It’s heartbreaking to watch kids who are too hard on themselves. Maybe your child compares themselves to others and feels they’re not good enough in some way (e.g., “I hate my curly hair!”, “I’m stupid”, “I’m terrible at math” or “nobody likes me”). Or perhaps they’re so anxious about performing poorly that they won’t try new activities.
When your child is hard on themselves, they’ve already started to form beliefs about what’s good, what makes people worthy or “popular”, and what’s not good. They’ve begun to adopt standards by which they judge themselves.
Because beliefs are often subconscious for both parents and children, it can be hard to determine exactly where their beliefs came from. However, we can do a lot to turn this around.
The key to helping kids who are too hard on themselves is to practice focusing more on their feelings and experiences, and less on expectations and external standards.
1. Acknowledge their feelings and experience.
When they’re judging themselves, don’t tell them that what they’ve said isn’t true. They’re actually having painful feelings which they may not have words to express.
Here’s an example:
- Your child has just gotten 5/10 on a spelling test after studying for it and says, “I’m stupid. I’m never going to be a good speller”
- You say, with deep empathy in your voice, “You’re feeling so disappointed after studying so hard, and getting 5/10.” (It can help to remember a recent experience in which you felt huge disappointment to get into that empathetic feeling yourself, but don’t tell them about your experience. Keep it about them.)
- If no response, or they continue to judge themselves, maybe you’ll add a bit more: “You really wanted to get a better mark after studying that much. I’m so sorry. That’s really hard.”
- Stay with the feelings. If they keep talking, you can continue to acknowledge with a nod of your head or, “mmmhmm”.
- Remember, you don’t have to fix it or make the disappointment go away.
- Notice if they seem ready for some comfort, maybe a hug or to snuggle with a blanket and a family pet for a while, and offer if it soothes them.
- At a later time, after their disappointment has eased, you may be able to help them reflect on their expectations of themselves, and help them learn the value of their effort. This may even be the next day. It’s important not to do it too soon. Examples of discussions you could have:
- Normalize the belief that no one is good at everything. “I know it’s hard when you get 5/10 and other kids do better. It’s important to remember that everyone has things they’re good at, and everyone has things they have to work harder at. Math is something you don’t have to work as hard at, and you still get pretty high marks. Spelling is harder for you. Everyone is like that.”
- Help your child learn to value effort over outcome. “It’s most important that you’ve tried your hardest and done your best. I know you did that and it takes courage to try even when you’re not sure how well you’ll do. You were brave” Focusing on your child’s effort rather than outcome, and teaching them that everything takes effort, will cultivate resilience and grit in your child.
- Keep your comments gentle while watching for their response. If they return to judging themselves, stop teaching them and go back to acknowledging their feelings.
When we acknowledge our kids’ grief and painful feelings, they stay connected to their feelings, and we help them to appraise themselves realistically.
The ability to accurately assess your own areas of strength and weakness is associated with higher self esteem and self-confidence.
2. Avoid saying, “good job”.
Using value judgements, such as “good” or “bad” when commenting on your child’s behaviour or accomplishments teaches them to judge themselves and others. They are external standards.
You may be thinking, “But I always praise my child. Shouldn’t that increase their self-confidence?” That’s what I thought, too! But when my son started judging himself harshly, despite how much I’d been giving him positive feedback on his accomplishments, I had to re-examine at my beliefs and approach.
While I agree it seems logical that praise would increase a child’s confidence, that’s not how it works. The research on this is clear and has been replicated many, many times over the past few decades. Here’s why.
Value judgment words teach your kids to judge their work, because even if you’re “judging” it as good today, the next time they do something that doesn’t turn out the way they hoped, they’ll judge it as bad.
A more helpful approach, when your child accomplishes something, is to focus your comments on your observation. So rather than saying it’s “good” or “great”, you share something you notice.
For example, to your child who’s improving on riding his bicycle independently:
- You could say, “I noticed that you rode all the way to the end of the driveway today on your new bicycle without having to stop and put your feet down.”
- Watch for their response.
- Maybe their face will light up when you’ve noticed what they did, and you could add (if it feels right), “I can tell you’re feeling pretty happy about that. I’m happy for you too!”
Notice that this response will bring their attention back to feelings again, showing that you’ve noticed the feelings that they’re having. In contrast, if you’re too quick to tell them that you think it’s “good” or that you’re happy about it, the different response, although subtle, will often shift them to be more focused on your approval in future, not their own inner good feeling of accomplishment.
I’ve shared more tips in this article on how “Good Job” Feeds Your Child’s Inner Critic.
3. Do your own healing work if you’re a perfectionist, and have anxiety or shame.
Often kids who are too hard on themselves have one or two perfectionist parents. This was certainly true of me, but I thought I’d healed enough of that before having my son to prevent me from passing it on. Seeing my son harshly judge his creations and himself at around age 7 made me realize I hadn’t. It was the motivation for me to dive deeply into the research and write a book on how to change this intergenerational pattern.
Perfectionism is associated with disconnection from your body and feelings, and a tendency to use your thoughts and beliefs to judge yourself and others. Most perfectionists (if not all) have anxiety. You may not realize you have anxiety. I didn’t. I thought I was just highly competent in many areas. And I was, by some standards, but as I worked through the layers in my own healing process, I realized that:
- I was hypervigilant because of my anxiety, and often intervened in situations that weren’t necessarily unsafe, preventing my son from making “mistakes” or having “discomfort”.
- My anxiety (although I wasn’t aware of it) was compelling me to praise my son, and “fix” his disappointment without letting him feel it for too long (or prevent it from happening in the first place). I had lots of past painful experiences of feeling not good enough, and I was super determined to be a “good Mom” and prevent that from happening to him.
- I had an active Inner Critic that keeps me hypervigilant–trying to keep me “good enough” as a person, Mom, wife, daughter. Underneath it all at a subconscious level was a basic need to feel loved, accepted, worthy.
- I had a hard time staying present with my child’s feelings, especially disappointment. I tended to jump in and fix it.
I did these subconsciously, without a lot of awareness of my own inner process. I’ve done a lot of healing work to learn to stay calmer, and lowering my anxiety has not only helped me be calmer with my son but has helped in my marriage and other areas of my life as well. Somatic work is very helpful for anxiety and perfectionism because it helps you reconnect with your body, sensations, and intuitive knowing.
You can help kids who are too hard on themselves learn to be more compassionate with themselves by drawing their attention back to their feelings and inner landscape, and by avoiding value judgment language. Also, you can be better equipped to raise confident kids when you do some healing work for your anxiety because it can help you reconnect with your own feelings first, and thereby attune to your kids and help them to stay focused on their feelings rather than others’ (or your) approval. Over time, these practices heal perfectionism and self-judgment at their root cause, creating lasting change for your kids and future generations.
Image Credit: Unsplash, Nathan Hanna