the courage to speak up for yourself! Calmly say how you feel about what’s being said and how you’d like to explore what it means. Be particularly firm if criticisms are being slung about in public. Declare firmly, “I will not stand for being treated that way in public. This is a conversation we can have in private.”
Likewise, if criticisms are delivered rudely (even in private), set some ground rules—“Please do not take that tone with me. I will be better able to hear your suggestions if they are delivered in an appropriately respectful manner.”
If critiques are harsh, degrading and frequent, it is advisable to arrange family counseling sessions that include both you and your grown child, Dr. Kuriansky said. If your child won’t go, see the counselor on your own. A therapist experienced in working with families can help you figure out how to handle the situation if the verbal battering continues—and whether to set limits on contact with your grown child until you have received a promise that you’ll be treated with due respect in the future.
If your partner is adding to the conflict: Sometimes a spouse acts as an enabler or a confederate when a grown child treats the other parent disrespectfully. This escalates the conflict and imposes additional obstacles for the parent who is trying to establish a more respectful and fruitful relationship with the child.
If that is your situation, you need to have a private conversation with your partner. Explain that his or her participation in your child’s critical campaign against you feels abusive…sets a bad example of how partners should treat each other…and undermines your ability to resolve the problem one-on-one with the child, Dr. Kuriansky suggested. Then request that you and your partner deal separately with whatever dissatisfactions and resentments exist between the two of you. Agree to speak more openly and constructively together about the problems in the marriage—and also to express more mutual appreciation. If this approach doesn’t resolve the situation, seek couples counseling.