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when nice words don't help

When Nice Words Don’t Help

Your daughter cries, “I wish I were pretty.” Your son mutters, “I’m stupid.” Or any variation: I’m fat / a loser / the worst player.

Reflexively, you exclaim: “That’s not true! You are attractive / smart / popular / talented!” Your intentions are good. You mean it. But, instead, your compliments seem only to irritate them. Why?

It’s not that your opinion doesn’t matter (although, to your teen, it probably doesn’t). It’s that your child does not believe you. And, your nice words don’t help. They may even hurt.

Most teens I’ve worked with seriously doubt the motives behind their parents’ compliments. Some explain:  “My mom says I’m pretty because she feels sorry for me,” “My dad says I’m smart because he has to. He’s my dad,” “My parents say I’m good just to make me feel better.” These teens can twist warm parental encouragement into a shaming experience.

He doesn’t accept himself. Against this intensely negative self-focus, your compliments don’t stand a chance.

Think of it this way. Imagine (or remember when) your son fell off his bike at age 5, and you announced cheerfully: “You’re fine! Just keep going!” But he actually didn’t feel fine. He was really hurt. Your encouragement may have invalidated his experience. He did not feel understood or supported.

The child who puts herself down does not accept herself. When you insist that she is thin, etc., it invalidates her. She wasn’t understood or supported.

You’ve heard of “vicious cycles…” When you respond with emotional warmth and encouragement to your child’s self-criticisms…you may actually be rewarding her non-acceptance of herself. He learns that he gets flattery and reassurance (even if it’s not totally believable and certainly not enduring) for putting himself down. In a low mood, in a time of self-doubt, she may increasingly berate herself, unconsciously expecting warmth and encouragement. As she negatively judges herself, you amp up compliments, she judges more negatively, and so on.

Self-Criticism through the Ages: How to Respond

Ages 3-4: Surprise: even youngsters this age can come down pretty hard on themselves. Many times, it takes the form of self-harm, such as banging their head on a wall or smacking their face when upset or frustrated.

Ages 5-6: Fit and active children as young as this (boys and girls) have told me they’re “fat.” Body image is no longer just a teen thing. However, self-criticism at this age is more often related to (1) negative mood, (2) frustration, and (3) fears that he/she has disappointed others. Some children may hurt themselves physically. Others use words: “I can’t do this,” “I’m stupid.”

TRY THIS:

  • Be aware of modeling. Assuming you do not hurt yourself (please don’t do that), your child may be picking up on your self-criticism or overly rigid self-expectations.
  • Respond to your child as follows. Imagine he has hit another kid, to get you into this mindset.
    • Adopt a “stop-the-press!” attitude. Stop what you are doing. Look squarely at your child. Without being harsh, be firm. Wear a stern face. Matter-of-factly say, “You are being a bully to yourself. That is not ok. If you do it again, you will get a time out.” If your child repeats it, follow through on time out. If your child stops, wait 1 minute. WAIT. (You do not want to accidentally reinforce self-bullying).
    • After 1 minute (or after time out): Warmly approach your child and explain what happened: “You spilled the juice on the carpet. That was a mistake. You feel bad about it. I’m pretty irritated, too. But mistakes happen. I really like that you care so much to do the right thing. That’s a nice thing about you. You may not bully yourself. Nobody bullies my kid! Help me clean up this mess now.”

Ages 7-9: The developmental task for these kiddos is to develop industry, to decide if they are skillful, motivated, driven, and productive individuals. This is often decided as they compare themselves to others. This age is where self-esteem starts to solidify. Your opinion as a parent is still very important to your child. Self-criticism at this age may stem from viewing peers are more successful/able/capable/attractive/popular, etc. You may expect unflattering comments related to these.

Ages 10-14: The focus turns more and more toward friends and peers.  Your opinion matters less and less. Self-criticism that starts at this age can be a sign of depression and low self-esteem. Ongoing self-loathing has dire social consequences; it is hard to make friends if you don’t like yourself. Occasional self-doubt may be common. It will most often relate to how she sees herself compared to others of her age and gender. A likely source may be peer comments and bullying. Particularly girls who enter puberty early are at risk of negative attention.

TRY THIS:

  • It is very uncommon for children this age to self-harm. If this happens, immediately consult a mental health professional.
  • Respond to your child as follows:
    • Do not let comments go unacknowledged. Giving full attention to your child, say matter-of-factly: “That was a mean thing to say to yourself. Wow.”  Your child will probably reassert her self-criticism. Avoid the impulse to correct her or praise her.
    • Say, “Help me understand that. How are you fat?” Walk your child through a step by step evaluation of his thought process. Continually ask, “What is the evidence?”
      • What if there is evidence? What if your child is fat? Then, you problem-solve with her. Make an appointment with her pediatrician. Discuss diet and exercise, revising grocery lists, family walks, etc. Make a plan and follow through. All the while, support your child’s self-esteem. Tell her not to bully herself.
        • Be aware of the validity in your child’s statements. He is probably not the best player on the team. So, what can he do about that? If he wants to improve, help him develop a self-guided practice routine. All the while, support his self-esteem.
      • You will probably find what’s called a “cognitive error.” It may sound like this: Because I don’t understand algebra, I’m stupid. Explain that error to your child.
        • Change your tactic. Say, “You are good friend. I notice that you encourage, support, and are gentle with your friends. If your friend did not understand algebra, would you tell him he’s stupid?” You will likely discover that his self-rules do not apply to others. Follow this line of reasoning, with the goal of helping your child develop insight into his overly-high self-standards. “Why are the rules different for you?” Explain that he is bullying himself, and that it won’t be tolerated. Offer to assist him with homework or to find academic supports for him.

