There’s something about a parent’s disapproval that’s instinctively repellent. It may even be bad for your health. A growing body of scientific work suggests that criticism from our loved ones can bring latent mental illnesses to the surface and make it harder for people to recover from depression, schizophrenia, and other crippling brain conditions. For parents struggling and confused about how to discipline difficult children, the implications are profound—and sometimes equally and profoundly frustrating.
The first evidence linking parental criticism to mental health conditions began in the 1950s in London. Sociologist George Brown was curious as to why schizophrenic patients very rarely return to society after long-term hospitalization. Patients who moved back home with a spouse or a parent fared worse than those who resided with strangers. They were more likely to start hearing voices again, to experience delusions or act out aggressively.
Brown set out to study the role of family relationships in recovery, and in so doing, a definite pattern emerged. Patients living with a critical, hostile, or overly involved parent or spouse did poorly. Those living with a more supportive family, or in a boarding house, did much better.
Other researchers followed up on Brown’s findings, eventually developing a standard measure. People are asked to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, their sensitivity to criticism from their spouse or closest relative. This number aligns remarkably well with a person’s mental health and overall well-being: For people with mental illness, a score of 6 or greater indicates a high risk of psychiatric relapse, whereas 2 or 3 is favorable for recovery, and…..the mere presence of a critical family member can spike a patient’s blood pressure.
One study showed that having a non-critical relative around helps people self-regulate. Researchers have seen similar results for people with depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, and substance abuse problems.
It was soon discovered that with Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI), clinicians and researchers could directly observe how the brain responds to parental criticism.
One researcher recruited people 20 to 30 years old with a history of depression who had been stable for at least six months prior. When the subjects heard those critical recordings of their mothers (for whatever reason, most of the studies involve maternal criticism), their brains snapped back into a depressive state:. The regions of the brain that process emotions went offline and activity increased. Interpreted results in this case, suggested a ‘fight-or-flight’ response. Neither the people with no history of depression nor depressive young people exposed to maternal praise had this reaction.
What is notably confounding is that even if a parent doesn’t intend to be critical, the brain hears, processes as such. People who are prone to mental illness have difficulty managing negative comments, almost as if these comments carry more weight in the brain. So, what we need to do is be mindful of the effects that even the most benign types of criticism can have, even though it may not seem that way to us.
For parents, the takeaway is that, of course, spanking is definitely out of the question. Also, linking the corporal punishment of children to aggressive, abusive, and even criminal behavior in adults, we’re not supposed to yell at our kid, either. Harsh verbal discipline (shouting, cursing, humiliating a child) is associated with an elevated risk of depression, aggression, and substance abuse, increasing a child’s likelihood of alcohol abuse more than tenfold. Even timeouts can be problematic.
Parental criticism is both inevitable and necessary—it’s vital to helping a child learn to navigate the world. The tricky thing is that criticism can be uniquely problematic for the very kids whose behavior seems to warrant it the most. In a 2016 survey of adolescents conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, researchers found that nearly 13 percent reported having at least one major depressive episode that year. An earlier study of more than 10,000 American children found that half had developed some kind of mood disorder, behavioral disorder, or addiction by age 18. Simply stated, a parent would be wise to dial back on the disapproval.
The salvation for adults who want to raise kids with limits, who aspire to be their children’s protectors and not smother or coddle them, may lie in the very latest science. Conditions such as depression, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder[ADD/ADHD] stem from our inability to properly manage thoughts, emotions, and behavior. These are learned abilities.
Recent studies suggest that the way children learn to self-regulate is through connection, empathy, physical touch, and simply being near their parents. This is where we adults can get smarter about discipline. By establishing a connection with a child at a moment of stress or conflict, we can actually stimulate development in the parts of the child’s brain that control emotional regulation.
This intervention might consist of a gentle hand or a loving hug after you separate your tantruming toddler from the sugary cereals in a grocery store aisle. With an angry teenager, it might be as simple (or challenging) as keeping your composure, refusing to lock horns, and expressing empathy while gently but firmly enforcing a family rule. Realize that we simply can’t control how a child will respond, but we can regulate our own behavior.
So that’s the choice, basically: Either scold and lecture and issue the usual timeouts, or take actions that reinforce your relationship and help your child pull it together—and then later, after things cool off, work with the child on a plan to manage their behavior. A tantruming toddler may agree to address frustration by finding a quiet corner, or hitting a pillow. With a teenager, maybe it’s negotiating the steps they can take to regain trust and earn back certain privileges. Teach and model developmentally appropriate coping strategies.
This can and probably will be a difficult process of trial and error. It will take time, and lots of patience on your part. You have become so used to a certain type of discipline and parenting, which is more likely learned from your own parents’ style. Or, you vowed to parent your child differently than your parents reared you. You will relapse, but if you’re committed to raising a resilient and capable adult, the science is increasingly more clear.
Be mindful of criticism, as a form of expressing disapproval or criticism aligned with discipline. Step back, gain your composure, count to ten or thirty if need be, and reinforce your relationship empathically. Once again, we can’t predict or control how a child will respond, but we can control our own behavior and responses. Parenting is ever evolving and we must also evolve as life long learners.