Renowned couples therapist John Gottman studied more than 3,000 couples in his Love Lab, and discovered four factors – criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling – that predicted divorce and separation in marriages; he dubbed them “the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.

Considering the devastating impact of the Four Horsemen on a marriage, how then does this apply to the parent-child relationship? I believe that these four ingredients can also adversely affect our relationship with our children.

One of my adult acquaintances has a problematic relationship with his father. Since young, he had been criticised by his dad, and the father had always told him that he was not good enough, finding fault with everything from his school and job, to even his choice of a spouse.

Today, the pattern is repeated in the lives of his two children. The older son is the more accomplished of the two, and everything he does is held in high regard by the father. This has resulted in the second son displaying an inferiority complex, with the father constantly criticising him for not doing as well as his older brother.

The constant negativity from his father has also resulted in a tense and uneasy relationship. While the son does not openly disagree with what his father says, he is extremely defensive when criticised, and has resorted to stonewalling his father. All these became more pronounced during his Grade 6 year, as the father expected him to stay at home all day without going out or engaging in hobbies such as reading or playing computer games.

The roots of criticism bear fruit in low self-esteem. In my counselling work, I have witnessed so many clients who have a low sense of self-esteem. As I worked with them, I discovered that these clients have been criticised either by their parents, their bosses or their teachers. The roots of criticism run deep.

Why does criticism have such a strong impact on a person’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth?

This is because criticism erodes our level of confidence. Whenever a person is criticised, he or she gets the message that “I need to do something more”.

Repeat this message multiple times, and the person then gets an overwhelming perception that “I am not good enough”. This effect is even more pervasive when this person receives no other positive messages.

Focus on strengths

How then do we counter the impact that criticism has on a child’s life?

We need to actively and intentionally create a a culture of appreciation and affirmation. This means that instead of solely focusing on the things that our kids do wrong, we need to look at their strengths, and affirm them for the things that they do well or the effort they have put into something.

Such a “strengths-based” approach directs the child towards what he can do well. If we make a genuine effort to discover our children’s strengths and reflect them to our children, it will help build their self-esteem.

Sometimes parents struggle with this because they have pre-conceived notions of what “a good child” should be like. For example, if you believe your child should do well academically or be ambitious about life, and your child turns out differently from what you expect, it will take tremendous effort to set your ideals aside and to see and accept your child for who he is.

Be genuinely interested

I often tell parents during the workshops that I conduct, that taking a sincere interest in our children is more important than praise.

We need to know what our children like and try to develop a keen understanding of their hobbies and interests. For instance, if I know that my 8-year-old son has developed an interest in Minecraft, I would do well to try to understand the game, and to gain an appreciation of what he creates in his Minecraft world.

In a similar vein, I need to understand why my 10-year-old son enjoys Mario Brothers. By learning about the characters in the game, I can then connect with him and affirm him when he defeats the “bad guys”.

A strong sense of self sets the foundation for a secure childhood. If we want our children to grow to become well-adjusted individuals, it is key for us to create a culture of affirmation in our family. This would in turn strengthen our kids’ self-esteem, and enable them to become secure and stable individuals – ready to deal with whatever challenges that they have to face.

© 2020 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Mark Lim

Mark Lim is Consultant & Counsellor at The Social Factor, a consultancy and counselling agency which conducts training on life skills such as parenting, mentoring and special needs. He and his wife Sue co-write a parenting blog Parenting on Purpose, where they chronicle the life lessons from parenting two young boys aged 10 and 8.

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