How often do you find yourself giving your child a compliment in preparation for a criticism?
“I love that enthusiasm, but please keep your voice down.”
“Thank you for clearing the table, but next time do it the first time I ask.”
Beloved family therapist Dr. Sal Minuchin referred to this as “a stroke and a kick”. While this framework is often a recommended way to make feedback more tolerable, it can unfortunately also teach children to expect or anticipate a critique when given praise.
In my practice, I’ve seen children increasingly become anxious when given a compliment. I’ve also seen them shake their heads “no” when told of their strengths. This has some serious implications for their developing self-esteems.
Therefore, I invite you to consider the following strategies to adopt:
Remove the “but” that connects praise with corrections.
This may be a subtle but emotionally valuable adjustment. You may even substitute an “and” for the “but.” This way, we teach children that complex truths can coexist rather than diminish or negate the praise that was given.
Give empathy instead of praise.
This is perhaps the most important strategy to consider. Empathy lets you show your child that you understand how they feel or appreciate what they may be experiencing before the behavioral correction.
“I see you having so much fun. And I bet it’ll be disappointing to hear that it’s time to wrap up.”
Not only is this strategy often much more effective to assist with modifying behaviors, but it also enhances socioemotional skills and strengthens connection. If you’d like to read and learn more about this concept, I highly recommend the book, The Whole Brain Child by Drs. Tina Bryson and Daniel Siegel.
The next time you need to give your child some potentially undesirable or corrective feedback, try imagining the situation from their perspective before offering your perspective. And don’t forget to keep up the praise. Just remember to put a period at the end of the compliment so they can take it all in and reap the full benefits of your admiration.
Ellie Pelc, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist at Parents Place in San Francisco.