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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.

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Imagine you’re in grade school and you’re picking out your clothes to wear. When you show your family, they may say something mild like, “Maybe not that shirt with those pants.” But all you hear is, “You’re not good at this clothes stuff.” Even the most minor comment can seem crushing when kids are trying to build new skills.

Kids develop at different rates. This includes learning how to handle criticism. Some kids may simply need more time to learn how to respond to criticism. There are other common reasons why kids may seem like they can’t deal with criticism.

Read on to learn more about why kids overreact to criticism—and how you can help.

What Overreacting to Criticism Can Look Like

It happens in lots of households. A parent or caregiver doesn’t think they said anything that’s hugely critical. But their child erupts like they’ve just been told the harshest thing in the world.

Overreacting to criticism can look different as kids get older. Here are some things you might see kids do at different ages:

  • Get upset even when they aren’t criticized directly, like “That’s not your toy”

  • Take criticism about something specific they did (“You spelled a word wrong”) and blow it up into a much bigger statement about themselves overall (“I’m a bad student”)

  • Fall apart after positively worded suggestions or friendly coaching tips, like “When you’re swinging the bat, try to keep your hands up higher”

  • See mild comments about their appearance as rude or mean, like “Did you brush your hair?”

  • Lose their cool whenever they’re told what to do, even if it’s a weekly reminder like “It’s time to take out the trash”

Behaviors like these can be more than kids just being “thin-skinned.” Keep an eye on what you’re seeing. For instance, if you notice that your child gets frustrated a lot, use a frustration log to track what you see and when.

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Why Kids Overreact to Criticism

It’s not uncommon for kids to struggle with criticism. And different kids overreact for different reasons.

Kids are likely to overreact when they’re hungry or tired. Confidence is also a big factor. Kids are more likely to overreact to criticism 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 often happens in middle and high school.

It’s also common for kids to go through phases of wanting everything to be perfect. Picture yourself setting 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 are often hypersensitive when they’re struggling with a skill, too. For example, does your child seem to overreact when you comment on something related to reading or writing? If so, that’s something to keep an eye on. Maybe your child is 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.

How to Help Your Child Deal With Criticism

There are things you can do to help kids get better at responding to criticism. Here are some ways to work on it.

Be specific. Comment on the action rather than your child. Be specific in how you praise your child as well as how you criticize.

Be realistic. Think about what you’re expecting your child to do. Is it something most kids that age can do? Sometimes there’s a mismatch between the standards that families set and the abilities that kids develop over time.

Try to explain. If you said something that upset your child, find a time to talk about it when your child is calm. Say “I love you. I want to help you. Here’s what I meant.” If your talk is going well, you might want to ask questions: “If I say ______, does that feel mean to you?”

Understanding your child’s thinking can help you understand what’s happening and figure out how to word things next time.

Look for patterns. When does your child tend to overreact? Look for patterns in your behavior, too. Are you more likely to comment when your child does something wrong or when your child does something right? Try to praise much more than you criticize.

If you’re concerned about how your child is dealing with criticism, talk with your child’s health care provider or teacher. For example, find out if the teacher is noticing something similar with schoolwork. Talk about whether that’s typical for kids your child’s age.

You can also talk with the teacher about how your child is doing with self-control. It’s common for kids who struggle with impulsivity to overreact to criticism.

Together, you can brainstorm ideas for helping your child build coping skills—and figure out what to do next.

Key Takeaways

  • Kids are often sensitive when they’re struggling with a skill.

  • There are other common reasons why kids overreact to criticism, like trouble with self-control and managing emotions.

  • You can help by looking for patterns and talking with your child’s teacher or health care provider.

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