Friday, August 21, 2009

Critical Parents | How Much is Too Much?

How much is too much criticism from your critical parent? How long do you keep on wishing things will change when things stay the same-- criticisms, judgment, and nit picking? How many second chances do you give your critical parent? What steps do you take deal with the critical parent? When do you draw the line and create boundaries? When do you separate yourself and when do you cut ties all together?

How to Deal with a Critical Parent

Understand that a parent who gives in to the desire and need to criticize a vulnerable child is on some level cruel, ignorant and completely unaware. Why else would they give in to the temptation to make their own children feel so badly about themselves? They either lack understanding as to what their words are doing, or they lack kindness. Either way, they are lacking. Every time they criticize you, tell yourself that this shows that they are the ones who are flawed, not you. Just remember that just because you're genetically linked (or adopted by) this person, doesn't give him / her the right to mistreat you.

How to address your critical parent can be a tricky proposition. People in general can become defensive, retreat, or run away. But when the person is your own parent, so many more dynamics come in to play. And although you may make the most honorable, loving, and concerted effort to keep the relationship afloat, your parent may not see things the same way you do. The following is a series of steps I took to approach my critical parents:

1. Do Nothing: For a long time, I did nothing. I thought that after time, the judgmental criticisms would go away when I proved myself to be worthy. I thought that after I exhibited my independence and showed how successful I was as a person, my parent would magically become this nicer, unconditionally loving, and careful parent. WRONG. Obviously, doing nothing won't change how your critical parent treats you. So if doing nothing is the option chosen, you'll have to accept that he / she is the one that is flawed and know that he / she will not change. I wasn't to that stage, as I kept blaming myself. Not until I started to understand that my parent was the flawed one did I start seeing the light and coming to terms with the relationship.

2. Communicate: I tried communicating my desire for an unconditional and loving relationship with my parent and expressed how I felt when I left from a visit-- dejected, empty, and sad. The result? My parent became more critical, more judgmental, and more dysfunctional.

Alice Miller encourages grown children to express anger and pain to their parents, not to punish or change, but to develop an authentic relationship. When you say no more, the word "no" is a word that never should be negotiated because the parent who chooses not to hear it is trying to control you. Declining to hear "no" is a signal that someone is either seeking to control or refusing to relinquish control.

So, if you opt to communicate your displeasure with your mistreatment, be firm with your stance and consistent with your reactions. Be honest and relate that the criticisms really hurt. Being honest like this is hard but if you want to have a relationship with your parent and not tolerate the abuse, speak your mind to try to improve the situation. Further, let the parent know that you no longer want to hear their criticisms and sharing them with you is no longer an option. And if your parent decides not to accept your feelings or your requests, realize that you own your feelings and that you have every right to feel the way you do and that every relationship has mutual respect. Be proud of yourself for standing up for yourself.

3. Set Boundaries: Setting boundaries was the next step. When I was a teenager, keeping involved in school activities and functions kept me from being at home and the recipient of the mistreatment. Once I was out on my own, I physically separated myself from my parents. For example, if you live next-door to your parents, consider moving to the other side of town. If you live in your parent's house, consider renting an apartment or buying your own home.

I also limited calls and visits. For example, if your mother asks you to call every day, politely explain that you are only able to call once a week. Or, if your father demands weekly visits, kindly explain that you are only able to visit one weekend a month. Along with limiting calls & visits, I set boundaries on the amount of time my parents spent at my home-- and dropping by unannounced was a big no-no. If violations of boundaries occur, let the parent know immediately and remind the parent of the boundaries.

In my case, the boundaries didn't help in regard to criticisms. The criticisms coming from my parent only accelerated as time progressed. Even if I only saw my parent three times a year, I left every single visit feeling terrible. My parent would completely crush me with snide or off-hand comments, cutting comments at opportune times, and make mountains out of mole hills leaving me completely baffled as to where this treatment was coming from.

4. Separate Yourself: Now I was forced to take the next step, which was to separate myself-- not a permanent estrangement or no-contact situation, but a time for reflection and review of the relationship. During this time, I politely turned-down invitations for get-togethers and avoided communications with the parent. My goal was that through keeping this space between myself and my parent, time may ease tensions and make appreciation for the other grow. My hope was that my parent would be more grateful to see me, softer with approach, and also realize errors in the way I was treated. Nope. Maybe things were a bit brighter upon the first visit after the separation, but the critical treatment quickly returned and at a greater intensity.

The single greatest power adult children have is the ability to GET AWAY. Simply talking aobut the source of danger does not make it go away. Saying, "I won't tolerate being treated this way" and failing to leave demonstrates lack of conviction and ambivalence.

