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Why Kids Engage in Negative Self-Talk And What You Can Do

It's about exploring, not minimizing feelings, to understand their meaning.

Key points

  • In these moments, children rarely mean exactly what they say. They are in a highly-charged state, flooded with emotions.
  • It is important to avoid trying to talk kids out of their difficult emotions, which does not make the feelings go away.
  • Children need us to seek to understand the meaning of their alarming statements and address the root cause.

“I am so stupid.”

“Nobody likes me.”

“You hate me. You don’t want me in this family.”

Children making negative proclamations about themselves is no doubt very distressing and disturbing. It is painful to think about your child feeling badly about himself.

It is also a very complex phenomenon that can be hard to fully comprehend, because we can't be in our children's brains and know exactly why they are saying something so alarming—what they are experiencing and trying to communicate.

It is important to keep in mind that in these moments, children rarely mean exactly what they say. They are in a highly-charged state, flooded with big emotions that are difficult to experience and process. What they are actually struggling with may not be readily apparent to us nor even to them. But it’s important that we seek to understand the underlying issues, and, most importantly, identify what the child needs in order to work through the distress the proclamations represent.

Why Children Engage in Negative Self-Talk

The child is flooded with big, difficult emotions that get expressed in extreme statements.

Sela blurts out, “You wish I was never born!” when her mom explains that she can’t read a book right at that moment because she has to feed the baby.

Gabe pronounces, “I am so bad at this! I can’t do anything!” when he can’t get the basketball in the hoop after just one try.

Marielle says, “Nobody likes me. I have no friends. She was not chosen that day to be a team captain in soccer.

The child makes self-flagellating remarks to express anger. The fact is that children don’t love limits and are often angry about them. If making worrisome statements (“You just hate me”) leads to you caving on a limit or backing off of a demand your child doesn’t like, it is stored in his brain as a successful strategy. It is reinforced and relied on.

The child has associated worrying her parents with getting a lot of attention. I have had several cases recently in which this dynamic is at play. These kids are struggling with difficult feelings and experiences. They aren’t being manipulative. They have learned that making worrisome, alarming statements will trigger a big reaction and garner a lot of attention from their parents if they say things like, “I wish I was dead” or “I am so stupid. I can’t get anything right.” So this becomes a way of connecting and feeling special in some way.

How to Respond

You don’t have to know exactly what is going on in your child’s head to respond sensitively and helpfully. No matter the root cause, it’s important that your child is heard and her feelings are validated, not judged. Accepting her feelings and seeking to understand them increases the likelihood that you can uncover and address the underlying issue. Consider the following steps.

Avoid minimizing your child’s feelings. Because it is so uncomfortable and painful to think about your child having negative feelings about herself, the default for most parents is to talk or cheerlead their child out of these feelings: “What are you talking about, silly. You are the smartest guy I know.” “That’s not true, everybody likes you.” “That’s crazy! We adore you and love you being part of the family.” “Don’t say you wish you weren’t alive. That’s terrible. You don’t mean that.”

The major mindshift to make is that feelings are not harmful to children. Our job is not to rid or protect our children from their difficult emotions (which is actually not possible), it is to help them understand and effectively cope with all of their feelings.

When we avoid or minimize our children’s feelings, we interfere in this process. We send the message that we are uncomfortable with their difficult emotions and don't want to hear about them. This shuts down the process and makes it less likely children will share their feelings with us, depriving them of a chance to express and work them through. Most importantly, when you can sit with your child’s feelings, he will no longer see that he needs to alarm you to get attention and be heard.

Speak to the underlying feelings you think your child is trying to express. When your child says something negative about his skills/performance: "You don’t like the way the letter you wrote looks. You have a different idea about how it should appear. It feels really uncomfortable and distressing to you when you can’t do something exactly the way you expect or want it to be. I understand.”

Validate and seek to understand ALL feelings. If your child says he wishes he wasn’t alive, you might respond: "That's a really big feeling. I am so glad you are sharing it with me. I always want to know how you are feeling. Tell me more. I want to understand.” Accepting and mirroring your child's feelings soothes his agitated nervous system and helps him get back to a calmer state. This opens up the possibility of looking more objectively at his feelings and experiences.

This is not to say that there is not more work to be done. The underlying issues that are identified--whether it is coping with jealousy toward a sibling, challenges with peers, or lack of confidence and self-esteem—still need to be addressed. It just means that you can move beyond the alarming language and get to the heart of the issue.

Help your child reflect on his feelings/experiences to gain new perspective. When you acknowledge and avoid judging or jumping in to talk your child out of his feelings, he is much more likely to be open to hearing your ideas and perspective.

“I am so glad you told me that you think we don’t want you in this family. I always want to know about and understand your feelings. And it gives me a chance to share how I really feel. I adore and love you deeply. I see that when I set a limit you don’t like, you may be angry with us. And that’s ok. I don’t expect you to like it when I say “no” to something you want. I love you AND need to set limits to be a good mom. That’s my job.”

“Sometimes feelings can be very painful. You want to make them go away, and that turns into a wish that you would go away. I understand. Sitting with difficult feelings is hard but I can help you do that. I am here for you.”

Helping your child develop self-awareness—to gain insight into what makes him tick—is what makes it possible for him to ultimately rethink his perspective and self-assessment.

When to seek professional help
If your child persists in making statements about threatening to harm himself, take it seriously. Let him know that your most important job is to keep him safe, which means seeing a professional who helps children learn to cope with difficult feelings and experiences. You can call this hotline for immediate help if you can’t quickly connect with a local therapist: National Parent Helpline | 1.855.4A.PARENT (1-855-427-2736)

To find a local therapist, consult Psychology Today's directory of providers.

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