Constructive Criticism Builds Resilient Teens

Build Resilience by Providing Constructive Criticism

Few people enjoy receiving criticism, no matter how well intended it may be. No matter what you call it — constructive criticism, critique, feedback — these messages still tend to sting. But, learning to receive critiques is a part of life, and so is learning to give it.

Years ago, my husband won a scholarship to go to art college. He recalls the first semester as intense. All freshmen had to take a class called, ‘Critique’. Each week, students had to bring a new work of art and listen as other students gave feedback about the piece. After the first semester, less than half the freshmen returned. To survive that experience, you had to be able to both give and accept feedback. The goal was to improve your work, but my husband recalls it as a very humbling experience. Perhaps this class is why my husband is so good at giving and receiving feedback to this day. (And he still creates art!)

What does an art class have to do with parenting adolescents and giving them feedback? A lot!

How to (and How not to) Give Feedback

Have you ever worn something your adolescent didn’t like? If so, you likely were on the receiving end of some brutally honest feedback you never asked for. Their comments were most likely not intended to do you emotional harm, but rather to avoid being so embarrassed by you.

Our goal is to build young people’s confidence and to nurture their independence and critical thinking skills — things that will serve them well in the future. So we should avoid saying things that tear them down, that are shaming, name-calling, blaming, or judgmental. These are roadblocks to good communication. They will shut down a young person and make it impossible for them to hear what we are trying to communicate.

Be Targeted and Specific With Feedback

The reality is that sometimes we do need to provide constructive criticism. When we do, our criticisms should be targeted and specific. For example. if your teen forgot to clean the dishes, say, “You forgot to do the dishes,” rather than, “You are a slob.” The first option lets your child know they controlled what happened and have the potential to make a different choice in the future. The second option implies they have a negative personality trait you think cannot be changed. If they think you really believe that about them, then why should they bother doing things differently in the future? Be mindful that adolescents are struggling to answer the most fundamental of questions, “Who am I?”  You certainly don’t want them to answer that question with negative labels they’ve heard from you … or anyone.

Providing constructive criticism helps both you and your tween or teen to focus on a behavior and its consequences. It reinforces that they have the power and skills to address the issue.

Remember to provide constructive criticism when you are calm. When our emotions run high, we tend to be less accurate when delivering concerns. We may be more likely to resort to shaming, blaming, and other strategies that are less likely to achieve the desired result. When we remain targeted in our feedback and when we communicate in a calm manner, we help our children grow.

The goal is for our critiques to become a voice in our teens’ heads, shaping their sense of right and wrong, of what is fair or unjust, and of how they want to contribute to the world around them.

The Long-lasting Meaning and Impact of Feedback

Offering feedback shapes our tweens and teens now. But, more importantly, how we provide this feedback makes a difference in how they see themselves, and how they will respond to constructive criticism, far into the future. It’s like my husband’s art class — he learned to give and receive feedback during his own adolescence and is a master at doing it now (although our tweens may not always agree).

The goal is for our critiques to become a voice in our teens’ heads, shaping their sense of right and wrong, of what is fair or unjust, and of how they want to contribute to the world around them. We want that voice to be loud, clear, honest when it must be, but rooted in an understanding of all that is right and good about them.

Learning to give and especially to receive feedback and then incorporate it into our lives is critical for fitting into new environments. Success in the workplace is dependent on whether or not you can grow on the job by learning new skills and working with diverse team members. Whether or not you grow successfully in the workplace is directly related to whether or not you can comfortably hear and act on the feedback you receive.

The Key to Constructive Criticism: Place it in Context of Teen Strengths

When we criticize in constructive ways while our children are under our roofs, they learn that feedback is an opportunity for growth, rather than an attack on them personally. Ever met someone who takes every piece of feedback as a personal attack? It’s hard to help them achieve what you know they are capable of achieving. Through our guidance, our young people can learn to hear feedback through a positive lens, and learn to incorporate it into their actions.

Above all, criticism should be given while recognizing and acknowledging your child’s existing strengths. We can build their confidence in their ability to do something well, by suggesting they can apply existing skills to new situations. Consider these examples.

“I am concerned because you lied to us about where you went tonight and who you were with. I know that you can do better because I’ve seen you come to us concerned when your friend stole that pack of gum from the drugstore. I need you to remember how much you value honesty and apply it now.”


“You really need to work on setting and making deadlines. You need a lot more practice to get this right. I know you can do it if you set your mind to it.  Remember there was a time you never thought you could learn to cook a meal for yourself. But look at you now. You worked hard and mastered enough meals that you’ve even cooked dinner for the family! Let me know how I can support you now.”


What to Say (and Not to Say) to Encourage Teen Problem-Solving

Treating teens as experts in their own lives empowers them to build skills needed to solve problems. Trust in their abilities. Read these suggestions to build your “Language of Resilience.”


Talk About What They Know, Not What They Don’t

Say This: Tell me what you understand. Not That: You're too young to understand.


Talk About Their Perspective, Not Yours

Say This: What do you think about the situation? Not That: I think you should handle the situation this way.


Talk About Their Needs, Not Yours

Say This: How can I support you to handle it? Not That: I need you to handle this now or I’ll handle it for you.


Talk About Their Problem-Solving, Not Your Solutions

Say This: What ideas do you have to improve your grade? Not That: You just need to study more and focus.

Feedback that Builds Resilience

My husband has a knack for seeing what is inside of someone and presenting it to them in a way that inspires the greatness that is already there. I love going to functions at my children’ school where the kids get to show off what they have been working on. At these events, my husband has a way of complimenting each artist and offering them suggestions for improvement. The kids love him. He has a way of doing it that communicates that he knows that they are trying to do well, he likes their approach, and has an idea for making it even better. His feedback is a special gift just for them. That is the sweet spot — providing our young people with feedback that is personalized and designed to inspire growth and confidence today and always.

About Aletha Akers

Aletha Akers, MD, is a faculty member at CPTC and adolescent gynecologist at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She is a featured expert discussing healthy sexuality, communication, and more. Dr. Akers brings many years of expertise in community-based research and translating science into educational materials. She founded, a site providing resources parents can use to guide conversations with their teens about sexual health.

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