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One of the most difficult things for parents to hear is their child putting herself down or saying things like, “I can’t do this because I’m dumb,” or “He doesn’t want to be my friend because I’m stupid.” These statements, connected to low self-esteem, are very damaging. And if left unchecked, they can take a huge toll on a child’s self-worth.
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Knowing HOW TO respond to your child when she says negative things about herself is important. You can help her SHIFT the focus from negativity to her abilities and potential. Modeling growth mindset in front of your child is one of the important ways that you can help to lessen that line of thinking.
If you find your child putting herself down using negative self-talk, use these strategies to help her.
1. Acknowledge The Feeling, Not The Words
When your child says that she is “stupid,” “dumb,” or “worthless,” it’s easy as a parent to feel that pain so strongly that you have a difficult time hearing your child objectively.
The frustration that she is feeling, coupled with evidence of low self-esteem, can be shocking and hurtful to parents. It’s important in these moments to remove yourself from the emotions that your child is expressing and listen to what she is really saying.
This isn’t easy, especially because what your child is saying or feeling can change in different contexts, but the expression of the negative self-talk remains the same. To get to the ROOT of the emotion then, you must evaluate the circumstance with empathy.
If you can search out what your child is feeling, and name it, you can help him to identify WHAT is actually bothering him and begin to separate that problem from his own self-worth.
It’s difficult for any person to acknowledge a deeper emotion, especially when a more topical feeling - like “I’m dumb” - is easier to say. This is especially true for younger people who may not have the emotional intelligence and vocabulary to adequately express themselves.
To help your child learn about their emotions and how to name them, use My Emotions Fan activity from the Growth Mindset Activity Kit.
By “naming it to tame it,” as Dr. Dan Siegel says, you are enhancing both your child’s emotional intelligence and their vocabulary.
Ask your child WHAT is frustrating him. For example: “Hey, Luke, can you show me the difficult part in this math homework?”
You can also rephrase the question a couple of different ways to help your child understand WHAT you’re asking. Here are some suggestions:
“Can you show me WHERE things start to get fuzzy for you on this math homework?”
“Your numbers look so great up until THIS point. Is that where things started becoming more challenging?”
When discussing frustrating situations like homework, a social situation, or a hobby, you can help your child to pinpoint where things feel difficult while recognizing where things are going well.
This helps to show that the ENTIRE situation isn’t frustrating, but rather just a part of it. More importantly, it can start a conversation about separating your work from your self-worth.
2. Use Humor To Help Your Child See Things Differently
Sometimes children need a break from the heaviness of taking things too seriously, and you can provide that break by being silly and asking them to join in.
Laughing helps to break up the frustration by physically altering your child’s state of mind. It can provide relief and calm in an otherwise too-intense moment.
Encourage your child to step away from her problem for a break. Have a funny joke contest or see who can think of the best made-up word and definition. Sparking creative thinking and inspiring humor helps your child to CALM DOWN, cheer up, and separate herself from the problem, even if only for a few moments.
Some favorite ways to inject humor into situations are:
- Role-playing a situation, only using the funniest possible circumstance. For example, if your child is worried about going to a school party, you can pretend to be the host of the party, only you’re dressed up as a clown and clown “jokes” keep happening around you, but you don’t know!
- Encourage your child to think of a NEW way to solve the problem while doing a headstand.
- Get dressed up in fun and silly outfits and then come back to tackle the problem as a cowboy, doctor, or puppy.
- Think of how the situation could be different if everyone in it were secretly cows (aliens, robots, etc.) pretending to be people.
- Do fraction problems using candy pieces and eating the numerators!
There are many ways to switch things up and help your child to relax during stressful moments.
Remember, you’re not asking them to approach the problem any less intentionally, but you are showing them that difficult situations can still be fun. Plus, you’ll spark a conversation about the problems your child is facing and different ways to solve them.
3. Use Specific Praise To Show Your Child How Great She Is Doing
Praising a child’s efforts is one of the best ways to focus both you and your child’s attention on the problem-solving tools they are using to get through a situation.
Sharing with your child kind words about his diligence, attention to detail, or ingenuity, when done well, can be motivating and encouraging in tough times.
Refrain from generalized praises like “good job!” Instead, use the words and example in our printable "Parent's Cheat Sheet to Praising Kids" available in the Growth Mindset Printables Kit.
Instead, praise your child’s attitude toward a situation, like this:
“You didn't give up during the entire soccer game! You were so encouraging to your teammates and had a great spirit. It was so fun watching you play!”
This kind of specific praise can feel like simply “noticing” or “sportscasting” what your child is doing, and in a way that’s true.
By telling your child what you NOTICED about his efforts or attitude, you’re allowing him to see the positive side of the situation.
When you remind him how he never gave up, your child can internalize that message. He will also remember how much he wanted to give up when he missed a goal but will recognize the payoff of diligence.
4. Discuss Negative Self-talk
It’s best to discuss negative self-talk when your child is relaxed and comfortable, not when she’s frustrated or overwhelmed. By bringing up the subject calmly, you can create dialogue around the consequences of self-talk and the realities of her words affecting her brain and potential.
Bring up the fact that negative words have definite, physical effects on the brain. Mention that we can impact our results by changing the WAY we talk about ourselves.
Talk to your child about BOTH negative and positive self-talk, using the same words she used.
Explore times when your child has felt down and negative as well as times when she felt brave, strong, or resilient.
Remind your child that feelings are fleeting and so is frustration. If we hold onto those fleeting feelings though and dwell on them, we bring ourselves down and make life seem gloomy.
