How Our Inner Critical Parent Ruins Our Self Esteem

In today’s blog I am going to explore a concept that you may have heard of before but I’m going to offer an understandable explanation in more depth.

Critical parent is an attitude adopted by our parents in order to get us to behave in a certain way. This is useful to us as the child, it keeps us alive. An example of this is “Don’t cross the road like that! Its dangerous” sometimes however this can be used to excess or in a way that is manipulative and not to the benefit of the child. An example of this is when the critical parent says “don’t be so stupid!” when the child is having fun.

I am not taking a swipe at our parents here or trying to create an ideology that some parents are worse than others but I am saying that perhaps some of that Victorian ideology of what children are exists in us, our parents, and their parents, today.

What I mean by Victorian ideology is statements like “Children must be seen and not heard!” At school you would be caned for speaking out of turn, poor work or anything that the teacher found displeasing. This ideology was the norm in Victorian times and continued for many decades after. The closeness between parent and child was not encouraged. Winston Churchill once said “I could count the amount of times my mother hugged me.”

This attitude is still knocking around today in modern parenting as not a deliberate attitude but one that has existed in our recent ancestors for example our parents, our grandparents and great grandparents. I think the times and ideologies of society that our ancestors lived in, plays a part in the role of critical parent but it’s a behavioural role that has probably existed long before these ancestors. If you do just a little research about what it was like for a child 500 years ago in Tudor times the whole parenting process was aimed at conformity.

So what does the critical parent sound like?

Don’t talk to me like that!

Don’t be so ridiculous!

You ought to be ashamed of yourself!

I have always got to tell you!

You Never do as your told!


Phrases like this either make us rebel against what is being said to us (rebellious) or we lap it up and do as we are told (Adapted). Whilst I believe the critical parent can have a damaging effect to us all in the way of self-esteem, it is the adapted stance that I feel will suffer hardest.

The adapted sounds like this?

I can’t do it.

I ought to be able to do better.

Sorry I got it wrong.

Please can you help me?

Hopefully I will be able to do it.

You can hear the absence of confidence and self-esteem in every one of those statements. If we allow these statements to be the reaction to decision making or opportunities presented to us you can see why we might choose not to take any chances or believe that we may be able to succeed, as well as defining our mood on a day to day basis.

The statements I’ve used are just the tip of the ice berg there are so many variations and phrases that come with both the critical parent and adapted child personalities. My belief is you as the reader want quick snappy relevant information to keep you interested so I won’t list them all.

So how does, how we were (and likely still are) spoken to by our parents have an effect on us?

In the absence of the critical parent we fill that space with our recorded version of it. After all we lived with it for the first third of our lives, why would we know any other right? It is out of our own reluctance to change that where our parent’s critical voice is absent we fill it with our own adapted responses. I have often encountered people that are controlled by their recorded internal critical parent or adapted responses, there is no shame in this, believe you me I am one of these people.

The thing is our parent’s critical side is their attempt to shape us for the world as children whom may not best be able to do that for ourselves. As an adult however we can start to make these decisions for ourselves even though we maybe still guided by our critical parent. It is a difficult thing to weed out as it’s something we have lived with all our lives.

There are ways to identify if you respond with a predominant critical parent via an adapted child but some of these ways are harder than others. If you are fortunate enough to still have your parents here, having a conversation with them can help you identify how in ground your critical parent is. Go have a conversation with them and tell them you have done something you know they will disapprove of, you could tell them you have got a tattoo of a budgie on your bum if you think they would believe it. Make it real enough that the response is genuine enough. I just want your parent/s to respond to you critically.

That’s the first step, now the second step of this is to recognise how their criticism affected you how did you feel in the instant the critical message has been delivered. For me, I feel a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach and then I go into victim mode to the extent I put in an application for the mayor’s post at Victimsville!  I now identify this feeling as my trigger, when I am thinking of doing something and I get that feeling in the pit of my stomach I recognise my critical parent has entered my thinking. Now I am sure that I don’t speak for myself when I say there are times I still feel every bit of the 5 year old I once was even though I am now a fully grown adult.

Other ways of identifying the critical parent is to keep a thought diary, you will also have to do a bit of reading about to identify critical parent cues a few are ‘should’, ‘could’ ‘must’ and ‘don’t be silly’ to name a few. I have also listed some above.

Finally a more in depth way of working out our own internal critical parent is through counselling. Counselling can be a way to identify the many layers that we have become because of external factors within our lives.

It wasn’t until I recognised why I was responding to people whom even slightly reminded me what having a critical parent was for me. I recognised that my behaviours are adaptive and I lack self-esteem as a result of this. It wasn’t until I recognised my own response to people whom brought out this response in me that I was able to move on. You can’t change people and critical parent is among us and in us all, what I can change is my response to it. I learned this part of myself in an exploration process during counselling.

I now try to operate all my thinking through my adult state, phrases most associated with this part of my personality are focused on facts and common sense. My adult is most likely to generate phrases such as:

Why do you feel like that?

What do you think?

What is the best way to handle this?

Lets find out.

What options do we have?

These responses are more than likely going to spark the adult part of the personality of the person you are in communication with. This is where we want successful interactions to happen. Operating using facts instead of feelings reduces the risk of child responses and the feelings that come with that.

I strongly believe once we overcome our responses to having critical parent we can prosper in our lives moving forward. It was a painful journey for me, but one certainly worth doing and I wish the best of luck to anyone brave enough to do the same.

Thank you for taking the time to read this blog, I value any input you may have towards it positive or critical. If you found this useful and would like to read more of my blogs or would like to access counselling yourself visit my website






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