How to Help Kids Deal With Criticism

Assisting children in after school programs

No one likes to be told that they did something wrong, but for kids with mental health or learning challenges, receiving criticism can feel particularly painful.

Michelle, an adult who was diagnosed withADHD at an early age, says she still remembers when her fourth-grade teacher told her that she wasn’t watering the classroom plants the right way. “I felt embarrassed and dumb,” she said. “I felt like I wanted to cry.” Michelle says she still struggles to receive criticism, even when she wants constructive feedback. “I still obsess over it,” she says. “I’ll just go in my head and be like, why did I do it that way?”

It’s not that criticism is a bad thing. Learning from mistakes, missteps, or misunderstandings is an important part of life. But for some kids, intense emotions can drown out what is actually being said.

Kids who are struggling with ADHD, anxiety, depression, or alearning disorder tend to fall into negative thinking patterns. For them, even the smallest mistake can translate to: “I’m not good at anything.” This makes them more sensitive to feedback. When even the mildest critique feels like a personal attack, kids might shut down or lash out.

While a parent can’t dispel these emotions entirely, you can help kids learn to recognize them and manage their response. This article will explore how parents can course-correct their kids’ behavior in positive ways, and also prepare them to receive criticism from others.

Build a positive framework 

The value of constructive criticism is to “build insight,” says Jerry Bubrick, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. “We’re wanting kids to take a step back and say, ‘Well, maybe I didn’t handle that so well, or maybe I could do that differently, or maybe I could change the way I’m doing this.’”

If kids are open to hearing what an adult has to say, they are more likely to follow through on it. So adults should consider how the criticism they deliver is being heard, observes Helene Omansky, LCSW, a licensed clinical social worker at the Child Mind Institute. She makes a distinction between criticism and feedback, which feel very different when you are on the receiving end of them. Criticism can feel like judgment, as in, “My teacher hates my essay.” But feedback can feel like support: “My teacher helped make my essay better.”

Dr. Bubrick says parents can help foster an open mind for feedback by offering comments within a “positive framework.”

A positive framework is not necessarily about changing what you say, but how you say it. Saying, “You’re not focusing on your homework,” for instance, is a negative framing that opens the door to conflict. This could be rephrased as a positive by saying something like, “I see that you have a good start on your homework. Just hang in there a bit more, and you’ll have the rest of the evening free.”

The 5:1 ratio

Part of building a positive framework means giving regular, positive feedback. It’s important to tell your child when they are doing something well — even if the task might seem routine or expected. Kids with ADHD, for example, often struggle with basic tasks, like cleaning their room or consistently finishing their homework. Giving them positive feedback when they do can soften the blow for criticism, later.

“It’s helpful to think about a ratio of five to one. So, for every one time you give criticism, there should be five different instances that you can name where you gave positive feedback,” says William Benson, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute.

Positive feedback helps build confidence. If a child has confidence in their abilities, they will feel more secure admitting that they do not understand something, or could do something better. This can be particularly important for kids with learning disorders, who might feel embarrassed that they struggle with things that others do not. Adiagnosis can help, but feeling comfortable with one’s challenges  can take time. “It’s almost like a stigma until they can start to integrate it into their daily functioning,” Omansky says. If kids are confident enough to see their LD as “just another part of themselves,” she says, “they have room to receive whatever the criticism may be.”

When a child reacts negatively to criticism

But sometimes, even the most well-intentioned criticism can bring about an intense response. Some kids might shut down. Some might get angry or blame others for their mistakes — in their eyes, a bad grade might automatically become an inescapable truth: “My teacher hates me.” 

Whatever the case, try to help the child identify the feelings behind the response. Encourage kids to talk about how they feel, even when it’s uncomfortable. But keep in mind that learning to process emotions can be, well, a process. When Michelle was asked to describe her reaction to her teacher’s criticism, she at first said that the feelings were so intense she could not name them. When pressed, she described feeling vulnerable, “embarrassed and dumb.” 

It might feel natural to dismiss these feelings — “you’re not dumb!” — and focus on resolving the issue. But it’s important to take time to listen and validate what a child is feeling.                

“As parents, we sometimes jump into problem-solving mode rather than just say, ‘Oh, it seems like you’re having a tough time with that,’” Omansky says. “Allow space for them to feel heard and understood versus jumping to something which might be felt as criticism rather than support.”

Giving kids space to unpack their feelings and asking questions might lead to a better understanding about what’s really bothering them. For example, a child with an undiagnosed learning disorder might avoid doing their homework and act out in school. It’s easy to make these behaviors the focus, the problem itself rather than a symptom of a larger one. Listening and asking questions can be helpful for both parents and kids, too, who might not even realize that their own actions are rooted in something as simple as, “I didn’t understand the assignment.”    

But as important as it is to encourage kids to talk about their feelings in response to criticism, there is also an appropriate time to do it. Instead of approaching a kid when their emotions might be raw — say, right after they failed a test — wait until the hurt or anger has settled. “As parents, we’re not supposed to discipline when we’re emotional,” Omansky says. “It’s the same concept.”

