What should I do when my child says “I’m stupid”?

By Bob Cunningham, EdM

Question:

Sometimes my 12-year-old gets really down and says negative things about herself — like “I’m stupid.” Nothing I say seems to make her feel better. What should I do?

Answer:

It can be very painful to hear kids say that about themselves, although it’s not uncommon. The most helpful way to react depends a lot on the situation. Say your child is having difficulty with a task, like homework. In that case, a matter-of-fact response, like “I know this is tricky, but you can do it,” usually works best.

Sometimes, though, kids make statements about being dumb or feeling stupid seemingly out of the blue. Or they may bring it up a few times over a couple of days. In those cases, having a short conversation usually helps.

In any of these instances, an overly emotional response from you likely won’t make the situation better. It’s important to be supportive and caring. But it’s just as important to be realistic. Otherwise, what you say may not seem credible to your child.

Say something like, “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time. I know it’s frustrating, but that doesn’t mean you’re dumb.” If your child is reacting to something that’s challenging, you can often leave it at that and move on.

If you need a longer conversation, open it by saying, “It makes me sad when you say that, because I know it isn’t true. You’re great at basketball, math, and dancing. So tell me why you feel this way.” This opens up the conversation and lets you get a sense of what’s going on.

It’s important to know what not to say. You don’t want to make kids feel any worse than they already do. When your child isn’t feeling confident, it’s tempting to talk about your own struggles or the struggles of siblings or friends. This usually doesn’t make the situation better. It’s more helpful to focus on your child’s frustration or feelings.

How you respond to statements like “I’m stupid” can make a big difference in your child’s self-esteem. Reminding them of their strengths and finding the right balance of honest praise can go a long way.

Read more about how you can help your child build their self-esteem. Find out what a growth mindset is, and why it’s so important.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Bob Cunningham, EdM serves as executive director of learning development at Understood.