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Why is My Child So Negative and Self-Critical? And How Can I Help?

Self-Criticism in Children

We live in a world full of comparisons and judgements. We are bombarded daily with comments, social media, or news that can make us look down on ourselves. As moms, we are some of the first to look inward and judge ourselves for all the things we are not doing well enough. Contrastingly, kids seem to have it all together, full of self-confidence and bravery. They seem eager to try new things, confident to reach out and make new friends, and bounce back after making mistakes. Although this often feels like the norm, all children will struggle with self doubt at some point, while some struggle with it daily. As moms, we want to encourage our kids and lift them when they’re down. Understanding why kids can be self-critical and how we can help is essential in a world that will constantly try to tell them they’re not enough. 

My daughter recently turned 4. From a young age, she seemed overly confident in her abilities and strengths. If, for example, you told her she looked pretty, she’d respond with a resounding, “Yeah! I know.” However, in the past few weeks, she has become increasingly critical of herself. As I hear various phrases from her mouth, my heart aches. “I just can’t do things. I’m not good enough. All I do is make mistakes. Other people are better than me.” 

Now, as a family who works very hard to reinforce positivity and encouragement with one another, I’ve become so confused as to why she’d be saying such things. I’ve had many nights where I worry, unsure how to help my child and concerned about her mental health. How is it that, at age 4, a child could already be so caught up in the comparison game and self-judgment? What causes a child to be so critical of themselves?

Why is my child being so self-critical?

Regardless of age, it is important to remember that everyone can be critical of themselves at times. However, if your child is being consistently harsh on him or herself, then it’s time to examine what’s happening and make a plan on how we can help! One of the best places to start is pinpointing what may be causing the negativity.

Personality

All kids have different personalities, and some kids are born with the tendency to be more critical. Every individual has a unique mind that functions in equally unique ways, and this includes thinking patterns and how we make conclusions. 

Many children can get stuck in the loop of all-or-nothing thinking. For example, if your child is struggling on a math problem they may say, “This is too hard for me! I’m awful at math.” (A commonly uttered phrase). They assume that just because they struggle with one particular thing, that it applies to all situations. Which, as adults, we know is not true. In these situations, try not to invalidate. For me, it’s so easy to get mad and say, “Don’t talk like that!” But it’s better to be calm and say, “I’m so sorry you feel that way! Let’s talk through this!”

Bullying

One of the most horrifying realities our children will face is bullying. Bullying can start from a very young age. I’ve even seen it in other kids my daughter’s age (4), but it is normally most prevalent in school-aged children and beyond. 

Do your best to ask your child if they’ve been bullied, or watch for signs that it may be happening. Some kids may start to be critical of themselves and look down upon themselves if they are being bullied because they start to believe what is being said to them. If a child is being hurt physically by another child, even if harsh words aren’t being said, self-criticism can increase as they start to wonder if something’s wrong with them that makes them deserve it.

When talking with your child, don’t assume that they aren’t being bullied even if they tell you they are not. Remember, a lot of kids will hide whether or not they are bullied because they don’t want the other kids to get in trouble. They may fear that the bullying will increase if they seek help from a grownup. However, it’s always best to sit down with your child and ask.

Recently I asked my daughter if anyone is mean to her in one of her classes she attends. At first she said no, but when I asked more specific questions, she said, “Well, yes. One of the girls hits me, and I tell her to stop but she won’t. But I don’t want to get her in trouble.”

Teach your kids the importance of talking with you when they are facing difficult situations such as bullying. Make it a safe place for them to discuss by listening intently. Remind your children often that they have value, regardless of what a bully does or says.

Bullying can be detrimental to a child’s mental health, and it’s scary as parents to know how to approach it. If you know your child is experiencing bullying, check out these tips here on what parents can do to help stop it.

Bullying in Children

Learned Behavior

Another reason your child may be increasingly self-critical is because they are learning the behavior from someone they know. Without realizing it, we may say negative things about ourselves in front of our children. The phrases we utter may seem harmless, but kids interpret things literally. If they hear their mom constantly talking negatively about herself, they may start to find similar faults in themselves. 

Take a step back and examine the way you talk about yourself. Are you saying negative things about yourself in front of your kids (even if it’s phrased as a joke)?

Childhood Trauma

Some children experience trauma or abuse in young childhood. Some children that have been through adoption or the foster care system may have experienced heart-wrenching situations prior to being in your care that may influence how they feel about themselves. If you feel this is the case, seeking counseling services to help your child work through their emotions can be very beneficial.

Anxiety or Depression

Mental health challenges seem to be increasing at an exponential rate. And young children are not immune. Childhood trauma, bullying, and family history can all contribute. If you see signs of anxiety and depression in your children, do not brush it off. Getting help as soon as you see symptoms or have concerns can literally save your child’s life. Never assume that your child is too young to experience depression or have suicidal thoughts. It’s a heartbreaking reality, and a reality I’ve personally seen in children in early elementary school. Read up on childhood depression here.

Attention Seeking

Every child needs to feel like they are receiving the attention they deserve. Sometimes when new siblings come along or parents get busy, they may resort to various measures to try to get the attention they need. Examine your everyday schedule and see if maybe your child isn’t getting the one-on-one time they need. If you feel like this is what’s causing the negative self-talk, try not to get frustrated or invalidate your child’s feelings. Instead, focus on giving them the attention they need.

