No parent wants to hear their child say, “I’m dumb” or “I’m stupid,” or even worse, “No one loves me.” When negative self-talk arises within children, it is usually a subconscious response to a challenging or overwhelming situation. Our subconscious determines the thoughts and actions that are comfortable for us, i.e. our comfort zones.
This relationship explains why even when we set goals with the best intentions, we have so much trouble getting away from the reality we’ve always had. We subconsciously measure the deviation from the image we hold of ourselves; we unintentionally perpetuate our self-image. If our self-image doesn’t change, then our actions automatically lead us back to the same self-image we’ve always held.
Self-image, in relation to children, is a vital part of their personal, and cognitive development. Kids who feel good about themselves have the confidence to try new things. They are more likely to try their best. They feel proud of what they can do. Self-esteem, or self-image, helps kids cope with mistakes. It helps kids try again, even if they fail at first. As a result, self-esteem helps kids do better at school, at home, and with friends.
Rather than panicking or minimizing their experience, it’s important to respond to a child’s negative self-talk in a intentional way that promotes their self esteem.
Whenever a child makes a mistake, it’s important to instill in them the power of patience and perseverance. It is also important to note that parents should refrain from deterring or invalidating their child’s feelings when complicated/overwhelming situations occur, which could lead to frustration or negative self-talk. When negative self-talk spews from your child’s mouth, your knee-jerk reaction is to fix it and give your child some reassurance or to convince them that their thinking is flawed.
Unfortunately, their words may match their feelings. They do not feel “loveable” or “wonderful” (as you may suggest), they feel “dumb,” “stupid,” and “like the worst kid in the world.”
Instead of moving in to fix it, try these ideas to address the underlying feeling and their internal struggle.
- Empathize: Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand what they may be feeling. “That writing assignments pretty challenging, huh?” or “Wow, sounds like you’re feeling frustrated!” If you can’t think of what to say, try a simple response like, “That’s tough” or “Need a hug?”
- Get Curious: Some kids have a hard time verbalizing the problem. When you start to explore the situation together, they may be able to understand what’s really bugging them. “I wonder why this assignment is tripping you up today.” or “Is it all writing assignments or this one in particular?”
- Rewrite the Script: Once you’ve explored, you can work together to create some new phrases to try. Instead of “Writing is hard. I’m stupid,” your child could say, “I’m working hard on writing” or “Making mistakes is a part of learning.” Or even, “Mom, I’m so frustrated with this assignment.”
- Problem-Solve Together: Resist the urge to suggest a solution to the problem or lead them to an answer that seems right to you. Work as a team. Sometimes, there is no easy solution or quick fix because the answer is, “I have to keep practicing” or “I am working toward the goal.”
- Challenge Thoughts and Feelings: Feelings come and go, they do not define you. Your child may FEEL unloveable, but feeling something doesn’t mean it’s true. Someone can struggle and not be stupid. Talk about times when your child has overcome something difficult and felt confident or excited.
What Else Can You Do?
- Give Choices: Let your child have the option to make choices throughout the day, picking their outfit, afternoon snack, or where to do their homework. Give positive feedback for good choices and watch your criticism! If you give them a choice, keep your negative opinions to yourself.
- Embrace Imperfection: Everyone makes mistakes – even you! Practice using light-hearted responses to mistakes, “Ooops! The milk spilled! Let’s wipe it up!” Model healthy ways to handle frustration, apologize for yelling, or acknowledge your part in a misunderstanding.
- Focus on the Good: Instead of nit-picking or constantly focusing on things that need to be changed, fixed or cleaned, learn to let go. Building or repairing relationship may be more important than a tidy bedroom. Try to give 5 positive statements to every 1 negative statement.
- Encourage Independence: Kids need parents to help them make good decisions or stay focused, but sometimes constand direction sends the message: “You can’t do it on your own.” Brainstorm or problem-solve together, ask your child’s opinion or have them offer a solution.
- Value Perseverance: Focus on the little steps that lead to success, overcoming an obstacle, or moving closer to a goal. Phrases such as “You’re working really hard on that…” or “That took a lot of effort!” help your child see the benefit in the process rather than the prize at the end.
- Teach Coping Skills: Expose your child to a variety of coping and calming skills, work on deep breathing and create positive, helpful mantras. Practice these skills often so your child is prepared and knows how to handle frustrating situations and discouraging thoughts.
As humans, we are bound to experience negative self-talk in one situation or another, however, it is how we respond and react to the negative self-talk that is important. For children, negative self-talk can set the foundation for their self-esteem and how they ultimately view themselves. However, as parents, it’s imperative to remain self-aware of when negative self-talk is occurring with your child and how to respond in a healthy manner.