Are You Giving Feedback or Criticism? Recognize the Difference and Change What You’re Doing

Sad girl with ADHD resting her face on her hand while enduring criticism from her angry mom in the background

As a parent, your motivations and intentions behind a statement might greatly differ from how your child interprets it. How do you know when you are giving feedback or criticism, and who is to decide? For example: Your 16 year-old daughter, Layla, agrees to clean her room and picks things up nicely except for the balled up pair of socks and crumpled tee shirt she leaves on her bed. Instead of simply saying, “Wow. Great job!” you want her to notice what she’s missed. You say, “That’s pretty good, but to be fully clean you missed the socks and tee shirt on your bed.” Your daughter loses her cool and starts screaming at you about how she’s never good enough and demands that you leave her alone. What happened?

How your child might view feedback or criticism:

Teen with ADHD upset on his bed, resting his head on his hands after listening to feedback that seemed like criticism

You may think that you’re making an innocent comment aimed to teach your teen what a cleaned room really looks like. But, in reality, what she heard was only the negative part: what she missed on the bed erased the value of the rest of her good work.

When I was doing interviews with kids for my book, they told me repeatedly that there’s no such thing as positive feedback: it all feels negative to them. Fed up and frustrated with consistently missing the mark, despite well-meaning efforts to do things, kids with ADHD blow their tops- just like Layla.

There is a big difference between feedback and criticism. Ideally, feedback takes into account intention, effort and progress. It’s a teaching tool. Criticism just looks at what isn’t right and often adds a mixture of blame, anger and disapproval. Nobody feels good after criticism, no matter how carefully it is worded.

How to use the ADHD Adapted Sandwich Feedback Method to formulate feedback instead of criticism

To make the shift from veiled or direct criticism to feedback that works more effectively, reframe your thinking. Use the ADHD Adapted Sandwich Feedback Method to prepare your statement like you would make a delicious sandwich. When you are hungry, you consider what might be tasty and which foods you want to place between the slices of bread. It’s a thoughtful, deliberate process with a yummy, anticipated outcome. Giving feedback can be similar. You start with positive observations as doughy top and bottom pieces, throw in an encouraging condiment, place a neutral piece of observed information in the middle and top it off with a piece of compassionate cheese.

An image of a person making a sandwich to represent the ADHD Adapted Sandwich Feedback Method

Here’s how this approach could go with Layla: “Nice job cleaning your room, Layla. I like how you arranged your books and notebooks by color on your desk. Although it’s no big deal, I see that you missed a few pieces of clothing on your bed. Great work on picking up all of the items from the floor so I can vacuum your rug. Thanks!

My guess is that Layla will have a very different attitude about the socks and tee shirt with this “sandwich of feedback.” She’ll feel appreciated more for her efforts and respond to that validation, rather than focusing on the one thing she overlooked. It will be more likely to be interpreted as feedback than criticism.

The influence of the negativity bias on the value and memory of criticism.

Mother bending down at her child's level to happily hug her son with ADHD who is also smiling with joy

We’ve got to remember that the negativity bias in human brains naturally overshadows positive information. For neurodivergent kids with ADHD, LD or ASD, they hear so many more negative statements in a day than positive ones. We’ve got to make concerted efforts to give them feedback they can actually absorb and use. That’s why we have to add extra validation and encouragement when we are responding to kids’s efforts for change, following through on tasks or taking risks.

I encourage you to try the ADHD Adapted Sandwich Feedback Method this week and see what happens. For an extra boost, ask them to repeat back one of the positive things they heard you say. This will help their working memory encode it and send it down the memory line for long-term storage. Be kind to yourself as you try to make this shift. It’s easier to blurt out something critical (even if you don’t mean to) than it is to thoughtfully generate useful feedback.


Learn more:

Home Study Seminar: What Your Child With ADHD Wishes You Knew and How You Can Help