Why some kids overreact to criticism

By Julie Rawe

At a glance

  • Lots of kids have a hard time handling criticism.

  • Trouble dealing with criticism can be more than kids just being “thin-skinned.”

  • Even mild comments can seem harsh to kids who are struggling with something.

Even the most minor comment can seem crushing when kids are trying to build new skills. Imagine you’re a kid picking what clothes to wear. You show someone, and they say, “Maybe not that shirt with those pants.” But all you hear is, “You’re not good at this clothes stuff.”

Kids develop at different rates. This includes learning how to handle criticism. Some kids just need more time to learn how to respond to it. But some kids continue to struggle with it, for various reasons.

Kids are likely to overreact when they’re hungry or tired, or when they’re trying out a new skill.

Kids also tend to overreact when someone questions the choices they make. For example, choices that involve how they look or who they’re friends with. This happens a lot in middle and high school.

It’s also common for kids to go through phases of wanting everything to be perfect. If you set out to draw the perfect caterpillar, you might get upset if the person you show it to says, “Oh, I thought it was a balloon.”

There’s another reason kids might overreact to criticism. They might have trouble with self-control, social skills, or managing emotions.

Kids may also be hypersensitive when they’re struggling with a skill. Do they seem to overreact when you comment on something related to reading or writing? If so, that’s something to keep an eye on. Maybe they’re having a hard time with those specific skills.

Or they may be frustrated with school in general. Even the mildest criticism can seem harsh if you feel like you can’t do anything right.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Julie Rawe is the special projects editor at Understood.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Elizabeth Harstad, MD, MPH is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital.