How Critical Parenting Can Affect Adult Relationships
Higher risks for insecure attachment in our romantic relationships.
Posted March 27, 2023 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Authoritarian parenting can influence a person in several ways, including increasing their risk for developing anxiety and depression.
- Adults who experience punitive parenting are at an increased risk for developing an anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment style.
- There is often a split between seeking reassurance that they will not be abandoned and pushing away out of self-preservation.
- Many are hyper-sensitive or avoidant of confrontation and internalize relationship struggles as something being “wrong” with themselves.
Critical parenting is identified as punitive or authoritarian, where a caregiver is more likely to use belittling or criticism, or to be unduly harsh and negative towards their child. Hostile parenting from caregivers typically includes those who are image-obsessed, achievement-driven, and narcissistic. They value compliance and obedience with little nurturing toward the child’s emotional development.
Authoritarian parenting can affect a person globally, including, in some cases, their attachment style and higher risks for developing anxiety and depression. Psychological and emotional abuse and neglect in childhood are known predictors of developing a fear of rejection in adulthood, which can negatively impact a person’s adult relationships.
For example, those who experienced critical or rejecting parents who were highly judgmental, achievement-driven, or emotionally abusive often become highly anxious in their adult relationships, are preoccupied with fears of abandonment, or struggle with emotional vulnerability and trusting others in their life (Hyun, 2019). Similarly, adults who experienced punitive parenting as children are at an increased risk for developing an anxious, avoidant, or disorganized attachment style where a person may not know whether to approach or push away those in their life (Kim et al., 2021; Kiviniemi et al., 2020).
Red Flags of Growing up With a Critical Parent Can Include:
- High levels of self-sabotage, self-destructive behavior, and self-loathing.
- A harsh inner critic that often develops in childhood.
- Higher risk of narcissistic relationships in their adult life (friends, partners).
- Fear of rejection if not seen as "perfect."
- Feelings of shame, depression, anxiety, and guilt.
- Struggles with perfectionism.
- Increased risk for compulsive behaviors, such as workaholism or excessive exercise to feel “good enough.”
- Body image obsessions/compulsions.
- Increased risk for self-medicating (drugs; alcohol).
- Harshly judges self or others.
- Emotional vulnerability is seen as a sign of weakness.
Other common patterns seen in a person’s adult relationships as a result of hyper-critical parents can include:
- Overthinking and catastrophizing. Growing up with punitive parenting can create fears of making a mistake which may lead to rumination (overthinking and catastrophizing). For example, a disagreement between partners may trigger fears of abandonment, which may create a pattern of catastrophizing the disagreement in terms of a “worst-case scenario.” Instead of looking at the situation for what it is, a person may overthink their partner’s behavior. In extreme cases, this can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy where catastrophized thoughts lead to behaviorally enacting them.
- Inability to feel safe in relationships. Disturbances in attachment often begin in childhood when there is a mismatch between parents’ attachment style, their ability to bond with their child, and the child’s basic needs for safety and belonging. These disturbances often impact a child’s basic needs for safety and security. As a result, some adults with histories of critical and abusive caregivers become more anxiously attached or avoidantly attached, which generalizes to how they interact in their romantic relationships. There is often a split between seeking constant reassurance and affirmation that they will not be abandoned and pushing away out of self-preservation.
- Feelings of unworthiness or not being “good enough.” Experiencing chronic criticism or a hostile childhood environment can condition a child into wrongly believing that nothing they do will ever be “good enough.” This can negatively affect a child’s developing self-esteem and sense of value. Hearing cruel comments such as, “What is wrong with you?” or “Why can’t you do anything right?” can condition a toxic inner critic where they grow up believing they are damaged and unworthy of love. Fast-forward into their adult lives, and many struggle with a constant need for validation from their partner. They are hyper-sensitive or avoidant confrontations and internalize relationship struggles as something being “wrong” with themselves.
- Difficulty with vulnerability and asking for help. Many adults with highly critical caregivers also grew up learning conditions of worth. This dynamic teaches a child that impressing their caregivers and making them look good gains momentary approval or attention while being human and imperfect causes them more criticism and hostility. Some may have grown up being physically abused for not understanding their homework or verbally shamed and ridiculed. This can condition fear in a child to ask for help, and they may refuse help, even if needed. In their adult lives, they may struggle to show vulnerable emotions with their partner from being conditioned to believe that vulnerability is a sign of weakness. This can create relationship issues where problems are avoided or minimized and where communication and emotional connection suffers.
Managing Adult Relationships After Being Raised By Critical Parents
To best manage our romantic relationships, we first have to learn how to recognize and focus on our own needs, which includes learning the impact that punitive parenting in our childhood has on our adult lives. For example, it is important to learn our attachment style and where our unmet needs may be. Equally important is learning to be vulnerable with our partner and heal from early trauma to minimize its effect on our romantic relationships. Speak to a clinician trained in creating behavioral plans that foster healing from attachment and relational trauma.
To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Hyun, S. J. (2019). Analysis of the structural relationships between romantic relationship satisfaction, childhood emotional abuse, adult attachment anxiety, and rejection sensitivity of university students. Graduate School of Hanyang University. http://www.riss.kr/link?id=T15035586
Kim, S., Baek, M., & Park, S. (2021). Association of Parent–child Experiences with Insecure Attachment in Adulthood: A Systematic Review and Meta‐analysis. Journal of Family Theory & Review, 13(1), 58–76.
Kiviniemi, A., et al. (2020). Is a harsh childhood growth environment reflected in parental images and emotional distress in adulthood? Current Psychology, 41, 2194 – 2206.