Remember some parents have a need for perfection and tend to be judgmental by nature. They see the flaws, instead of the strengths, and in every human, if you look for flaws, you will find flaws. Such parents are wired to find the glass half empty, instead of half full. This has nothing to do with you, or who you are, or what you are worth as a person. Such people rarely, if ever, change. Let go of the belief that if you tried harder you would suddenly gain their approval. You won't.

The giver of criticism, rather than the receiver,
is usually the one who has a problem and needs to change.

5. Estrangement / No-Contact: So after decades of trying and progressive steps to try to 'create' a loving and compassionate parent, I decided to stop trying. First off, you can't change anyone... but YOURSELF. Second, life is too short. Acknowledging both of these points, I made a conscious effort to surround myself with loving, approving people. I broke off all contact with my critical parent and made sure that my life was filled with people who see the good in me and who aren't too afraid or too petty to give me the affirmation and positive feedback my soul deserves.

Sure I wish things were different. I would love to have a warm and loving relationship with my parents. Sure I wish I had parents that are accepting and supportive-- but that's not what I was given. And because I recognize and understand where my parents are coming from, I chose not to participate. I chose to be happy. I chose to have love in my life. I chose to have people in my life that see the GOOD in others.

If a person can't see the good in others, he / she is lacking
basic qualities needed for healthy human relationships.

I am presently estranged from both of my parents, but each relationship manifested itself completely differently. What was the drawing-line in one relationship was not the same drawing-line for the other. My Dad's relationship was progressively souring, whereas my mother's relationship was cyclical with a distinct blow-up suddenly initiating an estrangement. In other words, my Dad & my relationship was a slow decline leading to an estrangement, and my mother & my relationship went into an estrangement abruptly.

My Mother: the suddenly critical parent

My mother has Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), and we've been estranged off and on in 5 year cycles for most of my life. During 'good' times, her BPD symptoms consisted of inappropriate social behavior, bouts of depression, impulsive behaviors (shopaholic, over-eating, hording, self-medicating), and unstable patterns of social relationships. During the 1999 - 2004 period, her dysfunctional and critical behaviors were not aimed at me, and therefore, we floated along in a relationship.

Prior to our 2004 estrangement, my mother and I were getting along very well. We visited with each other at least two times a month, I was helping her to get her house organized & cleaned, and we talked on the phone often sharing life experiences. If my mother had remained stable as describe, I could tolerate the quirks and would maintain contact. I never thought I had an authentic relationship with her, however, as I had to walk on eggshells around her regarding my Dad, my childhood, and any discussions related to either.

My estrangement with my mother started mid-way through 2004 (Little Women) when she didn't agree with what my then fiance (now husband) and I were discussing in regard to our wedding. We didn't have any wedding plans; in fact, we hadn't even started doing any planning) In my opinion, the estrangement didn't occur because she blew up about the wedding-- the estrangement occurred because of:
If she simply had blown-up about the wedding and then let things cool down to where we could move on, the estrangement may not have happened AT THAT POINT. Now don't get me wrong-- the estrangement would have happened as it's happened about every 5 years. SOMETHING would have set off her fuse and caused a blow up to which she would over-react.

And therein lies the root of the Borderline's tragic personality-- what drives the Borderline's personality is their real or imagined fear of rejection and / or abandonment. Clearly her cycles of depression, manic, and psychotic phases of BPD are evident through her patterns of estranged relationships: myself, her father, her sister, my brother, her husbands (3), circles of friends discarded. So, with the wedding being an event where she perceived a potential abandonment, she flipped the situation to where she claims I rejected her... or as she puts it, I 'kicked' her 'out' of the wedding.

More specifically, Borderlines have such a fear of abandonment that they set-up a situation to be rejected. The BPD turns a Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde, seemingly out-of-the blue, around the time that they feel threatened by rejection or abandonment. Along with a huge blow-up that is irrational and not based on reality, the BPD starts a campaign of denigration to turn friends and family against her target of rage (me in this case).

Despite how nonsensical this sounds to you the reader, this behavior is part and parcel of the BPD personality. The BPD is essentially beating the target of rage (me) to the punch by starting a situation that ultimately must end in an estrangement, and in the process attempts to gather the target of rage's (my) friends and family as allies in order to confirm that it's not his / her fault. The Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde transformation accompanied by the campaign of denigration is usually too much for the target of rage (me) to handle; thus the target of rage (me) retreats; therefore, the BPD's fears of abandonment come to fruition by all fault of his /her own. The result is an estrangement with the BPD pleading she /he is the victim. The target of rage (me) who went from being idealized to devalued almost instantaneously, is left stunned and puzzled in regard to the Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde transformation.

Even in the absence of my wedding, another situation would have certainly presented itself where my mother would have flipped her lid, and the idealization of me would have instantaneously changed to devaluation. This pattern has presented itself in the 80's, 90's, and 2000's where my mother would flip her lid about petty or minuscule things ending with an estrangement. Her disagreement with my wedding wasn't the reason for the estrangement-- my mother's reaction to the disagreement that was the reason. Her reaction was one filled with anger, venom, hatred, manipulations, gossip, and lies, which all led to a complete loss of trust. During the Dr. Jekyll times, things were good. During Mr. Hyde times, estrangements occur. Thus, the cycle of BPD.

