“I’ll fail the test!”

“Nobody likes me!”

It’s not uncommon to hear your child utter self-critical statements like these from time to time.

“We all have our inner monologues. But children, more so than adults, tend to overgeneralize, and talk themselves out of being resilient and competent,” explains Rebecca Wood, LCSW, Director of Parents Place in Marin County. She says it can be useful to think about why your child might be engaging in what experts refer to as “negative self-talk”—and learn practical ways to help your child develop a more positive inner voice.

Common Reasons for Negative Self-Talk

  • All-or-nothing thinking. This is when, for example, a child doesn’t do well on one math test and says, “I’m terrible at math.” Children often overgeneralize because of one incidence, says Rebecca. But you can help them be aware of extremes.
  • Perfectionism. If your child sets very high standards for themself, they might be more apt to engage in negative self-talk.
  • Bullying. If a child is being picked on, it can be easy for them to internalize the insults as a reflection of themselves.
  • Seeking attention. Sometimes children engage in negative self-talk out loud in a bid to get attention or receive reassurance.
  • Disappointing events. Not getting cast in the school play, or failing to make that soccer goal, can feel catastrophic in the eyes of a child. The resulting negative self-talk can lead to an avoidance of certain experiences or activities—and a lack of motivation to persevere in the face of future difficulties.

What Parents Can Do to Help

  • Listen and validate. If your child expresses a negative self-belief, your first instinct might be downplay it. But you can get to the heart of the matter if you give your child a safe space in which to open up.“As a parent, you have to be careful. You don’t want kids to shut down,” offers Rebecca. “One piece of advice is to help frame it with a ‘yet,’ as in: ‘You’re right, you aren’t able to play the piano well … yet.’” The goal is to strike a balance between compassionate listening and encouragement.
  • Offer a realistic approach. It might be tempting to counter critical self-talk with optimistic “positive thinking,” but it can be more helpful to offer realistic approach.Remind your child about other challenging times when they persevered, like: “It sounds like he wasn’t being very kind or that day didn’t go well. I remember when you had the same problem with this friend. What can we do now?” “The gist is to help them see beyond catastrophizing,” says Rebecca.
  • Develop mantras. It may sound a bit cheesy at first, but mantras or affirmations can help build self-awareness. You can say something like: “I hear you being hard on yourself. When I get like that, I usually stop and take a few breaths and say ‘I’m doing the best I can’ or ‘the more I practice this the easier it will be.’—Affirmations are self- fulfilling,” reminds Rebecca. “Whatever you hear the most, you’re going to get more of that.”
  • Practice “thought stopping”. If your child is getting in a negative loop of self-critical talk, you can help them practice what Rebecca refers to as “thought stopping.” “That’s when you notice and say to yourself, ‘Oh I’m doing it again, I’m going to stop. I’m not going to give that anymore attention.—
  • Model positive self-talk. “Sometimes parents set a bad example by being so hard on themselves. Kids are watching,” says Rebecca. “Parents can ask themselves, ‘Do I have developmentally appropriate expectations of my child? Am I putting too much pressure on them? Am I presenting a negative mindset?’”Sharing stories of resilience from your own past is a great way to model positive self-talk and teach coping skills.

When to Seek Professional Help

Negative self-talk may be natural, but it can also lead to—or be a cause of—low self-esteem, a learning disability, anxiety, or depression. So how can you tell if your child’s behavior is in the healthy range?

“It’s about frequency and intensity,” says Rebecca. “It could be more serious if a kid starts showing signs of giving up, either socially or with sports or extracurricular activities that previously were enjoyable.”

If you notice changes in your child’s relationships or schoolwork, eating and/or sleeping patterns or unexplained physical symptoms like stomachaches, it might be time to get a professional evaluation.

Rebecca recommends calling Parents Place and starting with a parent consultation. That way, clinicians can get a better sense of the issue and help you work with your child on some of these techniques. Cognitive behavioral therapy might also benefit your child.

Deborah Goldberg is a writer for Jewish Family and Children’s Services and Parents Place.