Ages 15-19: Self-criticism at this age probably stems from a history of failed attempts at relationships, tasks, or improvements. With teens, there can be a range of triggers for self-criticism. Even if your child only occasionally states self-loathing, it’s probably true that she has chronic negative self-statements in her psyche. Depression may be very likely. Children this age are capable of deeper reasoning, understanding, and dialogue. The self-bullying speech will probably interest him, but not have much effect on curbing self-criticism.

TRY THIS:

  • It is very uncommon for children this age to self-harm. If this happens, immediately consult a mental health professional.
  • Respond to your child as follows:
    • Do not let comments go unacknowledged. Giving full attention to your child, say matter-of-factly, “Whoa. That was a tough thing to say about yourself! Are you okay?”  Avoid the impulse to correct her or praise him.
    • Initiate a dialogue, the goal of which is to show how the self-criticism is mood-dependent—it comes from your child feeling sad, anxious or irritable.
      • If the comments are not mood-dependent, and made in a cavalier, joking way, say, “That is not acceptable or funny. And it’s not a good habit. Please stop that.”
      • More likely, the comments are mood-dependent. Help your child identify what triggered the statement, what the mood is, and what she can do to improve her mood. Help her generate coping skills to feel better: listen to music, watch TV, go for a walk, call a friend, read a book, play with the dog, take a shower…
        • Your child may admit, “Even if I were popular / thin / smart/ athletic, I still would not like myself.” If so, make an appointment with a mental health professional.

Self-Esteem (“I got this, Mom”)

Good self-esteem is the ultimate buffer in kids’ lives. It bolsters them during failure. It navigates them through social pressures. It weathers their emotional (and hormonal) storms. It keeps their negative self-statements in check. Good self-esteem encourages kids to try new things. It helps them understand other people, and treat them well. It makes life more enjoyable. Self-esteem is not something kids build on their own. In fact, building self-esteem can have more to do with others than it does with the self.

Parents, your role in your child’s self-esteem is critical. From your child’s birth onward, you get more and more jobs in helping her develop positive self-esteem.

Birth to 1 Year: Good self-esteem starts when babies learn to fulfill their basic needs (love, hunger, comfort) by manipulating parents and caregivers. (“When I cry, Dad hugs me.”) There are 3 jobs for parents.

  1. Love, adore, and cuddle your baby.
  2. Give her everything she demands. There is no such thing as spoiling a child who is 0-6 months old. It takes a newborn a few months to realize he’s actually a separate person from his primary caregiver. (Can you imagine that a-ha moment?) After age 6 months, parents usually notice their child’s manipulation strategies are developing remarkably. You feel like a sucker. Still, meet her needs. But also start to teach effective communication skills. Children between 6-12 months are usually still in the pre-verbal stage; they cannot say what they want. For example, suppose a toy is not working and your son screams and shoves it in your face to fix it. First, validate his frustration (i.e., “Oh, it’s not working? That’s a bummer!”) Second, have him practice handing it to you nicely (i.e., “When you hand it to me without screaming, I’ll help you buddy.”) Third, think out loud as you fix the toy (i.e., “See this thing here. It’s not turning right. If I do this, it will work, see? Here, you try it.”)
  3. Be a model for calm effort in working through problems…and checking the stupid batteries

1 Year to 3 Years: Good self-esteem means feeling brave and secure enough to explore and try new things. There are 4 more jobs for parents:

  1. Avoid “helicopter parenting” by smothering children. Nothing is so sweet as a safe moment to oneself. Encourage her unaccompanied excursions into the next room. Introduce him to the arts (i.e., banging on kitchen pans for drums). Praise her efforts, and the products of them (i.e., hang up her drawings on the fridge). Kids develop bravery by understanding that caregivers will keep them safe, and will be there if anything gets scary.
  2. Don’t neglect your child. Make sure he is in supervised, child-proofed environments that will not punish exploration with injury. When accidents happen (…do coffee-table manufacturers have toddlers?), validate the injury (“Ouch!”) and explain how it can be avoided in the future.
  3. Tell your child multiple times a day what INTRINSIC qualities you admire in her: sustained effort, working through frustration, showing care for others, athletic ability, smart reasoning, bravery, sense of humor, etc. When your child misbehaves, make a point to discourage the behavior, not the child. (“In our house, we don’t hit. You are not the kind of person who hits. Please take a time out.”) Do not under any circumstances apply negative labels to your child. Labels like “lazy,” “dramatic,” “babyish,” “worry wart,” and other unpleasant character appraisals shame your child, and have no positive impacts. Remember: Attribute good behaviors to your child’s character and bad behaviors to your child’s choices. (Behavior charts are a good way to get kids to behave without harming their self-esteem).
  4. Model good self-esteem. Normalize mistakes. Don’t talk down about yourself. Don’t talk down about your spouse. Toddlers are using your skills to build their own. To children, parents are the most attractive, important, effective, and powerful people in the world. (Feeling better about yourself now?)