My Dad: the always critical parent

In contrast, my Dad is a completely different story. My Dad doesn't cycle through varying behavior, attitudes, or dispositions. He is always a selfish and a highly critical narcissist, who is getting worse as he is getting older and retired. He loves the blame game and guilt trips. He enjoys criticizing, nit-picking, and judging. He's a prolific gossip and loves manipulating those around him for his gain. He feels like the world revolves around him, loves being the center of attention, and demands a great deal of praise & admiration from others. He takes advantage of those around him and lacks empathy.

Whether not my last straw happened in December 2008 (Holidays Leading to Last Straw), our relationship had been on the downswing for years. In fact, when my husband & I had left from our Thanksgiving 2008 visit, I knew that I would not continue subjecting myself, husband, and now child to this toxic, dysfunctional, and very criticizing experience. Since the early 2000's, I have left visits with him feeling empty, dejected, and sad. No matter how I set my mind to having a positive experience prior to the gathering, it never failed-- I would leave feeling horrible.

Conclusion-- How to Handle the Critical Parent

No two parental situations are exactly the same, so what may work in one situation may not be the best in another. However, doing something to improve your situation is imperative when dealing with a critical parent. By simply being conscious of the effects of criticism, you'll actually begin to negate the effects. Bringing to the surface the impact of criticism can actually help it dissipate and lose the power it has in your life.

Steps to gain control include: doing nothing, communicating your feelings and expectations, setting boundaries, separating yourself from your parent, and estrangement / no-contact. Steps can be completely skipped or passed through quickly depending on the individual situation.

Most importantly, let go of the hope that your critical parent will ever change. Stop looking for approval from the parent. Understand why the parent is like this, but stop looking to them for approval and support you will probably never get. Having a critical parent is not your fault, and you can't make this critical parent into a kind and approving parent.


  1. I am so glad to have found this resource, as I grew up in a very similar situation with my mother. After suffering anxiety, I am finally working with a psychiatrist to understand the damage that my mother inflicted on me. It is comforting to know others have had the same pain. Thank you for sharing!

  2. My very best to you as you sort out your past and your emotions. Keep on working on sorting everything out and you WILL find peace & understanding.

    I have found great comfort and validation knowing others have gone through similar / same family situations as I have... and I am so pleased that you have found comfort in this blog.

    Do you exercise (walk, jog, bike, swim) at least 30 minutes a day? I have found that to be an excellent way of combating anxiety.

  3. Unfortunately, a child never stops wanting and desiring that warm parental relationship. I am 61 and my father is 89. Very much like your description of your father. Out of 61 years, maybe 3 were friendly. I do not visit often and as he ages, I know the day will come when there will be nothing to mend as time will have run out. The emptiness will be there forever. So sad for so many children.

  4. "Unfortunately, a child never stops wanting and desiring that warm parental relationship ... the emptiness will be there forever" ... so tragically sad. I pray you find peace and closure with your father. Thank you for stopping by-- all my best to you.

  5. My mother used to throw my stepfather out of her house before she died. She accused him of the kind of abuse her own father subjected her to when she was a child. His girlfriend eventually left him and changed her phone number and email address to avoid contact with him. My aunt no longer has anything to do with him.

    He dislikes my brothers and has become increasingly critical of me, destructively so. Having gotten fed up in my fifth decade justifying myself to my stepfather, I'm not motivated to justify my decision here either, except to say that I lack the patience to endure his continual, gratuitous, non-therapeutic criticism and contemptuous insults and no longer want anything to do with him. I was polite in my last phone call. My stepfather tediously discounts opinions (mine, not his) with the assertion that an opinion is "just an opinion." But judgments can can be more or less informed--I have no interest in arguing this case to my stepfather.

    After a being told that most of my projects were failures and that I had no ideas. I made the mistake of asserting that I did have ideas. "Really? What were they?" I mentioned one, but then realized this was a pointless exercise. I said that I did not wish to have these conversations any more, and said bye. I did not say that I would not speak with him again, but after years of provocation and despite my own attempts to stay in touch with my stepfather, it was clear the relationship is past the point of diminishing returns. He hung up without saying anything. It may be that my efforts to avoid treading on eggshells led him to escalate the provocations. He insists that words be used with precisely one meaning, and that no substitutions of synonymous words or phrases should be permitted during conversation, even if these add variety or meaning. But adherence to conversational protocols led to overt hostility. Tiresome.

    The solution in this case is to remove myself altogether. This may be easier for me than for those who have decided not to communicate with biological parents. I can easily imagine that my biological father would not have had anything to do with him.