Most children, when they hear a sincere compliment, feel pleased and proud. But sometimes compliments make kids cringe or even wish they could sink into the floor and disappear. Some children even respond with anger, argue, or cover their ears when praised.
Here are a few reasons why receiving a compliment feels so uncomfortable for certain kids, plus some possible solutions.
1. The compliment draws attention and makes them self-conscious.
When children are socially anxious, they tend to believe that everyone around them is looking at them and judging them. When they receive a compliment, they imagine that everyone is looking at them and judging whether they deserve the compliment.
Possible solution: Self-conscious children may respond better to private compliments. You might want to wait for a quiet moment, whisper the compliment, put it in a note, or do a more subtle, nonverbal signal, such as a smile or a thumbs-up.
2. The compliment doesn’t match what they believe.
When there’s a mismatch between a compliment and what children believe about themselves, it can heighten negative self-focus and self-judgment. Overblown compliments along the lines of “You’re amazing!” can backfire by making kids focus on all the ways they are not amazing.
Possible solution: Stick with descriptive comments, such as “You finished your homework before dinner!” or “You got all your spelling words right!” You could also focus on how their actions impacted others, to pull their attention outward: “Your sister felt happy that you included her.”
3. They experience the compliment as pressure to perform.
Compliments can make children feel anxious when they think, “I did it once, but I’m not sure I can do it all the time!” They can also feel pressure-filled when they involve a comparison. “You did more than she did!” implies that there’s a competition going on, and your child could lose at any moment.
Possible solution: Focus on progress. Comparing your child’s current state to what came before can help your child feel hopeful. Also, offer compliments that aren’t related to performance. This could involve focusing on effort or strategy. It could also mean focusing on qualities such as kindness, which is within everyone’s reach.
4. They don’t know how to respond.
Some children freeze when they receive compliments because they just don’t know what to say. They don’t want to seem conceited, so they may argue (“That’s not true!”) or put themselves down (“I did a terrible job!”).
Possible solution: Explain that a compliment is like a little gift. Arguing insults the gift-giver’s taste. The correct response to a compliment is a smile and a simple, “Thank you.” You may want to practice this with your child.