Parenting Teens: The Balance Between Praise and Criticism

Does your teenager ever complain that all you ever do is criticize his or her every move? Do you worry that perhaps your criticism is over the top? On the other hand, does it feel contrived to praise everything your teen does, the way you did when he or she was a toddler? Getting the balance between praise and criticism right when parenting teens can be difficult. Your teen might take your critical comments to heart while bristling against what they see as overdone assurance and praise. Read on for some tips on recognizing whether you’re too far in one direction, as well as how to praise and criticize your teen’s behaviors in a way that will help him or her learn from the experience.


The Problem of Too Much Praise

When your teen was two or three years old, you likely applauded every milestone and marked the occasions with a lot of praise. It felt amazing when your little one successfully navigated the toddler playscape at the park. When he or she started using the potty, you likely rewarded them with clapping, cheering, stickers, and maybe even chocolate. You praised them for using their words nicely rather than shrieking. All of that was age-appropriate and helped your small child feel motivated and good about him- or herself.

Now that you’re parenting teens, however, they do not need or want that constant validation. While it’s entirely appropriate and good to congratulate your teen for a job well done (a good grade on a tough exam, getting a driver’s license, etc.), your child is likely to find it uncomfortable if you’re lavishly praising every small achievement. Not only that, but heaping on the praise for things like doing chores or handing in their homework can make them feel as though they are doing something out of the ordinary. Further, it diminishes their pride when they accomplish something truly exceptional.


The Problem of Too Much Criticism

On the other hand, it’s easy to fall into the habit of frequently criticizing when parenting teens. His hair looks unkempt, her hemline is too high, getting a B in math isn’t very good, they really should not have missed that pass during the last game, and so on. You might see it as giving advice, but when you are making a lot of negative comments about your teenager’s appearance or behavior, it’s very likely that your adolescent would describe you as critical or mean.

Too much criticism or criticism that is unfair can begin to chip away at anyone’s self-esteem. It can make your teen feel down about him- or herself, and might even lead to anxiety or depression. If your teen thinks that he or she can’t do anything right, they might give up altogether. For example, if you are very critical of their grades, they might decide that if they can’t get an A in a class, they might as well not even try to pass.


How to Praise Your Teen Effectively

While people generally like to receive praise, it’s a little different when parenting teens. Your teen might begin to tune it out if it’s constant or generic. For example, saying “good job” for every accomplishment can dull the effectiveness of the praise and makes bigger achievements seem mundane. Similarly, being overly complimentary or insincere can make your teen feel bad about the accomplishment. For example, telling your very athletic teen that his or her A in physical education is amazing and shows a lot of dedication might be taken as sarcasm or might make your teen think that you don’t recognize the fact that they were MVP of the soccer team two years in a row.

The two main ways that you can praise your teen effectively is to be sincere and specific. Think about what you’re praising: Just as you wouldn’t praise a typical five-year-old for using the potty, you should not be praising a typical 16-year-old for doing his or her regular chores. Be sure that you are giving a compliment for something worth commenting on, not just for the sake of offering praise. Also, be specific. Saying “good job,” doesn’t really mean anything. Instead, say, “I know you were tired after such a long day, and it was really thoughtful of you to cook such a nice dinner when I got stuck in traffic.”


How to Criticize Your Teen Constructively

In the same respect, heaping on a lot of criticism for small matters will cause your teen to just tune it out and feel like he or she shouldn’t even bother trying to make you happy. It’s important to remember that teenagers often feel unfairly criticized at times; they do not have as much foresight as an adult and truly might not see ways that they could have handled certain situations differently. Criticism only works well when it’s balanced and fair.

It’s sometimes necessary to offer constructive criticism to help your teen see things from a different vantage point and so they can learn to act differently next time a particular situation comes up. Stay away from criticizing personal appearance. If you do need your teen to change into something more appropriate for a particular occasion, simply tell them, “When we go to a wedding, we need to dress a certain way. I know it might seem silly to you, but it would hurt the bride’s and groom’s feelings to see someone wearing a torn t-shirt.” Keep in mind that in many situations, people will give teens the benefit of the doubt when it comes to hairstyles and clothing.

Also, be sure that you are criticizing the behavior, not the teen him- or herself. Use “I” statements when possible, and stay away from “you always” or “you never” statements. For instance, say, “I was very worried and upset last night when you were an hour late and you didn’t answer your phone,” rather than, “You are so inconsiderate and you never think of anyone else’s feelings.” Give your teen the chance to make amends and move past the incident.


Find a Balance

When parenting teens, finding the balance between too much praise and too much criticism can be difficult. However, if you keep in mind your teen’s motivation and your desire to help him or her grow into a productive adult, you’ll be able to find ways to praise effectively and criticize constructively.