How can I help my child?

Listen

One of the best things you can do, regardless of what’s causing the negativity, is to listen. Be open and calm, and create a safe space for your child so they feel you are approachable. Try not to criticize a child for their feelings, or invalidate them by telling them to “stop feeling that way.” Instead, quietly listen. As adults, we love to vent when we are facing a difficult situation. I know for me, I hate when I vent about something and the listener tries to fix everything right away. So strive to do the same for your own kids. Try not to fix things right away, and just listen.

Listening to your child

Create a Family Mantra

Although some may find it cheesy, having a mantra that you can repeat can help kids when they are struggling. After you’ve listened closely to why they are feeling the negative feelings, have them repeat with you your mantra. For example, “The more I try, the easier it will be,” or “I can do anything I set my mind to.”

When my daughter was struggling with her first week of swimming lessons, she often said, “I can’t do it.” After discussing with her why she felt this way and realizing it came from a place of fear, I found that having her repeat positive affirmations really helped. Whenever she was tempted to say, “I can’t do it,” she’d replace it with, “I KNOW I can do this if I try.”

Teach Kids How to STOP Negative Thoughts

Similar to teaching kids about positive affirmations or mantras is teaching kids how to stop negative thoughts in their tracks. A great way to do this is to teach kids that negative thoughts are like a person that is coming into their mind that we can talk to. When kids are starting to think “I can’t do this,” have them respond to those negative thoughts directly. For example: “Hey! I see you creeping into my mind. You need to go away, because I know that I CAN do this.” Giving the negative thoughts a name can be very beneficial as well. 

Journaling

If your child is old enough to write, have them journal about their emotions and frustrations. Sometimes getting things down on paper can give us the clarity to move forward. If your child is still too young to write, offer to write for them or have them draw pictures about how they feel. 

Positive Things Activities

When my daughter first started being negative, I decided that one of the quickest ways to turn the situation around in that moment was to have her list out positive things. If she complained that it was the “worst day ever,” I’d have her list 5 good and fun things that we did. Her frown would quickly disappear. Now that her negativity is morphing into self-criticism, I’m now having her list positive things about herself or positive things she did during the day. 

The other day she came to me and said, “I’m just the worst sister!” I then worked with her to make a list of 5 things she did that day that made her a good sister. This activity has been very beneficial and shows kids that one bad choice does not define them; doing one unkind thing to their sibling does not make them the “worst sibling ever.” Our lives are made of lots of choices, so examining and listing the positives can help them learn this concept.

Praise Often (and Help Them Learn How to Praise Themselves)

When your child does well at something, offer praise. Thank your child often for the things they do around the house to help you, and tell them what a good job they do. Be specific when offering praise, and try not to use absolute statements like “perfect!” or “Wow! You’re so smart!” Although this seems like a positive way to praise a child, it can actually hurt a child long-term.

For example, Suzy always tells her daughter, "Lucy, you did so good! You’re just so smart,” every time she does well on a homework assignment. Although homework came easy to Lucy when she was younger, school is becoming increasingly more difficult. One day, she receives a homework assignment that is incredibly challenging for her. When she can’t solve the problem, she starts to doubt herself. “I thought I was smart. Mom said I was smart. School used to come easy to me, but this is really challenging for me! Why is it so hard? Am I not smart anymore? Was I ever really smart?”

In situations like these, kids can start to doubt when we offer praise in such an absolute and inflated manner. Instead, always strive to praise a child’s efforts. “Wow, you worked so hard on that homework assignment! You definitely deserve that A!” It's important as parents to learn how to best praise our children so that they will truly benefit from it long term.

Lead By Example

One of the best ways to teach our children is through example. Strive to be positive about yourself and praise your own efforts when you do good things. Be vocal about it so that your children can hear, and learn that it’s okay to think positively about ourselves. You don’t have to be prideful, but reshaping how you talk to yourself can be one of the best things you do for your kids.

Spend Time Together

Although we are all busy, make it a priority to spend one-on-one time with each of your children. This not only helps reduce negativity in children if they are doing so to get attention, but spending time with them will increase your bond and trust, which will make it so much easier for kids to turn to you and talk if they are experiencing bullying, anxiety, or depression.

Seek Professional Help

If, after all your efforts, your child is still struggling, seek help immediately, especially if they are saying things that indicate they may be struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts. It is always better to take it seriously than to assume they’re being dramatic. 

If your child is young and struggling with mental illness, don’t blame yourself or your child. Offer support and reassure them it will be okay. Seeking help from a child or family therapist can do wonders. As someone who needed therapy as a teenager, I can reassure you that it may be one of the most beneficial things you can do to help them work through the emotions. 

Seeking Professional Help for children

Parenting can be hard, and watching our children struggle when all we want to do is take their pain away is heart wrenching. But offering your help and showing support in their darkest times will teach you both lifelong lessons about love and friendship.

Be realistic about children's emotions and don't expect them to be perfect at regulating and navigating them. Because even us adults don't have it under control. We all have weaknesses and faults. Let your kids see that you make mistakes too, and always be that listening ear that they need when they fall.

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