Parenting | Parenting Tools | Child Health + Development

How to Respond to Your Child's Negative Self-Talk

Try this to turn 'I'm so dumb' into something positive

“I’m so dumb,” your child mumbles at the kitchen table. He bangs his fist on the table and growls.

He’s working on a writing assignment. Writing does not come easily. Eraser smudges fill his page.

“You’re not dumb, honey,” you say soothingly.

He crumples the paper and yells back, “Yes I am! I’m so stupid! I’m the worst!”

You hang your head in your hands.

Is he just being dramatic? Does he really think he’s dumb?

How to respond to negative self-talk

When negative self-talk spews from your child’s mouth, your knee-jerk reaction is to stop it, give your child some reassurance or convince her that her thinking is flawed.

Unfortunately, your child’s words may match how he feels. He does not feel “loveable” or “wonderful” (as you may suggest); he feels “dumb,” “stupid” and “like the worst kid in the world.”

Instead of swooping in to “fix” the fraught situation, try these tactics instead to address your child’s underlying feeling and internal struggle.

1. Empathize

Put yourself in your child’s shoes and try to understand what she may be feeling. “That writing assignment’s pretty challenging, eh?” 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?”

2. Get curious

Some kids have a hard time verbalizing the problem. When you start to explore the situation together, your child may be able to understand what’s really bugging him. Ask “I wonder why this assignment is tripping you up today” or “Is it all writing assignments or this one in particular?”

3. Rewrite the script

Once you’ve explored, work together to create some new phrases to say. Instead of “Writing is hard. I’m stupid,” your child could say “I’m working hard on writing” or “Making mistakes is part of learning” or even “Mom, I’m so frustrated with this assignment.”

4. Problem-solve together

Resist the urge to suggest a solution or lead your child to an answer that seems right to you. Rather, 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.”

5. 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.

6. Keep your conversations brief. Don’t tackle all of this at once

You’re eager to help your child, but it’s not always easy to accept positive, reassuring comments if you’ve been in a negative-thinking frame of mind.  Expect some resistance at first, especially if your child is not used to seeing things in a different light.

What else can you do? 

Create an environment of support and encouragement by trying these frustration-tolerance tips.

1. Give choices

Let your child have the option to make choices throughout the day such as picking his outfit, afternoon snack or where to do homework. Give positive feedback for good choices and watch your criticism. If you give your child a choice, keep your negative opinions to yourself.

2. Embrace imperfection

Everyone makes mistakes — even parents! Practice using light-hearted responses to mistakes: “Oops! The milk spilled! Let’s wipe it up!” Model healthy ways to handle frustration, apologize after yelling and acknowledge your part in a misunderstanding.

3. Focus on the good

Instead of nit-picking or constantly focusing on things to change, fix or clean, learn to let go. A good rule of thumb: Give five positive statements for every one negative statement.

4. Encourage independence

Kids need parents to help them make good decisions or stay focused, but sometimes constant direction sends the message “You can’t do it on your own.” Instead, ask your child’s opinion and have her offer a solution.

5. 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 of the process rather than only the prize at the end.

6. 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.

7. Seek support

If you have been working with your child for a while and still hear her struggling with negative self-talk, consider help from a local mental health provider. If your child threatens to harm herself or others, get help immediately. 

Looking up from your hands, you meet your child’s eyes.

“This is a frustrating assignment.”

“Yeah,” he replies.

“How can I help?” you ask.

Shrugging, he says, “You could do it for me.”

You both laugh.

It doesn’t change the assignment, but at least you can talk about it without hearing the word “dumb.”

Originally published by Imperfect Families

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