Inside: Children with negative thinking really struggle with intrusive ideas. Here are several ways you can help stop the negative thoughts.
“I can’t do it! I’m so stupid – I can’t do anything right!”
“Nobody wants to be my friend. I’m a terrible person. I hate myself!”
Statements like these, made by your child, are devastating to hear.
They can stir up a fear within you that hijacks all sense of logic in an instant.
Your initial urge is to jump in with evidence that contradicts their dramatic claims, reassuring them that they are amazing and loved.
But that approach doesn’t seem to work, and they end up more distraught, leaving you to wonder where you went wrong.
You feel helpless, and find yourself wondering what this will mean ten years from now if you can’t get them to see themselves the way you do.
In the end, you both are left to sit with the unresolved emotions that have been triggered by self-doubt and fear.
I hear different versions of this same struggle from many parents, but the underlying concern is the same:
“How do I help my child when they are caught up in negative self-talk? How can I help them stop the negative thoughts?”
Thankfully, there are some simple things you can do that make a real difference.
Here are some tips that I regularly share with parents, and use with my own 8-year-old son who has struggled severely with negative thinking and self-doubt.
Is it normal for a child to have negative thoughts?
As children enter elementary school, they start to become more aware of the differences between themselves and their peers. They recognize that some kids are better at crafts, or that they find reading easy while others struggle.
As a result, they begin to compare themselves with others, becoming more sensitive to their struggles, their mistakes, and how others perceive them.
This is very typical and developmentally appropriate for children between the ages of 5-13 years. (See Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development for more on this).
You can help your child grow in confidence by paying attention to what he is naturally good at, and exposing him to activities that utilize those strengths.
Do you have a child who is naturally coordinated? Try signing him up for sports, or invest in a basketball hoop and soccer net for your home.
Got a budding artist on your hands? Create an art station in your home or sign him up for an art class.
When children are given opportunities to succeed, they feel good about themselves and start to develop a strong sense of self.
As they discover what their strengths and talents are, they gain confidence, which leads to greater resilience and frustration tolerance for inevitable times of struggle.
How to Stop Negative Thoughts – Keep Yourself Regulated
If you find yourself overwhelmed with worry, fear, or guilt when your child gets caught up in negative self-talk, you are not alone. So many parents wonder if it is a sign that they are depressed or anxious, or if it means they will be when they are older.
Other parents have shared the overwhelming sense of fear or guilt they feel, wondering if they have done something to cause their child to feel this kind of pain.
Worry, fear, and guilt are very uncomfortable and vulnerable emotions.
One thing I have learned in my years as a therapist is that people are not good at sitting with discomfort and vulnerability. Instead, they attempt to escape those things through expressions of anger or emotional withdrawal.
Unfortunately, neither of those reactions are going to help your child when she is overcome with negative thoughts and big feelings.
In those moments, she needs you to be a source of strength and reassurance so that she can feel safe in her vulnerability.
When she feels confident in your ability to handle her discomfort, she will be better equipped to sit with those feelings and even explore where they are coming from.
If you find that you become emotionally triggered as a result of her negative self-talk, consider a mantra or a calming strategy to help you stay regulated so you can bring calm to her chaos, instead of adding to it.
One mantra that works for me is: “She is trying to figure herself out, and I am here to help her.”
My go-to calming strategy is to stop whatever I’m doing and become fully present with my child, while also taking slow, deep breaths.
Try Using Empathic Statements
In an attempt to reassure your child and help him feel better, you might find yourself falling into the validation trap; attempting to convince him that his thoughts and feelings aren’t accurate:
“Of course you can do it!”
“You’re not stupid!”
“You have so many friends!”
Unfortunately, rather than validating him, you are actually invalidating him by sending the message that what he is experiencing in that moment is wrong, which will likely cause him to feel misunderstood and defensive.
You might even be met by an emotional, “You just don’t understand!”
Instead of trying to use logic to convince him to see himself the way you do, try offering empathy regarding the emotional experience he is having.
It might sound like one or more of the following:
“You are really having a hard time right now.”
“I can see this is really upsetting to you.”
“That must be really hard.”
“You seem to be feeling really hurt right now.”
“I can imagine how difficult that would be.”
