Growing Minds: Helping you raise successful humans in a modern world

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What to do when your child talks negatively about themselves

Few things hit harder for parents than hearing their child say negative things about themselves. Although occasional negative self-talk is a relatable experience, hearing your kiddo say unkind and untrue things about themselves often lands for parents as a “red flag,” and parents naturally want to do everything in their power to make sure their kiddo feels as smart, brave, and capable as you know they are. This general impulse is good and normal and the distress we feel when our kids are in distress is part of our neural circuitry that allows us to take good care of our kids (Siegel, 2015). However, in some situations, this same impulse to “correct and protect” our kiddos, can actually exacerbate their negative self-talk.

Consider these 4 tips to respond to your child’s negative self-talk:

1. Get grounded 

It can be helpful to remember that your kiddo is likely in an elevated emotional state when they’re engaging in negative self-talk. And we are rarely the wisest, most receptive versions of ourselves when we’re experiencing big emotions. Conversely, your kiddo is likely to be more sensitive to your non-verbal language and how you say what you say in response to their negative self-statements vs. the content of your message. Fighting anxiety with anxiety simply doesn’t work. So take a few deep breaths to ground and calm yourself, and let this calm curiosity guide your response. Trusting that once kids are also in a calmer and wiser space, they’re going to be more receptive to your feedback- including reminders of how awesome they really are!

2. Reflect and validate feelings

Parents often describe their dilemma along the lines of, “when they say they’re so dumb and can’t do anything right, I always correct them and tell them how smart they are, but I don’t think they hear me.” 

Paradoxically, sometimes the more we correct our kiddo’s thoughts, the bigger and more insidious those thoughts become. This can occur because correcting thoughts before your child has had a chance to calm down can feel emotionally invalidating and lead them to believe that their thoughts are wrong, which ultimately increases their negative emotional state, and thus the cycle continues. So rather than respond to the content of their statement, first try reflecting how they’re feeling and see if you can connect with that experience. This might sound like, “Oh man, I know it doesn’t feel good to get things right on the first try,” or, “I can tell you’re feeling frustrated. That makes sense. I know how important it is to you to do well.” Not only does this help kids calm down, but it also helps kids see that their thoughts are just that- just thoughts. Using reflective listening skills is also likely to encourage a kiddo to continue to talk about the situations, feelings, ect. that lead to them having negative thoughts, which will lend itself well to helping your kiddo problem solve, if and when they’re ready to do so. 

3. See if they would like your help problem solving

Now that the emotional storm has passed, offer your assistance and see if your kiddo would like your help resolving whatever they’re struggling with that’s causing them to feel crummy. Offering support vs jumping in to solve the problem can increase your kiddo’s participation in solving their problems and sends the message that you believe they are capable. If your kiddo indicates they are open to your help, target interventions that would likely build skills around whatever area your child is struggling in. For example, if a kiddo is having a lot of negative self-talk after soccer games, you might see if they would like your support talking to the coach, or if it would be helpful to spend a few extra minutes practicing their dribbling skills with you. 

4. Praise the process, not the product

If your kiddo is extra sensitive to external evaluation, a good rule of thumb is to praise the process, not the product (Landreth, 2012). For example, maybe they didn’t get the grade they wanted on their math test even though they studied really hard. Focus your attention and praise on their process vs. the outcome by letting them know you think it’s awesome that they tried their best. Other examples include highlighting times where they stuck with something even when it was hard, showed resilience, or when you can tell they feel good about themselves. An example could be noticing your kiddo playing with legos and saying something like, “Wow, you built that tower all by yourself! I can tell you feel good about that.” These seemingly small interactions can be a long way in building positive feelings of self-regard.

As always, if your kiddo’s negative thoughts or feelings are interfering with their ability to live their best life, it could be beneficial to consult with your child’s Pediatrician or a Mental Health Professional, to get a professional opinion and support.

References:

Landreth, G. (2012). Play therapy: the art of the relationship (3rd ed.). Routledge Publishing.

Siegel, D. (2015). The developing mind: how relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are (2nd ed.). The Guilford Press.

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Stephanie is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based out of Wilsonville. She has trained in a variety of child and family therapeutic services, including multiple modalities of play therapy, parent-child interaction therapy, child-parent relationship therapy, and collaborative problem-solving. Stephanie has over ten years of experience working with youth and families in various settings and contexts, including public schools, the juvenile justice system, and psychiatric residential facilities. Stephanie owns and operates Seeds of Love Counseling, where she focuses on helping children, teens, and families feel and function their best through building strong attachments and positive mental health habits. Stephanie can be reached at www.seedsoflovecounseling.com.