Negative self talk looks like, “I’m terrible, I’m stupid, I’m the worst player ever, etc.” My child is incredibly talented and none of what he says is true, but no amount of positive reinforcement seems to help.
This is a great question because it’s really common. I often get calls from parents looking for help because this kind of negative self talk is getting more and more worrisome.
The first thing I ask parents to consider when they contact me about this behavior is when its occurring. Anxious children will often say these kinds of things when they are trying to confront their anxiety in some ways but are failing. For example, a child who is worried about failing a spelling test might say this when they try to study. Or a child who is struggling to go into school alone is sitting in the car unable to get out and go in. They may also say it when they realize their parent is frustrated or unhappy with how things are going or if they think their parent is frustrated or unhappy with how things are going. And many many kids who are on the fight end of fight/flight and freeze say it after their meltdown. They look around at their trashed room or at their unhappy family and feel pretty terrible about it and then say, “I’m the worst. I’m a bad kid.”
If your child is saying these statements in the context of their anxiety then this is part of their anxiety.
Anxious kids are anxious, right? And one of the things they’re anxious about is being able to measure up. They are worried that they are not good enough, not strong enough, and not capable enough.
They are anxious about their anxiety. And they are confusing their anxiety with themselves. Because of course they are. The more anxious a child is, the more their anxiety is ruling their lives and may feel like the most central, most important thing about themselves.
Anxiety tells us lies. It tells us that all the dogs will bite, and that thunder storms will turn into tornadoes and whirl us away, and that our friends are just waiting to laugh at us and that we aren’t good enough. That’s a pervasive lie of anxiety.
Anxiety robs us of our self esteem. The more that we are limited by our anxiety — the more that we are avoiding or limiting ourselves and our loved ones — the worse we feel about ourselves. Other kids can spend the night places. Other kids can speak up in class. Other kids —maybe even our siblings — aren’t driving our parents crazy. No wonder anxious kids often feel bad about themselves.
And this is true, even for the kids who are successful. Perfectionist, anxious kids may be performing at a very high level of functioning, but they still feel bad about themselves. That’s because their best is never good enough and they always feel one mistake away from everything falling apart. Perfectionist, anxious, kids are all or nothing kids. That means that they’re absolutely 100% fantastic or they are abject failures.
And this is why it’s so important that we and our children get support around anxiety. Anxiety tends to go hand in hand with depression in large part because anxiety does such a number on our sense of self. It tells us the lies that we are not good enough. That we must remain small to stay safe. It tells us that we have to avoid adventure in order to stay protected. Or that we must be perfect in order to deserve love.
If you have a child who is saying rotten things about themselves there are a couple of things to know.
The first is that reassuring them that they are wonderful is unlikely to help in the moment. If you’ve taken the Parenting Pitfalls quiz, which you can find at my site child anxiety support dot com, just look in the menu at the top then you know that reassurance is one of those pitfalls. That means that reassuring our children when they are anxious actually makes them more anxious. That reassurance feels good for a minute but then our children acclimate to it and need more of it. Yes, it’s good to tell our kids how great they are but when they are feeling anxious and beating themselves up, we can remind them that this is their anxiety talking. We can say things like,
“Your anxiety is is trying to keep you small right now.” Or even, “Your anxiety is not being very nice to you right now.” When they are not feeling anxious, we can explain how this all works. The first part of helping our anxious kids is teaching them how anxiety functions. We should explain that anxiety is our safety system working over time. It’s good to be concerned about our safety but it’s not good to be so concerned that we’re missing out or beating ourselves up.
We should teach our kids to talk back to their anxiety. Your child says, “I’m stupid” and we can say, “That’s your anxiety talking. What would you like to say back to it.”
Sometimes this is no good in the moment. When our kids are at their most anxious they are in survival mode and can’t access the higher order thinking that logical reasoning requires. In those cases we should wait until their calm and process the negative self talk later.
Again, negative self talk is in itself a form of anxiety in anxious kids and reassurance is going to make things worse.
Which brings us to our own anxiety. It’s really really difficult to hear our kids trash talk themselves. It is painful and it can be scary. Of course we feel anxious when we hear their anxiety coming out this way.
So how do we handle that? In much the same way. First we learn about how anxiety works — ours and our child’s. Second, we learn how to manage anxiety — ours and our child’s. We learn to think in two modes — in the moment, dealing with what’s right in front of us and big picture, dealing with anxiety as a whole. That means having a plan for in the specific anxious moment that feeds the larger plan of helping our anxious child long-term.
In short, if your child is full of negative self talk then:
- Educate them about anxiety and how it shows up including making us think mean things about ourselves that are supposed to keep us small and safe but really end up keeping us small and unhappy;
- Make a plan for what we’ll say to them in the moment, which might be something like, “Your anxiety has its mean voice on today.” Or “Sounds like your anxiety is really trying to keep you small.”
- Create a long-term family plan to support your child in dealing with and facing they anxiety.
- Create a long-term plan to support you in dealing with any anxiety you have in parenting an anxious child.
Have questions about this topic or something else you want to ask? Let me know.