When our kids say things like “I’m not pretty” or “I’m so dumb” we can easily worry that it is a reflection of how they feel about themselves in general and non-usefully project forward visualising them as teens all bound up in angst and self-hate head to toe in black self-harming to death metal.
It is because as adults those statements have had a bonus 30-40 years of negative meaning and before we know it our fear flags can go up the flagpole and have us projecting our own hurts and perceived deficiencies and reassuring our kids that they ‘are’ or ‘arent’ things or overcompensating and giving potentially more energy to what they have said than it needed. In that moment we have cleared our schedule and our child is more connected-in to us than they have been all day. You can probably see how an unhealthy pattern can easily emerge here if they continue to have connection needs they are trying to get met, and one way we have taught them (through our own actions) to connect in is with that sort of negative self-talk.
Did you have a friend at school that sought connection through saying negative things about themselves? Who frequently needed to be reassured that they weren’t ugly or fat or dumb?
How did all that reassuring you did work out for them? Let me guess- at no point did they turn to you and say “By Jingoes – you’re right. I’m NOT ugly/fat/dumb and with that realisation I will now go forth and just get on with living a hot life full of healthy self confidence”.
What more probably happened is that you pandered to them for a while, started to find them hard work and so started to give them a wide berth in social settings at which point they realised and felt increasingly worse about themselves.
We also don’t want a pattern similar to this happening between us and our kids.
How about if you had have done some of these things listed below (which are far more useful to our kids than the unhealthy loops we can easily get into):
Check-in with whether the meaning our child has for the words they have said are possibly quite different than the meaning we are giving to them
Notice two things – is what they are saying untrue, and how upset they appear to be by what they are saying. Take the example ”I’m so dumb”. It is easy to hear that and start on a tirade of examples of how you know they aren’t and for there to be all sorts of emotion attached. What if they had have said something like ‘I’m a Russian spy”? or “I ate a giraffe for breakfast”? I find it noting that it isn’t true (just at these random examples aren’t true) takes some emotion out and allows us to keep our own emotion in check while we help them self-regulate. Regarding their level of distress. If they aren’t looking physically worried about what they are saying, all the more reason to let that one go through to the keeper.
Obviously when they are distressed and their inner critic is talking up a negative poo-storm then they need us alongside them. Let’s save our energy for these crucial ones. At these times we can help them by:
Noticing out loud to them that they look really concerned (maybe commenting on something about their body language)
Leaving big old pauses as we chat to them about it. Lots of space for them to get their own thoughts together. It is too easy to over-talk when our kids look uncomfortable and we feel the pull to just try and package them back up again
Getting curious about what they mean by what they say. e.g. what IS pretty? Who decided? What happens to the people who look different than that? (all done without any reassurance – it is just us along for an explore with them)
Watching what our self critic says out loud on a daily/weekly/monthly basis
Watching what judgmental comparison is in our child’s world (e.g. magazines laying around bursting with ‘she got fat/thin/bad plastic surgery’ cover stories, other media)
Watching how much we compare others/ourselves/our kids because they will be soaking that up too.
Whose inner critic in your family are you looking to be more usefully alongside? What do you already know that does and does not help?