Being a parent means guiding and shaping our child’s behavior. Providing children with feedback—both praise and suggestions on how they can improve—is necessary. But how many times has our (well-intentioned) feedback and advice been met with a blank stare? Or worse, a negative and defensive reaction?
It’s only natural for children to resist feedback, especially when it’s corrective. Studies show being critiqued can feel threatening, triggering the fight-flight-freeze stress response. At the same time, we know sharing constructive, meaningful feedback is one of the most effective ways to learn and grow. Accepting feedback is linked to a host of benefits, from higher self-esteem and improved relationships to getting better at what we do.
Fortunately, there are simple ways to provide feedback and keep your child open and engaged—and able to gain its many rewards. Check out these seven helpful tips for delivering constructive feedback, so your child can grow and persevere:
1. Pause Before You Give Feedback
We would like the best for our children, and we share our opinions to help them improve, learn, and grow. But giving feedback is more art than science, so it’s crucial to pause and reflect before speaking.
First, take a moment to reflect on the necessity and intent of your words.
You might consider:
- Is this feedback productive or is this my opinion/complaint?
- What is my goal with this feedback?
- Is it necessary? What would happen if I didn’t give it?
- Does this feedback align with my values?
- Will this help my child be the best version of themselves?
After time for self-reflection, you may decide your feedback is essential. If not, and you find you are simply frustrated or needing to vent, choose another time to share your opinion (if it needs to be voiced at all).
“Not all the criticism kids face is constructive. Some of it is born out of ulterior motives or dark intentions.…”
-Jessica Lahey, The Gift of Failure
When in doubt, you may also reflect on the “3 Gates” technique of speech: Are my words true? Are they helpful? Are they kind? By pausing to reflect on these questions, you can be certain your words will be well-received.
2. Focus on the “How”
Recognize giving feedback requires mindfulness and compassion. How we deliver feedback to our children is every bit as important as what we say.
To accept feedback from us, our child must first feel a sense of trust. When they know we have their best interests at heart, it’s much easier to receive criticism as supportive versus a personal attack.
Here are a few more things to consider:
- Balance positive feedback with negative feedback (five positives to every 1 negative)
- Share constructive feedback privately (not in the presence of others)
- Give positive feedback regularly (“catch them being good”)
You might also consider the “feedback sandwich” technique. The “sandwich” is a gentle critique placed between two positive phrases: “The breakfast you made was lovely! Perhaps you could put your plates in the sink too. I really enjoyed eating with you and can’t wait to see what you make next!”
Tip: This strategy should be used sparingly, and only when sincere!
3. Make Sure Your Feedback Is Specific
Not all feedback is created equal. For feedback to be constructive, it must also be specific and user-friendly.
It’s common to give vague or general praise when trying to protect our child’s feelings. But phrases like “Good job” or “You’re so smart” aren’t actually helpful at home (or in the classroom).
“We can easily imagine the learners asking themselves in response to these comments, ‘What specifically should I do more or less of next time, based on this information?’ No idea. They don't know what was ‘good’ or ‘wrong’ about what they did.”
-Grant Wiggins, Educational Leadership
Despite our good intentions, it turns out children don’t like it either. In a study of high school students’ performance, they cited unclear and general feedback as the most frustrating aspects of teacher input.
Before giving your child feedback, consider this rule of thumb: if your words could be applied to any other child’s performance, they’re likely too general.
Instead, take note of what went well, and how your child’s efforts or performance have changed since the last time you provided feedback. Provide information your child can reflect on (“Remember when you thought adding fractions was really difficult? Today I saw you do them with no trouble.”)
4. Ask for Permission and Give Control
Even with the best of intentions, our feedback sometimes backfires. We may be left scratching our heads, wondering what went wrong.
In his study of why feedback is sometimes counterproductive, psychologist Edward Deci identified feeling controlled as a key cause of resistance.
“ [Children] may sometimes interpret feedback as an attempt to control them or tell them how they should be doing something rather than guidance on how to improve.”
So how do we overcome this? How do we help our children feel empowered by our feedback?
Start by asking for permission. You might say, “I have some information that could be helpful. How open are you to hearing it?” or "I would like to give you some advice. It is just information and it is up to you what you would like to do with the information."
