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Why kids say negative things about themselves

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

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“I’m dumb.” “No one likes me.” “I’ll never be good at this.” Why do kids say negative things about themselves? Most kids (and adults) make the occasional negative comment about themselves. 

Sometimes, they want to vent or make a joke. It can also be a way to relate to others. If a negative comment is isolated, it’s usually not something to worry about.

But some kids say bad things about themselves over and over. This is common in kids who struggle in school or who experience more setbacks than other kids. When something bad or disappointing happens, they may see it as part of a pattern that applies to all parts of their life.

For example, a grade-schooler who gets a subtraction problem wrong might say “I can never do anything right.” Or for teens, even the smallest comment or social mishap can feel like the end of the world or a judgment on their abilities.

If kids are constantly saying negative things about themselves, you can help them recognize these thought patterns or “mind traps.” Identifying these patterns can be a first step toward helping kids stop worrying too much or being too hard on themselves.

Dive deeper

Types of negative self-talk

It’s common for kids who learn and think differently to get stuck in negative thinking patterns. Identifying these patterns can help them start to change their thinking.

Here are some common negative thinking patterns in kids:

  • Magnifying: Expecting a small event to turn into a huge catastrophe. (This kind of thinking is sometimes called catastrophizing.) For example: “I got a small cut on my foot. Do I have tetanus? Am I going to die?”

  • Minimizing: Dismissing something positive so it doesn’t change your negative views of yourself. For example, “The teacher only gave me a good grade because she feels sorry for me.”

  • Mind reading: Assuming you know what another person is thinking. For example, “She can’t come to my birthday party. I’m sure she hates me.”

  • “Should” statements: Holding yourself to unreasonable standards. For example, “I should have known no one would laugh at my joke.”

  • All or nothing: Thinking in extremes, like seeing an outcome as all good or all bad. For example, “If I don’t do well on this test, I’m a total failure.” (This is sometimes called polarized thinking.)

Negative self-talk can be a sign of stress or anxiety. Learn how chronic stress can lead to anxiety in kids who struggle in school.

Questions to help you look for patterns

Sometimes, there can be a clear pattern when kids say mean or negative things about themselves. If a child says “I’m so dumb” whenever doing math homework, then something might be going on with math or with homework in general. 

Other times, it’s not so clear. If a child uses negative self-talk after school, it could be related to school. Or it could be something someone said on social media at the end of the school day.

Here are some questions that can help you look for patterns:

  • “I’m curious: What makes you say that about yourself?”

  • “Did something happen during school today that made you feel negative?”

  • “Does anyone you know feel the same way you do?”

  • “What would need to change about that issue for you to feel a different way?”

Learn how to respond when kids say “I’m dumb.”

Next steps

Kids who use negative self-talk over and over may be frustrated or anxious about something specific — even if the comments seem vague. Talking to kids and taking notes on what you’re seeing or hearing can help you figure out what’s fueling the negative self-talk and how to help.

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