Family Dynamics & Hypercritical Behavior

Family dynamics refers to the idea that families are more than a group of individuals; there is an interplay between family members that creates its own set of shared goals, even as each member feels individually valued and permitted to pursue their dreams, according to Healthy 3. Family dynamics can be disturbed by external or internal factors, creating repercussions for individual family members. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines one of these internal factors, hypercritical behavior, as excessively critical behavior 4. When one or more family members engage in hypercritical behavior, this can negatively impact the family dynamic.

Pressures of Perfectionism

Sometimes hypercritical behavior comes from perfectionist urges, according to the 2013 Psychology Today article, “Pitfalls of Perfectionism.” When parents attempt to derive status or happiness from the success of their children, this can threaten a secure family dynamic because children feel intense pressure to perform 2. Children can translate pressure to achieve as criticism, feeling that parents perceive their achievements as insufficiently impressive. Unfortunately, children who feel pressured to be perfect might take fewer risks that could otherwise lead to greater achievement, creativity or innovation. When family members put pressure on one another to be “perfect,” this can lead to cycles of anxiety and depression.

Other Causes

Hypercritical behavior does not always relate to perfectionist urges, according to therapist Terry Hefter in the article, “Why Are Many Parents Overly Critical?” Some parents think that criticism and constant admonitions for children to perform “better” is part of being a good parent and demonstrating love or concern. In some families, hypercritical parents might truly be unkind people who struggle with self-image and insecurity. Negative remarks might cause fleeting feelings of satisfaction or increased self-esteem. In some unhealthy family dynamics, parents might direct criticism toward children because they cannot communicate their dissatisfaction with others toward the appropriate, adult targets 3.

Authoritarian Families

Family dynamics can have four general characteristics. Permissive parents are warm and loving, but struggle to enforce expectations and behavior. Uninvolved parents do not enforce behavior expectations or express warmth and love. Authoritative parents strike a positive balance between enforcing expectations and expressing love, but authoritarian families overemphasize the role of control and rule-enforcement, according to the Parenting Science article, “Authoritarian parenting: How does it affect the kids?” For some parents, hypercritical behavior might be used as a control mechanism to express their authority over children and maintain power hierarchies 1.

Criticism Effects

American Board of Professional Psychology member Laurence Smith describes criticism as a disease with multiple levels of negative effects. Excessive criticism plays a role in some divorce situations. As parents criticize one another, sometimes openly, children can feel polarized or guilty for continuing to have affectionate or loving feelings for one parent or the other. This can lead to parental rejection, so that the child must effectively choose sides. Parents who engage in cycles of self-criticism can model unhealthy patterns for children to follow. For example, parents might indulge during the fall and winter holiday seasons, and then make negative, self-deprecating remarks about their choices while making demanding New Year’s resolutions. This cycle can create anxiety and depression within the family dynamic.