Study: Parental Criticism Shuts Children Down to Others’ Emotions

Parental criticism can negatively rewire a child's brain.Underlining the importance of staying positive, respectful, and empathetic while setting boundaries on our child’s behavior, this new study found that parental criticism can rewire how a child’s brain processes others’ emotions — and not in a good way.

No parent is perfect, and that includes me. Every once in awhile, I may come across as harsh to my children and need to restore our trust. I don’t know a parent who hasn’t had a slip-up a time or two. But overall, our parenting is warm and sensitive. For us, this study supports our efforts to continue on the attachment parenting journey.

Binghamton University has found that children of highly critical parents show less attention to all facial expressions, no matter the emotion behind them. The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, serves as a warning to parents who view criticism as a key component to their discipline style.

Related: The Heart of Gentle Parenting: Building Strong Parent-Child Relationships

“People have a tendency to avoid things that make them uncomfortable, anxious, or sad because such feelings are aversive,” said lead author Kiera James, a grad student at Binghamton University, in a press release. “We also know that children with a critical parent are more likely to use avoidant coping strategies when they are in distress than children without a critical parent.”

“One possible explanation is that the children with a critical parent avoid looking at any facial expressions of emotion,” she added. “This may help them avoid exposure to critical expressions, and, by extension, the aversive feelings they might associate with parental criticism. That said, it may also prevent them from seeing positive expressions from others.”

Researchers listened as parents shared about their child aged 7-11 for 5 minutes, later measuring them for levels of criticism. They also measured the brain activity of their child while the child viewed pictures of faces showing different emotions. The data showed that not only did children of highly critical parents give less attention to critical facial expressions, but also to all facial expressions.

Related: Your Angry Brain: 4 Tips to Better Anger Management

Not surprisingly, researchers found this concerning: “This behavior might affect their relationships with others and could be one reason why children exposed to high levels of criticism are at risk for things like depression and anxiety,” James said.

It should go without saying that a child’s learned lack of attention to others’ emotional cues could most certainly lead to difficulty not only with their parents and peers, but also future employers, partners, and their own children. It can be hard for parents to change the way they relate to their children, to move away from criticism and harsh discipline techniques because it requires that they rewire their own brain and the pathways that relieve their own stress during conflict.

My hope is that this study (and the follow-up that will watch brain activity in children, in real time, as they receive positive and negative comments from their parents) will help more parents who trend toward criticism to think twice about how they relate to their child.

Photo credit: all_about_people / Shutterstock

One thought on “Study: Parental Criticism Shuts Children Down to Others’ Emotions”

  1. A better understanding of children’s responses to parental criticism may provide insights into the ways that parental feedback can be modified to be more helpful to behaviour and development in youth.

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