When you offer empathy to your child who is overwhelmed with emotion, you are not saying that you agree with what he is saying or the negative thoughts.
You are simply sending the message that you see him and his struggle in that moment.
And, when he feels seen and understood, he will be able to work through those big emotions, allowing him to return to an emotionally regulated state more quickly.
Work Together to Problem-Solve or Help Increase Self-Awareness
Once your child is emotionally regulated (calm and acting more like herself), validate her again by pointing out the fact that she made it through hard feelings, and thank her for being willing to share her struggles with you.
By responding this way, you are strengthening your connection with her and letting her know that you are a safe place for her to share all of her feelings with you – the good and the bad.
Next, gently bring up the problem (conflict with friends) or the statements (“I’m terrible! I hate myself! Nobody likes me!”) that started the emotional tidal wave, and express curiosity, concern, and a desire to support her.
It is important to note that she must be completely calm and regulated before initiating this step, which may mean that it doesn’t happen for a couple hours or even a couple of days.
When you embark on this step, be sure that you are using empathic, non-judgemental language, so that her defenses don’t go up.
You might lead into the conversation by saying something like:
“Those were some pretty big feelings you were having earlier. I would like to talk with you about where they might have been coming from and how to help you when they come up again.”
“I’m sorry you are having a hard time with your friends lately. I’m happy to listen more when you are ready, and see if we can brainstorm some ways to work through this.”
The goal of the conversation in this step is to help her reflect on the problem from a rational state of mind (as opposed to the emotional state of mind she was in earlier), come up with solutions or different ways of looking at the problem, and increase her self-awareness so she can grow from her struggle.
Processing in this way can be effective with kids as young as two years old, although it will look and sound slightly different at different ages.
The more you do it with them, the better they will be at doing it themselves as they grow into self-aware, emotionally regulated teenagers and adults who become better equipped to deal with negative thoughts.
Beware of These Communication Blocks
In an attempt to help your child feel better, you might find yourself using some of these common communication blocks – or ways of responding that cause him to shut down:
Giving unsolicited advice: “Here’s what I think you should do…”
Making judgements or offering your opinion: “Well, I don’t think he’s a very nice kid anyway.”
Dismissing his feelings: “That’s a bit of an overreaction, don’t you think?”
Placating: “You are great! Don’t worry about it.” or “You’ll be fine – it’s not as bad as it seems.”
Using sarcasm: “Call in the military, the world is ending!”
Distracting: “Oh, come on now! Let’s go get some ice cream. That makes everything better.”
(NOTE: Distracting can be an effective way to help a child or teen get some space so that their emotions have time to settle.
However, it is only effective when used after offering empathy, and when there is an intention to reflect on the issue once the emotions have had time to settle.
In the ineffective example offered above, there is no empathy, and no expressed intent to return to the issue to reflect and find solutions or offer help.
An effective use of distraction might sound like: “Wow, that seems like a really difficult situation. I can see you are really upset. Would you like me to take you to get ice cream, and we can talk about it when you feel ready?”)
If your child refuses to talk about his feelings, or the challenges he is having, pay attention to the ways that you talk to him and see if you are unknowingly using some of these communication blocks.
Telling him about communication blocks and asking him to point them out when you use them is a great way to build a stronger connection with him, making it more likely he will be willing to talk about things next time.
Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
Don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t open up to you the first time you try these techniques, especially if they are new to you. Kids are very intuitive, and know when we are trying out a new skill on them, so might be resistant at first.
However, with practice, you will find the words that feel natural to you and these strategies will become more comfortable for you and your child.
When your child sees that you consistently stay regulated, offering them empathy and support when they are struggling, they will be more open to talking with you about what they are feeling or experiencing.
The end result will be a stronger, more connected relationship between the two of you, and that is the ultimate goal.
A solid parent-child relationship is the foundation for helping your child through all of life’s challenges – from negative thinking and self-talk, to teenage heartbreak, and beyond.
Keira Merkovsky, LCSW // Relationship Cubed
Keira is a licensed Clinical Social Worker who has worked in a group home, public school, and private university settings. She now runs her own private practice called Relationship Cubed. Relationship Cubed aims to create emotionally healthy communities, families, and individuals by implementing researched-based relationship skills into individual counseling, parenting classes and community classes, such as C.A.M.P. Girls.