The Effects of Criticism on Children

Constant criticism can make a child begin to believe that something is wrong with him. According to Psychology Today, parental criticism of children is an all-too-common problem 1. Like most adults, you can probably remember from a very early age the one grown up in your life who was always putting you down. You would cringe every time your parents said that Uncle Harry and Aunt Freda were coming for a visit because you knew they would carp nonstop about your weird hair do or your chubby cheeks. You might think that you are only teasing your child, but when a toddler or preschooler’s sense of self is beginning to blossom, criticizing can do permanent damage to his self-esteem.


A toddler’s sense of self-esteem has everything to do with the way you communicate with him. The development of healthy self-esteem is vital to happiness and success in life, according to the Child Development Institute 4. Young children look to their parents for every opinion they have of themselves. The truth is that your toddlers and preschoolers think that you know everything. That will change when they become teenagers, but for now, everything you say to them they believe. Therefore, if you say to your toddler enough times that he is a bad boy he will believe it. As he gets older, he will continue to see himself as bad, and he will start acting out in ways to reinforce that label. His self-esteem is wrapped up in that criticism, which decreases his ability to grow in healthy ways. For healthy self-esteem, the Child Development Institute recommends that you avoid any criticism which takes the form of ridicule and shame.


The term “self-image” is associated with preteens or teenagers who are worried about their appearance and body image. But your toddler or preschooler is developing his self-image, even at this early age. Try to remember the first time anyone said that your cheeks were chubby or you had a crooked smile. When you now look in the mirror, you may still see those chubby cheeks or you may catch yourself trying to make your smile straighter. Think about how those words have affected you. Psychologist Laurence C. Smith, Jr. PhD., suggests that a negative self-image is the result of repeated criticism from the important people in a child's life. The only way a child can thrive in our critical society is when a parent makes positive statements about a child’s behavior and performance, according to Dr. Smith.


Confidence is another area that can suffer from constant and inappropriate criticism. Dr. Gerard C. Bomse, PhD., suggests that parents who regularly criticize their children cause:

  • their children to lose their confidence,
  • the children may tend to hide
  • withdraw
  • or become shy in the face of new challenges

Your preschooler is all about learning new things and having new experiences. His desire to make you happy is strong, and if you criticize him for mistakes, he might be unwilling to try the activity again. This can have a huge impact on his confidence. If your words are constantly letting him know that he is incompetent or bad, he may decide that trying new things is not worth it.


Kids Health describes healthy self-esteem as feeling capable while also feeling loved. If the environment you are creating is highly critical, it is possible that your child will have a difficult time giving and receiving love. It may not seem like you are wounding his heart when you joke about his mistake, but little feelings are the easiest to hurt and sometimes the most difficult to repair. Your child looks to you for all the love you can give him, and criticism does not feel very loving 2.