Family, Kids & Relationships

How to handle your child’s negative self-talk

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Do you ever hear your kid say negative things about themselves, like “nobody likes me”? Isn’t it heartbreaking? It’s a tough parenting moment, but there are some things you can do to help your child out of this cycle of negative thoughts.

Validate their feelings

It’s tough to know what to do when your kid is constantly saying negative stuff like “I’m so dumb” or “I can’t do this!” Your first instinct might be to say the opposite: “No, you’re not!” or “Yes, you can!” Parents mean for it to be comforting and supportive, but immediately denying what your child said can make them feel like you just aren’t listening or don’t understand.

A much more effective strategy is to validate their feelings first. “I know you’re feeling frustrated because this is really hard…” Naming and acknowledging the feelings behind negative thoughts really helps you start to work through them.

Focus on problem-solving

If their negative self-talk is about something they want to get better at, talk about how they can improve with practice or by finding another way to tackle the problem. Tell a story about something that used to be hard for you—or remind them of a persevering character in a book or show that they love. You can also talk about problems they’ve solved in the past to get them more in a “you can do this” frame of mind.

This problem-solving mindset can apply to anything: not just academic or physical skills, but also social and emotional ones, like figuring out strategies for connecting with people when you hear, “No one likes me!”

Foster positive thinking

Negative thoughts may still be blocking them from getting to that place where they WANT to work harder—so you’ll also have to discuss strategies for turning bad thoughts into good ones. 

It might help to come up with a special phrase or mantra to signal that it’s time to snap out of a negative cycle and try thinking positively, like: “Joy is right here,” or “I can shift this moment.” Or, you can borrow a phrase from a story/show/game that they’re currently into!

Create a positive environment

Commit to keeping your language positive (and your thoughts will follow). If you do snap in a moment of stress (we all do sometimes), be sure to apologize for using harsh words.

Try to recognize when the negative thoughts about yourself are creeping in, too. Before saying something negative out loud, take a deep breath and say instead, “This is frustrating, but I’ll figure it out.”

And it’s always a good idea to ramp up “process praise” for everyone in the family. Think: “It’s awesome seeing you try and try again!” rather than: “You did it! You’re so smart!” That way, kids will learn that they can always improve at things, and they’re not stuck with fixed traits like having a hard time with math or making friends.

It can be really hard to see your kids struggling, but by building up a supportive environment for them to make mistakes and grow, you’re giving them a major boost for the long-term. Remember to be gentle and patient with yourself. It takes time to build new healthy habits and unlearn negative patterns, but it will definitely pay off in better mental health for the whole family!

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.