Learning to pump the brakes

Talking about feelings can be particularly helpful for kids with ADHD, who often struggle to regulate their emotions. Signals in an ADHD brain tend to bypass the stop-and-think sign in the prefrontal cortex, producing an impulsive, emotional response. Say, for example, a child yells, and blames someone else for their mistake. Parents can help kids manually “pump the brakes,” Dr. Benson says, by creating awareness around the feelings driving those behaviors. If a child can come to understand that, in the past, they have lashed out because they felt embarrassed or dumb, they can begin to address those feelings, not simply yell and point fingers.

Kids with ADHD or learning issues might also be extra sensitive to criticism because they tend to receive more negative feedback about their behavior. They might be used to hearing things like: “Pay attention,” “Stop talking,” “Stop fidgeting,” or “You’re not trying!” 

“Then other criticism is colored by that lens,” Dr. Benson says. “And it might be perfectly reasonable and constructive, but to a person who’s felt like they get these negative messages all the time, they’re hearing that the real message is, ‘I’m bad at this like I’m bad at everything else.’” 

Over time, learning to talk about emotions can help quiet these voices of self-doubt, and rein in outbursts. The child might not be able to respond perfectly calmly, but they might learn to take a deep breath or a mental timeout before they react.

Manage expectations

Kids are especially vulnerable to self-doubt when they are learning something new. Maybe a child just joined the swim team, and they lost a race. Even helpful critique from a coach — “It looks like you lost your footing on that flip turn” — might feel like an attack on their abilities as a swimmer. Like Michelle, they might get stuck on the idea that she did something the wrong way — “Why did I do it that way?” — instead of learning from the experience.

Dr. Bubrick says that such feelings of self-doubt can come from outsized expectations, and advises parents to help their kids set manageable goals to build confidence.

It’s not reasonable to expect to win every race, or ace every test. Better to focus on nailing a flip turn, or getting a B instead of an A. “It’s not lowering our standards, but making our expectations more attainable,” Dr. Bubrick says.

Criticism from teachers and coaches

Teachers and coaches are supposed to help kids learn and grow. If they didn’t offer feedback they would probably feel like they weren’t doing their jobs. Criticism is a necessary part of learning, but if you know your child is sensitive to criticism, you can help them anticipate it by describing what it might look like. Teachers will give grades and challenge you with tough questions. Coaches might yell to be heard; they might sound mean or rough.      

And, of course, adults aren’t perfect. They might get frustrated, and lose patience. They might have a bad day and say the wrong thing. Reassure kids that they shouldn’t take negative criticism too personally. It certainly doesn’t mean an adult doesn’t like you, doesn’t think you’re smart, or doesn’t want you on their team.

Criticism from peers

Criticism from peers can be trickier to navigate. Kids can be cruel to one another. They are still maturing, and learning that what they say can hurt someone else. But fostering an environment where kids feel comfortable talking about their feelings can prepare them to better get along with friends and classmates.

If a child can talk with a parent about how criticism made them feel, they will be better equipped to stand up for themselves with friends — crucially, Dr. Bubrick says, without being critical in return. “So instead of saying, ‘You were a jerk for saying it the way you said it,’ a child might be assertive enough to say something like, “’I didn’t like the way you talked to me yesterday.’”

Parents won’t always be there to help their kids, but they can encourage them to develop tools to help themselves. “Over time they might hear the voice of parents in their head,” Dr. Bubrick says. “They might be able to feel more nuanced feelings about the situation rather than just jumping from zero to one hundred.”

Molly Hagan

Molly Hagan is a freelance journalist and playwright in New York City. She is a staff writer for Current Biography … Read Bio

This article was last reviewed or updated on August 25, 2023.

Quick Read

No one enjoys being told that they did something wrong, but for kids with mental health or learning challenges, being criticized can feel especially painful. Even mild criticism can feel like a personal attack. Intense emotions can make it hard for them to hear what is actually being said and learn from their mistakes. Parents can help kids handle criticism better by creating a positive framework for feedback. For instance, offering five positive comments for every critical one can build a child’s confidence and make them more open to accepting criticism as a means of improvement. When kids react negatively to criticism, it’s essential for parents to create space for them to talk about their feelings. Listening and validating their emotions instead of immediately trying to solve the problem can lead to a better understanding of the underlying problem. A child who got a bad grade and declared, “The teacher hates me!” might come to see that they didn’t understand the assignment, and they were ashamed to admit it. For kids with ADHD, being impulsive can make it particularly challenging to manage powerful emotions. And a history of negative feedback about their behavior — “Pay attention!” “Stop talking!” “Stop fidgeting!” — can make even the most constructive criticism feel like they’re being told, “I’m bad at this like everything else!” Over time, learning to talk about emotions can help quiet these voices of self-doubt, and rein in outbursts. The child might not be able to respond perfectly calmly, but they might learn to take a deep breath or a mental timeout before they react. Parents can also prepare kids to deal with feedback they might get from teachers and coaches, who may be stressed or abrupt — or yell in the heat of a game — but whose goal is to help kids improve their skills. And when they get criticized by peers, it can help kids to talk about it with parents, to sort out their feelings, in order to stand up for themselves without resorting to being critical in return.

Table of Contents