- Avoiding the use of “YOU” statements (“Here’s what you should do” or “Here’s what you need to improve”)
- Using “I” statements (“Here’s what I would do” or “Here’s what worked best for me”)
- Asking for their ideas (“What do you think you did well?” or “Have you considered trying it a different way?”)
Giving your child control over the feedback process will also help them problem-solve and plan for the future. If your child is stressed by waiting until the last minute to do homework, ask how it felt to wait and what strategies they might use to feel less overwhelmed next time.
5. Support Growth Mindset by Focusing on the Process
“A growth mindset is the best gift we can give our children. Thus armed, they can be brave in the face of constructive criticism, believing it can make them better, stronger and smarter. They won’t need us to dress it up or sand it down because, given a growth mindset, kids can handle the truth.”
A growth mindset gives a child the ability to reflect on the feedback they receive, and to evaluate what—if anything—can be learned from it. Children know they don’t always have to take criticism, but can make thoughtful choices and keep an open mind.
To support your child’s growth mindset, focus on the process rather than the final result. Praise the effort and hard work that went into their successes, and celebrate mistakes as an opportunity to learn.
If you’re concerned about the final outcome, consider the following questions instead:
- Are they growing and learning?
- Is their work improving?
- Are they making changes based on the feedback I (or others) have given?
Even with a growth mindset, it’s natural for your child to have big feelings about feedback. Tell them how you like to pause after receiving constructive criticism, and give yourself time to let the hurt subside. In time, they will grow more resilient and benefit from seeing themselves in a new way.
Our popular My Strategies to Feel Calm poster, available in the Resilience Kit, has many easy and calming activities your child can do when they are experiencing big feelings.
6. Focus on Actions Rather Than Their Personality
There are many reasons to focus on your child’s behavior and actions (rather than their personality or character) when delivering feedback.
We need to be certain they know they are lovable and enough as they are. By giving them feedback on their actions (“What you said sounded rude to me.”) rather than their personality (“You’re always so rude!”), we help them understand there’s nothing wrong with them.
Fortunately, Harvard’s Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) developed a simple tool to do just that. This strategy, known as the Situation-Behavior-Impact model, is easily adaptable for children.
Here are the 3 steps:
- Situation: note the time and place where a behavior occurred
- Behavior: describe the behavior (what you saw, heard, observed)
- Impact: note how the behavior affected your thoughts, feelings or actions
For a younger child, this might look like: “At dinner tonight, when your sister accidentally took your cup (#1), you screamed and grabbed it back (#2). I felt frustrated and sent you to your room (#3).”
The Kindness & Community Kit contains engaging activities that promote kindness and empathy development and enhance children's capacity to care about others.
For an older child, it may look like: “This morning when we were talking about our vacation (#1), you interrupted Jessica while she was talking and said, ‘That’s stupid,’ before she had a chance to finish (#2). This left me feeling disappointed I wasn’t able to hear more from her (#3).”
Next, encourage your child to reflect on the situation and set a goal for future behavior. Because your feedback was neither judgmental nor generalized, your words are more likely to be heard and considered by your child.
7. Model It
There are few better ways of helping your child accept feedback than modeling the behavior. If getting feedback is tricky for you, keep the practice fun!
First, set up a task your child can evaluate you in: cooking, letter writing, or a task of their choosing. Be playful, and allow them to judge you on specific aspects of your job. If you cook a meal, encourage your child to critique the meal presentation, taste, and originality!
Actively seek out feedback with questions such as “What do you think of this?” and “What could I do better next time?”
Afterward, discuss how their feedback made YOU feel. Acknowledge it’s difficult to hear harsh things about our own work. Simultaneously, if people say our work is good when it isn’t, it ruins the opportunity to learn and improve.
“Whether or not we realize it, how we talk about an unfair performance evaluation in front of our children teaches them how to react to a bad call that costs them the ball game. Our kids respond to tough challenges the way they see us respond to tough challenges.”
-Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, Thanks For the Feedback
Finally, recognize we model receiving (or resisting) feedback on a daily basis in our lives, work and relationships. Your knowing how to manage criticism shows your child how to skillfully manage it too.
Rebecca Louick is an elementary school counselor and mom of two incredible girls. She holds a Master's Degree in Counseling from Villanova University. Rebecca is passionate about helping children and families develop the skills they need for a full, happy life. She knows of no greater superpower than a growth mindset, and is often heard saying her favorite word: yet!