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Happy thoughts: Tips for responding to negative self-talk

It’s very normal for kids to experience self-doubt as they learn to navigate making mistakes and those moments where they don’t feel the best about themselves. Sometimes, these feelings of self-doubt can show up in the form of negative self-talk: “I’m so stupid,” “Nobody likes me,” or “I’m a terrible person.” 

When working through these moments, it’s important to open lines of communication with your child and guide them through the experience to prevent them from developing an overall negative sense of self. 

What is negative self-talk?

Negative self-talk is when someone expresses something (verbal or written) about themselves or their lives in a negative sense. Negative expressions of self can range in severity and occur in a variety of situations. A 4-year-old may be getting frustrated that they can’t get something right and say, “I’m so stupid,” or a teenager who is experiencing depression may share a collection of negative self-imagery about who they are.  

Why do kids engage in negative self-talk?

There are many causes for negative self-talk.  For example, negative self-talk may be related to social situations where a child has received negative feedback from family, peers or teachers. If a child feels like they are not doing well managing social situations, that can deeply impact how they see themselves. 

Negative expressions of self can also be related to trauma or stress a child may be experiencing. For example, if a family is going through a parental divorce, the child may internalize what is happening around them by saying things like, “I’m a bad kid.”

As kids are developing their sense of self and experiencing ebbs and flows in self-esteem, it’s important to address these negative self-expressions to avoid them having a larger impact on a child’s sense of who they are as they move into adulthood. 

How to respond to negative self-talk

When a parent hears their child say something like, “I’m so stupid,” their initial instinct may be to respond with, “No, you’re not.” However, this feedback can be hard for kids to hear if they don’t believe it for themselves. Instead, try one of these more effective strategies when responding to negative self-talk: 

  • Provide an alternative way of looking at themselves. Help the child think of some examples that disprove the negative expression they’ve made. If they’re claiming to be stupid, remind them of a test they passed, an obstacle they overcame or any other accomplishment. If they’re claiming to have no friends, bring up some meaningful relationships in their life. Help them to see for themselves that what they’re saying is not true. 

  • Explore the statement. Don’t assume you know why a child is saying something or what emotions are behind the comments. There may be more going on than you’re aware of. Ask probing questions: Why did you say that? What’s happening that’s making you feel that way? Remain curious and get more information from your child about what the comment may really be about. 

  • Help kids see that it’s okay to make mistakes. Kids often use negative expressions at times when they’re learning about mistakes. Let them know it’s okay to make mistakes, and doing something wrong doesn’t change what kind of person they are. Help them see that making mistakes is a great thing to do while they’re still a kid, because as their caregiver, you (and people that love them) are here to help them learn and support their growth. 

Episodes of negative self-talk can often be situational, meaning they’re tied to specific moments like a conflict with a peer (“I’m a bad friend”) or doing something that is not very nice (“I’m a bad person”). Once these issues are resolved, these statements may dissipate. 

However, if negative statements of self are a frequent occurrence with your child or if they’re related to a life stressor or trauma your child is experiencing, you may want to consider seeking additional support. 

When to seek help

It’s important to pay attention to negative self-expressions any time your child is making them. If left unattended, negative statements about oneself can greatly impact your child’s development of self-esteem, which can ultimately impact their ability to later function as an adult. 

When your child is engaging in negative self-talk, look at what else is going on in their life. Are they experiencing stress from a parental split? Social conflicts in their peer group? A breakup with a significant other? Odds are, negative-self talk is a symptom of a larger issue your child may be experiencing. 

At Children’s Wisconsin primary care offices, there are licensed mental health providers called behavioral health consultants who can help provide guidance and determine if your child needs more support. You don’t even need an appointment — you can start by sending a MyChart message to your pediatrician or behavioral health consultant to describe what your child is experiencing and ask if your child needs to be seen (just like you would with a sore throat). 

A behavioral health consultant can then provide you with immediate support (often, they’re available to see you the same day) and guide you on any additional steps you and your child may want to try.