To err is human — and it’s also human to receive criticism for our mistakes or the things that others perceive as missteps. Especially when you’re a parent. But whether you grew up in a household where nothing you did was ever good enough or you didn’t learn the true meaning of “constructive criticism” until your third boss, it can be particularly challenging to deal with overly-critical or judgmental people.
“Most of us are trying hard to do our best work and maintain a positive reputation as a capable, competent person, and criticism becomes the very sentiment we’re trying to avoid,” explains Ryan Howes, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California, and author of The Mental Health Journal for Men. You’ve done your best, why is it not good enough?”
Add in any insecurities, and criticism can really wreak havoc. “Most of us have a demanding self-critic, who knows our weaknesses but usually has some kindness,” says license psychologist Aaron Rochlen, PhD, professor in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. “So when someone super critical and challenging comes along, it’s like they give the self-critic a big shot of espresso. As a result, our defenses, anger, and anxiety increase.”
As a parent, it’s natural to strive to give your kids a better childhood than you had. And if there’s any indication we’re not achieving that goal, it can feel like we’ve failed. “You know what it was like to feel neglected, or micromanaged, or scrutinized. So you want more than anything to provide a different childhood for your kids,” Howes explains. “If someone says you’re doing it wrong, this strikes a deep chord. The critics may just be offering tips or advice from their own experience, but it can easily be heard as a condemnation of our job as a parent.”
It may be hard to see — and it may not offer much relief — but there’s a silver lining if you find it hard to cope with criticism. “Recognize that the hurt that comes with being criticized can be re-framed in terms of seeing how much you love and value being a father,” says Rochlen, who researches men, masculinity, and fathering. “If it hurts to be critiqued about fatherhood, it may show how much you care and want to do a good job.”
That said, there are also ways to learn how to handle criticism or deal with judgemental, overly critical people so that you can make the situation go as smoothly as possible and minimize any confrontation, hurt, or conflict.
1. Consider who’s doing the criticizing
Criticism comes from all angles. There’s your own parents, other parents at the playground, and parents who seem to have time to not only raise their kids perfectly but also troll social media and rip apart every other parent who doesn’t do things their way. So first consider who is criticizing you. If it’s someone you never have to deal with again, drop them, Rochlen says. If it’s online, delete the comment or post and block them, if you have to. If it’s someone you have to face regularly, you have to address the issue. But maybe not that second.
2. Give yourself a moment
Immediate confrontation is usually not the best to deal with someone and your raging emotions. If you can, take a time out. Let the other person know, “Right now I’m upset [or hurt] by what you said [or how you said it],” offers Rochlen. “I’m going to think about this and talk to you later.” This way you avoid attacking the critic and can both address what happened after you have time to process everything.
3. Don’t take it personally
Easier said than done, sure. But a few things may help you here. First, “not everyone spouts out criticism when viewing another person’s parenting style. Most ignore it, accept it, or bite their tongue,” Howes says. Knowing that the source of your distress is in the minority — and perhaps not going to win any “Person of the Year” awards anytime soon — can help you get past the hurt. Second, “they don’t know what life is like with your particular tool box and your child’s particular personality and needs,” Howes says. “Everyone has an opinion and is drawing from their own experience, which is much likely very different from yours.” There’s no “best” way to parent, which may help you mutter a simple “thanks” or smile and nod—and then get back to doing what you feel is best for your child.
Last, the critic’s experience may include things like getting reamed out by their manager or having a parent diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. And sometimes people project their own emotions onto others or want someone else to hurt just because they do. It doesn’t justify what they did to you, but if may help you brush it off.
4. Look past the anger
“We sometimes use anger as a defense to protect ourselves,” Rochlen says. If you find your blood starting to simmer, take a deep breath to cool off. Once you have a calmer head, step back and ask yourself if there’s anything in the criticism that might be true, Rochlen suggests. “If you are invested in becoming a better person, receiving criticisms is part of the deal,” he says.
5. Address how they said it
It may not be what they said but how they said it (or both) that bothers you. If you’re more upset by how they delivered the judgment, diffuse the situation by recognizing and clarifying to them how you felt by their delivery. Rochlen suggests something like, “I was hurt when you said I did a crappy job cleaning up after the birthday party. I felt like you were screaming at me, and screaming was not the best way for me to understand how you thought I could do that differently.” If the person you’re dealing with is your partner, you can also try the “team” approach and mention something like, “ I see ourselves as a team. When me as part of that team gets attacked and yelled at, I don’t feel like we are on the same team.” This can help prevent future screaming matches.
6. Disarm the critic
When facing a family member or spouse who’s being overly critical, words aren’t always necessary to help communicate to them that you don’t appreciate what they’re saying. Sometimes basic touch — such as a gentle hand on their arm — can go a long way to help calm them down, Rochlen says.
7. Pick up the phone
If the criticism comes via text or online from someone you know, de-escalate the conflict by giving them a call or meeting to talk, Rochlen suggests. “It’s a lot easier to hurt, bully, and insult when you’re not looking at someone’s eyes. The more you can humanize and personalize the conflict, the better the situation will be,” he says. And don’t try texting, since those messages can be misinterpreted due to the lack of body language.