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Criticism and the teenage years

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, pho...

Learning through the angst

Even if you’ve been the perfect example of constructive criticism, even if your child has been demonstrating healthy and positive ways to give and receive criticism for years, the teenage years are different. Yes, they are. The pressure of adolescence -- from hormones to academic expectations -- changes so many parts of a child’s life. Ideas about improvement and feelings of judgment change right along with those body changes. As helpful and positive as you have been and are, it is time to revisit the issue of criticism from a decidedly teenage perspective.

Mom and teen daughter

Not quite children, not quite adults, adolescents are very much in-between stages. With body changes, social pressures and increased expectations and awareness come new uncertainties about one's place in the world. Even the most self-confident child and tween can experience bouts of self- doubt and worries about self-worth as a teenager -- and that can manifest itself in emotional instability. The most benign parental criticism of the color of socks can result in an emotional outburst the likes of which you haven't seen since toddler-hood. A teen's criticisms of parents and siblings can take on a tone of meanness and anger you had no idea your (once and still) sweet child had in him.

Back to basics

It's time to go back to basics in your communication with your child. Talk about your desire to be available to your child in this uncertain time -- and your need to discipline appropriately and to offer constructive criticism of certain behaviors and actions. You child is not an adult yet, and you still need to guide and parent him or her through these challenging teen years.

When you do need to criticize, emphasize the actions, not your child as a person, and remind your child that you are doing this from a foundation of love. In addition, the simple technique of wrapping a criticism in compliments can go a long way! For example, if your daughter's shirt is a little to grungy for your taste, you could say, "I love that skirt on you. That new belt would look great with it! It might need a different shirt, though, to show it off best."

Establish family guidelines and boundaries

Sometimes it may be appropriate to establish some boundaries and rules for the kind of criticisms that go back and forth when a teenager is in the home. For example, you can say you will not offer criticisms in front of friends, and won't make comments about clothing choices so long as some basic guidelines of coverage and decency are met. In return, your teenager can agree not to criticize his younger siblings for the games they like to play or the music they listen to. Giving teens just that little bit of autonomy and respect can help smooth the way when you do need to offer a criticism or two.

Focus on the positive

In this uncertain time in your teenager's life, be the solid, positive foundation they need. When you do need to criticize your teenager, try to maintain a positive spin. Emphasize that you know they can do whatever it is, and you'll be there to back them up. Notice when your teen is doing something positive and constructive and mention it! Be available to talk -- and listen -- when they need to, and even when they don't.

Criticism, both given and received, is a fact of life, and it doesn't stop during the teenage years -- even though it may get more challenging. Understanding that how criticism is given and received during the teenage years can help you continue to offer the kind of helpful improvement you intend as a parent.

Read more about parent-teen relationships

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