By Katherine Reynolds Lewis—Mother Jones—April 17, 2018—
Even timeouts and “constructive” criticism can be harmful. Luckily, there are alternatives.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are lying inside an MRI scanner. A giant plastic cylinder surrounds your head and shoulders, and the unit’s interior wall is inches from your nose. “Stay perfectly still,” a technician says. There’s a loud whirring and knocking of parts as the machine shifts position and then, suddenly, another voice comes through your earpiece. It’s your mother. She’s talking about you, about choices you’ve made that you know she disapproves of. Harvard psychology professor Jill Hooley created this scenario to study how parental criticism affects our mental health. Her team, with permission, had called the moms of study participants and pre-recorded their critical commentaries.
During the five years I spent reporting for a new book on the science of discipline, my sources reliably cringed when I told them about Hooley’s experiment. There’s something about a parent’s disapproval that’s instinctively repellent. It may even be bad for your health. A growing body of scientific work suggests that criticism from our loved ones can bring latent mental illnesses to the surface and make it harder for people to recover from stints of depression, schizophrenia, and other crippling brain conditions. For parents grappling with how to discipline difficult children, the implications are profound—and sometimes profoundly frustrating.