From our looks to our lifestyle choices, many of us know all too well what it’s like to be picked apart by our parents. So how should we react when the criticism still comes well into adulthood?
Trigger warning: this article contains a reference to eating disorders, which some readers might find upsetting.
Our parents may have seemed like the oracle of all life knowledge when we were really young. But once we grow up, and become convinced that we know what’s what, parental guidance can begin to feel more like actual criticism of how we live our lives.
Whether they pick away at your choice of job, relationship or your appearance, research has found that having highly critical parents can affect the child in question’s future relationships, as well as increasing their risk of suffering from anxiety and depression.
Interestingly, though, experts say that if a parent is critical of you, chances are it comes from a place of love. “Some parents find that criticism is a way to protect and preserve the safety of their child, even if their child doesn’t find it useful,” psychotherapist Dr Akua K. Boateng tells Stylist.
Unfortunately, if you encounter criticism from your parents as a child, this is likely to continue as a deep pattern in adulthood, according to Heather Garbutt, psychotherapist at The Counselling & Psychotherapy Centre in Swindon. “It’s about their way of being rather than anything to do with you,” she adds.
Margot, 26, has had issues with her mum pressuring and criticising parts of her appearance throughout her twenties. “When I went to graduate interviews and started my first job, my mum was worried I wouldn’t be taken seriously – so she’d pressure me to wear more make-up and dress older,” she tells Stylist.
“When I look back I probably looked ridiculous, but it’s just what was expected of my mum back in her day.” Although she was hurt, Margot feels that this behaviour likely comes from a place of envy within her mum. “While she was [and is] proud, I think she was jealous of me having better opportunities than her.”
Garbutt says that there can be a fine line between a parent feeling envy or resentment for their child’s lot in life, and the instinct to pick at their achievements or make negative comments about their life choices.
“Sometimes envy and jealousy can be motivations for criticism,” she says. “Where a child is living the life that a parent would’ve wished to have lived for themselves, has the opportunities available to them that the parent did not have, or is enjoying freedoms that the parent did not have, there can be bitter resentment – which may emerge as criticism.”
“Parents can have challenges with differentiating their own life experience from their child’s,” Dr Boateng adds.
“My mother has criticised my body my whole life,” Jenny, 48, tells Stylist. “On my daughter’s third birthday, she told one of my friends that she wished she had given me a nose job when I was 16. I know she loves me, but she is hypercritical of herself and – by extension – me.”
According to family counsellor Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari, these critical attitudes can be rooted in a parent’s own self-esteem, or even “a need to feel significant”.
Some issues of parental criticism come from cultural norms and traditions, and can be hard to break down or renegotiate. For instance, Rachel, 38, attributes much of her mother’s criticism of her to the Asian “tiger parenting” strategy, which favours strict values and sometimes authoritarian methods.
After facing academic and body image pressures as a child, Rachel has “continued to struggle with tough criticism” from her mum as an adult. “The way I look is judged harshly – it’s common for Chinese parents to comment on weight very openly,” she tells Stylist.
“For a couple of years, I was on antidepressants secretly, and I gained nearly two stone. Of course, that didn’t go unnoticed and my mother was incredibly harsh about my weight gain.”
Rachel went on to develop a binge and purge habit, and ended up having a serious mental breakdown in 2018 and seeking professional help. She says she has worked hard to make peace with her differences to her mum, but calls it a work in progress. “I’m no longer constantly seeking approval from [her], though,” she says.
Dr Ben-Ari advises that it’s common for women to receive this kind of criticism from their mothers, rather than their fathers. “A lot of this behaviour from mothers is unconscious and unintentional,” she says. “Generally speaking, mothers tend to have higher expectations of daughters (versus their sons), and they are twice as likely to be more critical towards them, according to research.”
But this isn’t always the case. Sarah, 50, describes her dad as “generous” and her “rock,” but says that he can also be domineering and controlling, criticising her opinions that differ from his, as well as her ability to carry out basic adult tasks, such as cooking or throwing a dinner party.
As a result, Sarah admits to putting “barriers up” and closing herself off from forming close relationships with men, as well as having difficulties with figures of authority or positions of power as a result – a common side effect of parental criticism, according to Garbutt.
Coping with critical parents
So if we’re experiencing this pattern of critical behaviour from our parents, how do we deal with this – and the impact it has on our mental health – as adults? The key is to find a way to see your parents separately from your relationship with them and the hurtful words. As people, not just sources of life knowledge.
The more distance you can establish from the emotions that the criticisms make you feel, the better. That way, it’ll be easier to work out where these comments might be coming from, and whether – ultimately – they matter to you and your values.
“I would suggest stepping back and forming your own centre of judgment about what is right and wrong,” Garbutt says. “See your parents as people rather than powerful entities,” she continues.
“See them as people from their time with their own insecurities and histories. See their words as a reflection of their fear, their need to control, their worry about what other people think.”
Dr Ben-Ari advises an alternative way of talking about any criticisms or confrontation would be to ask how they’d do things differently. “Instead of telling you what you do wrong, encourage them to tell you about what worked for them – while understanding that you’re a different person,” she says.
“If the relationship is very toxic, I recommend reaching out for therapy,” she adds. “You will have a safe space to make sense of things and have the tools to manage and grow the relationship with your parent.”
Like Garbutt says, this critical behaviour has more to do with your parents’ issues, experiences and – in some cases – shortcomings rather than your own. If you’ve encountered it as a child and adult, it may be something you have to deal with for life. So, how you handle it really matters.
Above all, it’s them, not you. Recite it to yourself like the timeless “it’s not me, it’s you” break up line – except you’re not breaking up with your parents necessarily, just from what they expect of you.
If you or anyone you know has struggled with an eating disorder contact Beat. Call the helpline on 0808 801 0677 or visit their website.
Image: Thanaporn Sae-Lee/ EyeEm/Getty