It can be painful to hear kids say bad or negative things about themselves. But what does it mean, and is it something to worry about? How can you respond?
Find out why kids use negative self-talk, and what to watch out for.
Negative Self-Talk: What’s Typical for Kids
Most kids, and even 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.
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But some kids say bad things about themselves over and over. This negative self-talk can make kids lose confidence and avoid trying new things.
Why do kids say unkind things about themselves? A common reason is that when something bad or disappointing happens, kids let it seep in to all parts of their life. This is typical for young kids who are frustrated and haven’t yet developed coping skills.
For example, if your child gets a subtraction problem wrong, you might hear: “I stink at math.” This might happen even though they just started learning about subtraction.
A similar thing can happen with tweens and teens. Older kids may be more emotionally mature, but they also feel more pressure from school and friends. Even the smallest failure or comment can feel like the end of the world or a judgment on their abilities.
Kids who are bullied often use negative self-talk, too. The same goes if they’re teased a lot—especially if they can’t yet tell the difference between bullying and the playful teasing that friends sometimes use when they’re joking around.
And in some cases, even the most constructive criticism can lead kids to talk badly about themselves. Kids might overreact to this kind of feedback if it hits a nerve—like if they’re struggling with a skill and aren’t getting better at it no matter how hard they try.
When Negativity Points to Something Else
When kids constantly say mean or negative things about themselves, keep an eye on when it happens. Chances are they’re stressed, frustrated, or anxious about something they’re struggling with. Finding out what that is can help you find ways to help.
Other times, it’s not so clear. If a child uses negative self-talk after school, it may not be obvious why. It could be related to school. Or it could be something someone said on social media at the end of the school day.
That’s why it’s important to take notes on what you’re seeing and hearing. Ask your child questions and gently challenge negative comments. Your child might not answer you right away. But it’s important to start the conversation.
Here are questions you can ask:
“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 differently?”
Often our first instinct when kids say something negative about themselves is to reply with the opposite. If your child says “I’m dumb,” you might want to reply with “No, you’re smart.” This probably doesn’t hurt. But it also doesn’t help you understand what’s happening.