From Criticism To Support

From Criticism To Support

"If you needed to lose weight, what would be most motivating?


You are getting chubby. I’m not buying you any more clothes until you lose weight.




Let’s take a walk after dinner.
I’ll let you make the salad.
I love you just the way you are, exactly as you are."


—Rachel Macy Stafford

That was how Rachel opened her viral blog post, "To Build (or Break) a Child's Spirit," over a year ago, and comments are still coming in. Why? Because in one sitting she took readers from shame-loaded threats and nagging to supportive words of love that model what every parent wishes they could do.

One parent who was having a particularly hard time reached out in the comment section. Her question and my reply follow, reprinted here with Rachel's permission (with some editing for clarity).


I have a 17-year-old son and I think I have broken his spirit. I don’t remember ever saying you’re this or that, or you’re not this or not that. But I know I have yelled a lot and have lost my patience one too many times, even left the house like I was going to leave and never come back.


I have said, “You’re gaining weight, I don’t want you to end up overweight like me. Enough of the soda, stop eating late at night, you’re putting weight on. We all need to stop eating junk.” Is that a bad way to say it???


“Change your clothes up a little bit, wear some khaki’s or something, you’re always in a T-shirt and jean shorts. The shirts start to look stretched out and you look unkempt, put a nice button up short sleeve on.”


“Do you ever listen to what I tell you? I only tell you for your own good, because you don’t listen. I told you to be here at 8. Here it is 9:30. You’re out on the street, it’s dark out. You’ll get jumped or have a stolen phone, then I’m not buying a new one because it’ll be your fault.”


My son has ADHD, and he has been a very difficult child to raise. There have been very few good moments shared. He is strong willed, very defiant, and has been since he was small. When he was little, there were times when it took hours to get ready to get out of the house. He fought to get a bath, to get his clothes on, fought to get to bed, brush his teeth. I find myself screaming or yelling now because he still goes to bed without brushing or will get up on Saturday eat, shower and go out without brushing. His teeth aren’t bad but his breath is atrocious.


Is it wrong to tell them they have bad breath? I feel like I’ve fought with him most of his life. I don’t know how either of us has survived.


"Rachel has invited me to respond to some of her readers with parenting concerns. Your love of your son is evident in your frustration over feeling unable to help him stay healthy, happy and safe. There is nothing more painful than to sit by and watch your child on what appears to be a downhill slide, and look back and see that you’ve felt that way for years. The way he manages himself is not what you wished for him, and you are probably worried about his future.

Remind yourself that he is only 17, and still has lots of time to grow up and learn things for himself. He will begin to solve his own problems quickest if you can hold back and not fix them for him. A lost phone will be his problem as long as you don’t replace it (just as you said, but be compassionate instead of mad about his distress over losing it). Bad breath will be his problem when and if his friends care. Etc.

Also remind yourself that you can help only if he wants what you are offering. He's 17. You can't make him do anything. He can't make you do anything. At his age, if you want him to do things he doesn’t want to do, your help will feel like nagging. It will only create distance and resistance between you.

Rachel’s post gives you many ways to say things differently. Find out what he wants first. Then try her suggestions, which will put you on his side when you help. Start by helping with little things that he wants—things that are also OK with you—and you will begin to rebuild your connection. Rachel’s suggestion of  “How can I help?” from another post is one of my favorites.

Also this caught my eye. You asked if it’s wrong to tell your son he has bad breath, or if it's bad to point out other problems. You can start to change your relationship with him most quickly if you leave behind the idea that what he does or what you do is right, wrong, good or bad. Those are judgments.

Try SAYing WHAT YOU SEE by describing instead of criticizing. For example, try “Your socks are on the floor” instead of “Pick those up,” so he is the one who comes up with the solution of picking them up. Stick to your boundaries and house rules, but leave out all suggestions unless you know what he wants and your suggestions will feel like help.

Try pointing out STRENGTHs instead of flaws.   This is far more motivating, and it draws you and your child together. Do this even in a challenging moment with your child, and it can become a rewarding one.

The only thing that matters is whether or not the things you each say and do WORK TO ACHIEVE THE GOALS YOU DESIRE. If not, change what you say and do. 

Yes, he has his goals, you have yours, but on the highest plane of relationship, they overlap. You both want to feel good about each other when you are together. You both want to give respect and get respect back. You both want to love and feel loved back. If what you are doing does not help you reach those goals, stop and try something different.

That’s very much like Rachel’s guidance to wait, take a breath, and “choose love.” If you don’t know how to do that inside your boundaries, it's fastest to work with a counselor or contact me for private coaching. The three-step approach I teach called Language of Listening, applies not only to young children but to teens and adults as well.

It’s not too late to turn things around with your son and create the relationship you long for.


  1. Thank you for these suggestions. I have twin girls that are two and a half. They both want to do everything themselves, and I try to oblige as much as possible. One of them has spina bifida however and can’t do some of the things herself (get in the car, climb to her food chair, etc.) I feel just awful when I help her do these things because she gets so sad. What do you say or do to help her be okay with your help?

    Her sister is very particular and wants things to be a specific way. When they don’t happen how she wants, there is no reasoning with her. I hear this is very typical two year old behavior. I love the suggestions of saying what you are and offering help. I try them, but these little people just aren’t rational yet. I don’t feel like I can reason with them.

    I know that even at this young age I am shaping them and I feel like they look to me for approval, or when they know I will be disappointed. I have such guilt because of it.

  2. Molly, twins at age 2 can be a challenge to begin with, and one with spina bifida tells me you really have your hands full! I am so glad you were inspired to reach out now while they are still little.

    You are absolutely right that your children will not respond to reasons yet. 2 YO’s are very physical beings who respond best to validation of what they want and what they feel, whether they can have what they want or not.

    It might help you to know that it’s part of the child’s job to experience the full range of what it is to be human, including high and low emotions, and learn that they can handle them all – including frustration and disappointment. Our job is to let them know that what they want matters, and to facilitate their emotions along the way.

    At age 2, two important STRENGTHs to point out whenever you see them are, “You stopped yourself,” and “You calmed yourself.” Children need to know they have those STRENGTHs to be able to handle life with confidence.

    Here’s something else to consider. Your comment that you feel awful when you help your child do things because she gets so sad, is also true in reverse – your child gets so sad because you feel awful when you help her do things. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle.

    Validation by SAYing WHAT YOU SEE will let her know it’s OK to feel what she feels and want what she wants, and will break that cycle. It will help you both move into the space of acceptance of what “is” and begin approaching every situation with a problem-solving mindset (CAN DOs) that will allow her to build on the skills and abilities that she does have so she can live her life to its fullest potential.

    My little online handbook, SAY WHAT YOU SEE, gives you three steps for doing that in a way that strengthens connections, creates cooperation and builds confidence. My Online Training Center takes it even further and provides short video clips from two workshops and an email mini-eCourse. Those resources and more blog posts on how to use the 3-step Language of Listening approach in specific situations with younger children can be found in the sidebar at the right of this post.

    If you have any additional questions or want to work with me privately to free you from your guilt, don’t hesitate to contact me directly on my contact page. Twins are such a gift. I would love to help you enjoy each moment you spend with them more.

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