Ministry of Education, Guyana

Most Effective Ways to Help Kids Who Are Too Hard on Themselves

As a parent, you want your children to feel happy and confident about themselves. You also want them to have a healthy self-esteem. But at some point, your children may say things about themselves that will cause you some concern. Negative statements about their physical appearance, academic performance, athletic ability, peer interactions, or overall existence may be unexpected and unsettling as a parent.

There are some children who are too hard on themselves, so it’s important to address this and help them learn to be more gentle on themselves. Here are some of the most effective ways to help your children who are too hard on themselves.

Come alongside them in their struggles. Hold the space for them. Let them know it’s okay to struggle (since we know the struggles will not last). Kids don’t have the capacity to think too far into the future, so whatever they are experiencing in the moment does feel like forever. You might say: “It is hard to feel like that. I’m right here with you.” They need to know you will be there, that their feelings are not too much for you to handle, and that you will be with them throughout the journey. What a beautiful gift that is!

Teach them the skills they lack. Some kids are hard on themselves because they continually feel like they fail to meet stated expectations. It is important to equip them in this area. Once you know why they’re struggling, you can better equip them with the skills they need to overcome the struggle in the future. You might say: “Let’s get creative and find ways to overcome this struggle.” If they are struggling academically, maybe they need a tutor, extra time with a teacher, join a peer study group, enroll in classes that teach the same subject from a different perspective. They will be less likely to be hard on themselves if they actually have the skill to overcome the struggle.

Use encouraging language. Rather than expecting the worst or communicating through warnings, use more encouraging language so they can begin to internalize that same language for themselves. You might say: “You’re not catching onto adding two numbers yet. I believe in you and know you’ll get there.” Your overt language becomes their self-talk. So, if you want to raise a child who speaks kindly about themselves, they need to hear it first from the adults in their lives.

Encourage them to sit with their discomfort. Kids often receive the message that uncomfortable feelings are bad. So, they take great efforts to deny, ignore, or distract themselves from these feelings. They may also internalize those feelings as a sign that they’re flawed in some way. These uncomfortable feelings may show up as boredom, loneliness, sadness, rejection, or anxiety. Most people don’t like these feelings and try to get through them or over them as quickly as possible. The problem with this thinking is that there are no bad feelings. Feelings are part of the human experience. It is not possible to turn off some feelings and leave the other feelings intact. That’s not how feelings work. Shutting off some feelings runs the risk of numbing out completely or losing the ability to decipher one’s true feelings. You can say: “I know it doesn’t feel good to feel lonely. Let’s sit with that feeling for a bit together. Let’s describe how loneliness feels and where we feel it in our body.”

Model flexible thinking. Knowing when to pivot and make needed adjustments is not as easy as it sounds. However, negative self-talk tends to keep children trapped in a negative communication loop. You can say to your child, “You have gotten in the habit of saying negative things about yourself. Let’s think of some other reasons why you didn’t earn the grade you wanted on that test.” This gives them the message that although this is a problem, there are other ways to handle the situation.

Help them learn frustration tolerance. Frustration tolerance is the ability to work through a challenging problem and then eventually figure out a solution. Building frustration tolerance helps to build emotional and social development. Provide small opportunities for your child to practice missing their goal, failing an assignment, or not meeting expectations without getting reprimanded for it or being rescued by you to figure it out. Allow them to work through feeling the frustration and then learning how to tolerate it. Start small if this is a challenge for them and then make it more challenging. Games based on chance (like Candy Land or Chutes & Ladders) are great ways to build this skill. They will learn to take turns, how to work through their feelings when they are losing or winning, and practice more adaptive ways of interacting with others regardless of the result.


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