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How to Silence the Parent's Inner Critic

By - 5th November 2012

by Warren Cann

Is your inner critic getting you down? You know: that little voice in the back of your head constantly telling you what a lousy parent you are.

Every parent has one. It’s a stream of thoughts making up an endless real-time commentary on what you are thinking and doing, continuously pointing out and cataloguing your deficiencies and weaknesses.

    You are not spending enough time with the kids
    You yell too much
    You are so angry!
    You are so impatient
    You are too focused on your work.
    You are unbelievably selfish.
    Your kids are going to be ruined.

The critic never has a shortage of material to work with. In addition to the self-criticism we are perfectly capable of drumming up for ourselves, there is plenty of good parenting advice out there that we have no hope of living up to as well. The critic gets to compare us to a culturally dominant, but completely unrealistic, image of what a good parent is - always patient, always responsive, always available, always playing with our children, always knowing what to say - never, ever having a bad-hair day.

And it’s always open-season on parents. The media literally thunders with parental criticism. Parents are more-or-less blamed for every childhood problem that has an impact on society. These are just a small sample of headlines from local newspapers:

    ‘Bad behaviour in school: it's parents who fail the test’
    ‘Teenage problems linked to parents’
    ‘Parents failing children’

When it comes to dads, we have negative fatherhood stereotypes on a continuous media loop: dad-who-works-too hard, deadbeat dad, abusive dad, dopey dad, and on and on.

Even complete strangers you meet in the street will offer unsolicited advice or commentary on your parenting: “That’s child abuse!” "Can't you see what he is doing?" "He just needs a good smack if you ask me!"

No topic related to parenting is out of bounds: like the stranger who peered into the pram one day when our twins were babies, and said, "Ohhhh, how beautiful. Natural or IVF?" (to which my wife replied, "Rude or stupid?”).

And often, sadly, there is no respite at home. Partners, family, friends and acquaintances often seem to believe that it’s their place to judge you. It may be well intentioned - but your attitude, your effort, and your competence can all be called into question at the drop of a hat. You are: “Too hard on him"; You are "Too soft on her". Should "You be spending so much time at work?" Have you thought of “What you are doing to your children?"

Criticism is rife in the life of most parents, and much of it, unbelievably, comes from other parents who know how damn hard parenting can be.

Whilst your inner critic is given plenty of ammunition by the world around you, truth be told, even if the onlookers don’t say anything when your little darling is doing a Blowfly on the supermarket floor, the internal critic will fill the void with much more damning criticism than the crowd could come up with.

Does the inner critic have any redeeming features? Mostly it’s going to be a nasty piece of work, but as strange as it may sound, hating the critic is not the answer. That voice in your head does play an important role, albeit in a rather crude and insensitive manner. It alerts us to aspects of our behaviour that are not working well either for our children or for ourselves, and it helps to motivate us to get up and try to do better each day. It’s what drives you to say sorry to your kids when you get it wrong, and makes you strive to be different, sometimes when you need to.

On the other hand, when the inner critic becomes hyperactive, dominant, and overwhelming, it can wear you down. It can sap your energy, destroying your belief in your ability to cope and overcome problems.

(And woe betide if you are a parent and a professional that works with children and families. Not only will you be vaguely and painfully aware of your parental inadequacies like everyone else, you will also be able to quote your failures chapter and verse.)

So what do you do if your inner critic is getting out of hand? First, you need to be able to recognise its voice and understand how it ‘thinks’. Simply being aware when it is the critic speaking can take out some of the sting.

Let’s look at the inner critic’s form and style.

The inner critic judges your performance in black and white terms - a misstep becomes a total failure; a mistake becomes a catastrophe. It is extremely demanding and bossy: “You should”, “You must”, “You ought”. It predicts doom and gloom in the future - “You will never make it”; “You will never be any good”; “Failure is inevitable”; “Your children will end up hating you”.

It has no sympathy. The inner critic never extends to you the benefit of the doubt for being tired, for having had a bad day, or for being human for that matter.

And it keeps score (but for only one side of the ledger). It adds up your deficiencies, building them one on the another into an enormous monument of failure. A pile of guilt.