Realize that negative self-talk is often a symptom of fear, and share that realization with your child. Think together about WHAT your child might be afraid of when she says things like, “I’m dumb.”
Maybe she’s afraid she won’t be able to understand what she’s learning at school. This can escalate into a number of other fears quickly. By addressing the fear of being unintelligent, you can help her find helpful strategies to manage her fears.
5. Talk About Having a Growth Mindset
Talking to your child about his negative self-talk can easily transition into a talk about growth mindset. For example, your child might be worried that he isn’t smart enough.
Together, you can explore how your child’s brain is growing every time he uses it. By doing difficult math problems, your child is TRAINING his brain to be able to do even harder problems in the future!
Encourage your child to create their own brain poster available in the Growth Mindset Printables Kit. It’s a wonderful activity to help them learn about the power of their brain!
Working with the idea that their brains are ever-changing and ever-growing, children can be encouraged to “work out” their brains by tackling new projects and new problems in all areas of their lives. Watch this video by Khan Academy which explains how your brain grows when you struggle with problems.
Children can more easily understand growth mindset when you remind them that just a few years ago, they were babies who couldn’t even sit up on their own. But through lots and lots of PRACTICE, they learned to sit up on their own, and then to crawl, and then to walk.
After you talk to your child about having a growth mindset, it’s important to MODEL what growth mindset looks like and feels like. Do this by embracing your mistakes and talking about them openly. Share your own moments of pride, like your dedication to learning how to knit even though it was really difficult for you.
Use the "We Are a Growth Mindset Family" printable (part of the Growth Mindset Printables Kit) to discuss as a family what it feels like, sounds like, and looks like to have a growth mindset.
Modeling involves a mixture of talk and action. Share with your kids like you would with a friend. Confide in them how you missed a basket when you were shooting hoops with your friends, or about that presentation that didn’t go so well.
Share what you LEARNED from those experiences, and how those experiences gave you “insider’s knowledge” into what NOT to do next time.
Practice growth mindset by being resilient and pressing forward in a long-term goal relentlessly. Let them see you make mistakes in reaching this goal while never losing sight of the end. Answer their questions about your next steps, and celebrate your successes with them.
Our Mindset Posters are great visuals which help children grasp the concepts of fixed versus growth mindset. Don't forget to check out the Big Life Kids podcast too! Each episode explores a growth mindset topic and shares real-life stories to encourage your children.
6. Discuss Your “Best Failures”
Thomas Edison famously said that he didn’t fail over a thousand times when making a lightbulb, but he did find over a thousand ways not to make a lightbulb. This story is beautifully illustrated in our Big Life Journal, in the chapter "Failure is Learning".
You can also use our Famous Failures Kit to discuss the stories of other successful people who once failed but persevered.
Just like Thomas Edison, everything that your child tries to do teaches him something. Many times with new experiences, your child is learning how NOT to interact with something or how NOT to solve a particular problem. This knowledge is just as important as the eventual knowledge of how to get it RIGHT!
A great way to put growth mindset in action and spark dinnertime conversations is to have a “best failures” sharing at the dinner table. Start by sharing one thing that you messed up that day. Focus instead on your ability to make big mistakes and learn from them.
Ask everyone at the dinner table to share something they failed at that day. Maybe a test did not go as planned, or someone missed an important deadline at work. Empathize with each other openly and celebrate the combined LEARNING that your family is achieving every day, despite setbacks and failures.
7. Create An Affectionate, Welcoming Home
Creating a warm, welcoming home life for your children is KEY to helping them feel SAFE enough to fail openly. Strict parents who rigidly enforce rules and expectations often cause their children to feel immense pressure to perform perfectly, acing every test and hitting every target.
Parents who openly fail, praise efforts and hug often inspire kids to try new things, accepting failure as part of the process.
Frequently hug, kiss, high-five, and otherwise physically interact with your children in ways that are comfortable for them. Having that physical closeness provides feelings of safety, love, and affection.
Physical affection helps to lay the foundation for a safe-feeling home that children know they can come to when they’re overwhelmed or in need of extra love.
Another way to create a warm house is with frequent affirmations and affectionate conversations. Remind your kids that you love them, appreciate their unique presence in the house, and like being around them.
Tell them the things that only they bring to your life, like the child who brings dance to your living room or the one who shares a thousand facts about polar bears every day.
When you give your children a strong, warm base to return to, they’re able to explore and experiment because they accept that they’ll be LOVED no matter the results of their efforts.
Try this fun activity Daily Affirmations Mirror with your child!
- A mirror with a thick frame
- Permanent markers
- Some good music
- Put on some fun music.
- Start by thinking of 5 amazing things about your child. Ask them to think of five amazing things about themselves, too.
- Write down these amazing facts on the mirror’s frame in permanent marker. For best results, use lots of fun colors. Have your child write their facts on the frame as well.
- Hang the mirror at eye-level either in your child’s room or somewhere that they can access the mirror daily by themselves.
Use our printable 25 Growth Mindset Statements and Affirmations for affirmation ideas (available in the Growth Mindset Printables Kit).
Ask your child if she wants to stand in front of the mirror and say the five facts about her amazing personality, contributions to the world, and uniqueness. Make sure this is NOT forced and she actually enjoys doing this.
Negative self-talk can have damaging consequences, like depression and low self-esteem. By tackling negative self-talk head-on, you can redirect the conversations to reflect who your child truly is and help them to realize their potential. What a great gift to give to your child that will carry them into adulthood!