If you grew up with a parent who made you feel invalidated or unloved as a child, your pain is very real. In a supportive home, parents provide children with love, security and acceptance. Without having these basic needs met, some children grow up with low self-esteem, serious depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders.
There are biological reasons we feel so attached to our parents. That’s why it can be so distressing when those parent-child bonds are tested. Sadly, many children grow up in dysfunctional families without proper support.
“As a child, I remember being constantly criticized by my mother about my weight, how I wore my hair, and how I dressed. As I grew older, I would stress about spending time with my mother for fear of her constant criticism.”
Recognizing an overly critical parent is the first step to healing. A critical parent points out their children’s perceived flaws constantly. Their parenting style is antagonistic, negative, cruel, and harsh. They are never satisfied with their children’s achievements, even when others praise them. Love is offered conditionally. Affection is offered as leverage and withdrawn when the child is not being obedient.
Feeling hurt and rejected by a parent or parental figure is extremely difficult to live with, affecting all aspects of life. To maintain or work toward healthy self-esteem, many people cut ties with that parent. Avigail Lev, PsyD, a clinical psychologist based in San Francisco says, “Consider going no contact with a parent if your interactions with your parent are undermining your self-esteem, self-respect, choices, decisions, and/or relationships.”
More than one-quarter of young adults are or have been estranged from one or both parents, a finding that suggests a societal shift away from the traditional bonds of family. (thehill.com) Deciding to become estranged from a parent or family member may alleviate some of the instant emotional pain, but lingering feelings of self-doubt and guilt may persist.
If you are uncertain about cutting ties with a parent, Lev suggests doing a cost/benefit analysis of your relationship. See if your interactions are causing more harm in the long run or if the benefits outweigh the costs. (psychcentral.com) If you want to maintain your relationship and believe they can change, speak out and let them know their words hurt.
In my case, I never felt comfortable having that conversation even though I consciously knew my mother was excessively critical of me. Instead, I coped by emotionally detaching. Emotional detachment is a way to protect the mind and feelings from stressful people and situations, so as not to take things personally.
If you are unable to talk to or emotionally detach from a critical parent, you may need to distance yourself from them. You don’t have to move across the country but you can limit visits and your time on the phone. (1)
Distancing myself from my mother gave me time to think about our relationship and the impact she had throughout my life.
Distancing myself from my mother gave me time to think about our relationship and the impact she had throughout my life. I better understood my desperate need for positive reinforcement, my lack of social skills, and my persistent search for love. After years of therapy, I was able to acknowledge the harm she inflicted on my mental health. Psychologists call this childhood trauma. I also realize that what I went through made me stronger and more independent.
While it’s impossible to change your past circumstances, it’s never too late to put yourself first and set boundaries. Setting boundaries with a parent as an adult is essential. As we age and have our own children, a parental body parent may still feel they need have the right or obligation to criticize and make suggestions, even without solicitation.
Maintaining a relationship with a parent at any age is your choice. If you think a parent can change, let them know that you will no longer tolerate criticism, and if they persist you can and will walk away.
Only you can decide when you have had enough. Dissociation and distance can help reduce anxiety and feelings of unworthiness. However, these coping skills may not be enough. For some individuals, estrangement is the last resort when they have exhausted all other options.
If you are wrestling with a critical parent, consider seeing a therapist or family counselor. Family counseling, or family therapy, aims to address psychological, behavioral, and emotional issues.
The benefits of counseling vary from family to family but can include:
- developing healthy boundaries
- improving communication
- defining someone’s role within the family
- improving family dynamics and relationships
- providing strength and coping tools for family members
- addressing dysfunctional interactions
- improving the family’s problem-solving abilities