3-6 Years: Good self-esteem is being able to do stuff for oneself. There are 3 more jobs for parents:

  1. Encourage and expect your child to take more and more responsibility for his Activities of Daily Living (ADL). These include: showering/bathing, brushing hair/teeth, getting dressed, using the toilet independently, feeding oneself appropriately, using the telephone/computer, taking care of pets, cleaning up after oneself, using safe behaviors (buckling self into the car seat), organizing school materials, and so on.
  2. Expect more from your child. It’s OK if kids don’t get ADLs perfect. In fact, they won’t. But it is important that parents have reasonable expectations for children to try their best at each job. High demandingness is one very important part of good parenting. Mandate good effort in a matter-of-fact way. We all have to do things we don’t want to; that’s part of life.
  3. Praise your child. Give warm support and even over-the-top, exaggerated cheers for jobs well done. Be sure to emphasize how proud you are of your child’s efforts, even if the outcome is not great. It’s not your imagination: your child IS incredibly unique, gifted, wonderful, and a genius at being himself. Let him know that.

6-11 Years: Good self-esteem means comparing oneself realistically to others and, in doing so, seeing self-worth. There are 3 more jobs for parents:

  1. The focus for kids this age turns increasingly away from parents to other people (particularly peers). Kids compare themselves to others and see that there are often major differences. For most kids, differences will be both positive and negative. Your child realizes that he is not the best student in math. She sees that she is a great basketball player. He understands that others are more popular. She gets that other kids have family troubles. He sees that other people have more expensive clothes and gadgets. Parents should verbalize values for intrinsic skills and character, and not necessarily for achievements. Be realistic and positive in appraisals of your child. (“Yes, I suppose he is a better pitcher than you. He has spent a lot of time practicing and he’s sure talented. If you work hard, you may be as good as him. If not, no biggie. You’re great at understanding technology.”) Introduce your child to (books about) heroes of character and effort, not heroes whose only attributes are beauty, fame, or fortune (as they see on TV and other media).
  2. Love the child you have, not the child you wanted to have. It’s time to come to terms with possible disappointments, and with, perhaps, your own childhood “failures.” Focus on the things you admire in your child, not on the ways you see her as falling short of your ideals. Strike the balance between pushing your child to do better and recognizing that she may be doing her very best. Indulge his passions, if they’re safe and appropriate.
  3. Keep close ties with your child’s school. Teachers have valuable information about how your child relates to others. Good schools help teachers structure the classroom in ways that help all children feel accepted. Good teachers ensure that children do not feel inferior.

12-20 Years: Good self-esteem is knowing who you are, and who you are not. There are 3 more jobs for parents:

  1. Teenagers have critical questions to answer about themselves, like “Who am I?,” “How do I fit in?,” and “What am I going to do in life?” Questions of identity relate to everything from hair color to religious views. Parents should permit this exploration, and support it. When you push too hard for your child to conform to your views, trouble happens. He may become confused about what’s important to him. Of course, there are family and societal values to be enforced: safe and ethical behaviors. Allowing your child to experiment with substances is not the thing to do. Permitting your child to dress provocatively is not the thing to do. But you may consider letting your child dye his hair. She should be able to select (safe) friends. He may wonder aloud (appropriately) about his sexual, religious, or political orientations.
  2. Forming an identity can take a while. Be patient. This stage spans several years of awkward fashions, silly fads, and important work on the self. Continue to love and support your child through this sometimes difficult stage. Support especially the times when she sticks to her values, while peers do not. For example, praise your son when he elects not to drink alcohol at a teen party.
  3. Avoid being defensive. For kids this age, everything is grist for the mill. Your child may call your rules too strict. She may accuse you of invading her privacy on Facebook or Twitter. He will say things at home aren’t fair. She may say your religious or political views are wrong. While taking into consideration your child’s view (she may have a good point!), remember that her accusations have more to do with her questions about herself. Matter-of-factly state your views, don’t attack his, and show your child how to communicate differences with respect.

An important, final note: mental illness is the arch enemy of good self-esteem. It ruthlessly attacks self-esteem. This can and does happen even for kids who have great parents. Mental illness can interfere with the development of good self-esteem from toddlerhood and up. When a child has poor self-esteem, particularly within the context of a supportive home environment, it’s a red flag for mental illness. The usual culprits are depression, anxiety, and attention problems. Signs of low self-esteem include:

  • Recurrent, unjustified shame and guilt
  • Hopelessness about the future
  • Feeling unlucky, punished, or “waiting for the other shoe to drop”
  • Suicidal ideas or behavior
  • Self-harm ideas or behavior

Children with good self-esteem have experiences–often provided to them by parents–that prepare them well for their future. They expect to succeed in what matters most to them.