When you do get something right, the inner critic is silent, or worse, it tries to bring you down - "Well, now, that was a fluke."; "That looked good, sure, but we both know you are a phoney”; “Don't kid yourself, you will be back to your normal dreadful self soon I am sure."

Half the time, the inner critic is hysterical. When you feel rising panic or helplessness, ask yourself what’s behind those feelings. Inevitably, you will find the critic hard at work telling you that it’s all so awful and you are so hopeless.

The inner critic is excellent at spotting problems, but it always gets the diagnosis wrong.
The critic will predictably tell you that the cause of the problem is that you are a bad or deficient person, and as a result, nothing can be done about it. When in reality, challenges and difficulties in parenting often arise from things outside of our control, and with regard to what is within our control, we are not doomed by deficiencies in our personality or character: things can always be changed for the better by making changes to the way we think and the way we behave.

Learning to recognise the inner critic’s voice is the first step. Then you can say to yourself, “Oh, that’s just my inner critic talking.” Rather than swallowing whole what the critic says, you now have choices.

Here are some ideas for what to do with what your inner critic tells you.


Learning to recognise the inner critic’s voice is the first step. Then you can say to yourself, “Oh, that’s just my inner critic talking.” Rather than swallowing whole what the critic says, you now have choices.

Here are some ideas for what to do with what your inner critic tells you. 


Take a different stance towards your inner critic

Damage is done when you automatically assume that the inner critic is right. At the very least, there are three possibilities to consider: the critic is right, partly right, or wrong.

Challenge the critic

Notice when your inner critic speaks in absolute terms (“never”, “should”, “always”). Ask yourself, how realistic is that? What is the evidence for that? Tell the critic when it is exaggerating the situation.

Drown-out the inner critic with constructive self talk

Sometimes it pays to deal with the inner critic by saying something you have prepared earlier. Develop a few lines that you can deploy when the internal critic is going off, like:

    ”I can cope with this situation: right now I need to concentrate on what I need to do first”
    “I made a mistake. Of course I will make mistakes. I’m not going to beat myself up about it. What can I learn from this, so that I can do better next time? If not, move on.”

...or refuse to argue with the critic

You could also choose to take a mindfulness approach. Instead of trying to put the critic back in its box, notice when it talks, but notice that its talking is really only a stream of thoughts. Observe that you are having thoughts, and move on, rather than picking out a thought and trying to tackle it or disprove it, or grovelling in it. You can refuse to go toe-to-toe with your inner critic simply by refusing to argue with it.

Practice self-compassion

Being kind to yourself and extending forgiveness to yourself for making mistakes is not self-indulgent, and doesn’t mean that you will stop trying. Loathing yourself or punishing yourself won’t help you improve and do better next time, it just drags you down further. Better to focus your energy on what can be done to set things right or prevent the problem occurring again in the future. It helps to remind yourself that whilst there might have been something wrong in what you did, that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you.

Be a friend to yourself

Have you noticed how much harder you tend to be on yourself than on your friends? Take the inner critic’s criticism and prognosis, and imagine one of your best friends is saying these things about himself. How would you respond? What would you say to your friend? Then apply the same medicine to yourself.

Implement the 80%/20% rule

I had a colleague who was an expert in parenting children with difficult behaviour. Every now and again, when she lost her cool with her own kids at home, she would remind herself of the 80%/20% rule. That is 80% trying hard to be the kind of parent she wanted to be, and a 20% allowance for being human, for making mistakes and getting it wrong. The rule reflects the reality that no matter how important something is, it's humanly impossible to be on your best game 100% of the time. You need to give yourself at least 20% leeway. (For me personally, I find the 80% criteria a little high - I’m more around the 70/30 mark.)

The more we care about something, the more power and leverage the inner critic has. Because we love our children so intensely, the inner critic gets to have a field day. On the one hand, if you have an active inner critic it’s a good sign that you are paying attention, and really wanting to do the best job at parenting you can. On the other hand, if the inner critic is getting on top of you, learning to recognise it and choosing to take a different stance towards what it says, is the first step to rebuilding your confidence.

Warren Cann is Chief Executive Officer of the Parenting Research Centre and co-founder of the Raising Children Network. He is a clinically trained psychologist with a 25 year career focussed on children and parenting. He blogs at Fathering Hacks.


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