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The Informed Parent

Negative Self-Talk In Children

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Apr. 07, 2014

Every once in awhile an Informed Parent reader writes with a question about effective parenting. Recently, a mom wrote that sometimes when she disciplines her daughter the child says to her, “I’m a horrible daughter”. This concerned mother wanted to know what to do when this happens.

This is an interesting question because often a parent’s first feeling is self-doubt. “What have I done wrong? What have I said to make my child feel so bad about herself?” she wonders. But other more confusing feelings and thoughts may arise. Perhaps the parent falls into feeling horrible about herself. She may want to try making the child feel better. She may even feel irritated. As strange as it sounds, this may be exactly what the child wants--to make her parent feel as bad as she does, or to engage her parent into feeling sorry for her, or perhaps to annoy her.

When children use loaded statements like saying they are horrible they often have two unconscious goals: first, to get attention; second, to get revenge, meaning that children want to make their parents feel as bad as they do. Your own feelings can give a clue about the motive. Attention seeking usually results in a parent either feeling annoyed or having a desire to reassure the child. Revenge causes feelings of deep hurt or the desire to hurt back.

Determining how to handle the behavior begins by becoming aware of your feelings. Take a minute to check in. “How am I feeling when I hear my child say she is horrible, or dumb, or not worth anything?” If you have the desire to make her feel better by saying something like, ”Oh, no. You’re not. You are wonderful, and I love you. Please don’t say things like that about yourself,” probably the motive is a plea for attention.

On the other hand, if you feel deeply wounded by the statement or think the child is trying to push your buttons so that you respond by retaliating with a mean remark, she is probably seeking revenge.

Attention Seeking

If you determine that your child wants attention, ignore the negative statement and calmly say, “Right now we’re talking about (whatever she did requiring discipline)“ She may be so surprised at your response and non-engagement that she stops. Or she may escalate her behavior by saying something like, “Did you hear me? I said I’m a horrible daughter!” You can respond by saying, “Yes, I heard you,” and continue with the task at hand. At a later time, address her self-negativity.

Revenge Or The Desire To Cause Pain

If you believe that the child’s motive is to hurt you when she makes a self-accusatory statement, keep an assured tone to your voice and a posture of self-confidence. If you respond with a hurt look or a sigh and droop your shoulders as if you don’t know how to proceed, you can expect the negative behavior to continue and even increase. In situations where children want their parent to feel bad, it is easy to get into power struggles. Avoid this by not trying to convince her that she is other than what she’s stated. That is a discussion that can come later.

Children are smart. They learn very early how to get what they want and avoid what they don’t. In the case of discipline, they will try to pull you off track so that the discipline doesn’t take place. The timing of their self-negativity is not accidental. Parents need to remain strong in their effective parenting skills to they don’t get hooked.

So, What's A Parent To Do?

  • Learn the tools of effective communication and discipline so that you address misbehavior without blaming the child. Use “I statements” such as, “I feel betrayed when you lie to me,” or “I was frightened when I saw you climbing onto the kitchen counter.” Then continue with a reasonable consequence. Using “You statements” like, “You never tell me the truth,” or “Why do you always have to climb on the counter?” lead to power struggles and discussions that have little to do with the behavior you want to address.
  • Practice paying attention to your feelings to see if they lead you to the goal of the misbehavior.
  • When a child’s behaviors are for seeking attention, ignore them when possible. Give acknowledging statements for positive behaviors. Remember that coaxing, reminding, and cajoling the child toward positive behavior gives undue attention and will cause the inappropriate attention-seeking behaviors to continue.
  • If the child’s behavior seems to be for revenge, to make you feel bad or hurt, avoid retaliation, power struggles, and feeling injured. Find ways to build trust into the relationship and show love.

All behavior, positive and negative, has a social purpose. The daughter of The Informed Parent reader most probably either wants attention or for her mom to feel hurt by her negative self-statement. When parents learn and use positive parenting skills such as those discussed in The Informed Parent, children learn to get what they want in positive ways. They recognize that they are loved, accepted, and appreciated even when they have done something that requires parental discipline.

Sometimes children fail to respond positively to even the most effective parenting. If this is the case, talk with the pediatrician. Suggestions will be made about steps to follow.

The important thing to remember is that you will not be blamed for being a “bad “ parent if your child fails to respond to positive parenting. Creating and maintaining happy, functional families requires on-going learning and support. By reaching out for help you are taking the necessary steps toward establishing harmonious family relationships.

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