Is my child overly self-critical and what can I do to help them?
Updated: January 2020
While a little self-deprecation never hurt anyone (we Brits are known for it after all!) there are times when some of us can be overly hard on ourselves.
Everyone knows a perfectionist – and although it is not an immediate cause for concern for our children to set high standards for themselves, these can become a problem when they are impossibly high and their self-talk becomes negative. It might reflect a tendency for children to think the worst of themselves.
While constructive feedback and wanting to better ourselves is a positive thing, research has shown that self-criticism is often likely to involve self-bashing rather than self-improvement. This can have adverse effects on our physical and mental health.
It is important to recognise our role in this as caregivers, as children of parents who over-react when their child makes mistakes and have high expectations of good grades are more likely to be overly critical of themselves and to report elevated symptoms of depression or anxiety.
What are signs I can look out for that my child is being overly self-critical?
- The negative self-talk that is persistent and widespread (e.g. “I’m bad at everything.”)
- Perfectionism that is impacting a child’s relationships or school work
- Unrealistic self-criticism (e.g. invited for play dates and says has no friends, or excessively worries about a subject that they excel at)
- Eating and/or sleeping patterns have changed
- Procrastinating and avoiding stressful situations or difficult tasks
- A tendency to be critical of others and highly sensitive to criticism of themselves
- Exhibiting persistent anxiety about making mistakes
- Having strong feelings of inadequacy and low self-confidence
How can I help?
- Listen and validate: Although it may be tempting to ignore when your child first expresses negative feelings, especially if they seem silly or not based in reality, you shouldn’t brush off their comments. Instead, offer a safe place for your child to come up with concerns and try to find out what is going on.
- Offer a realistic approach: Rather than offering overly optimistic and vague ‘positive thinking’, you can use a more realistic approach. For example, if your child says she’s sure no one will talk to her on her first day at a new school, instead of saying: “The first day of school is going to be great and you’re going to make a million friends,” you might suggest, “The first day of school might be a bit scary, but as you settle in you will likely make friends and grow to love it”.
- Promote relaxation techniques: Such as listening to soothing music, counting slowly, taking deep breaths, participating in a hobby, walking, reading or something else that you know helps to calm them.
- Create opportunities for success: You could bake a cake together, or build a puzzle – providing challenges that you can tackle together and talk through will allow them to build confidence while feeling supported by you.
- Emphasise the importance of the F-word: Sometimes it seems we’re more worried about talking about ‘failure’ than…the other F word. Part of learning always involves making mistakes and learning from them. The fun is on the journey to finally get that correct solution, and failure is an important part of that journey.
- Model realistic and positive self-talk: Practice what you preach and try to avoid saying self-critical things about yourself, like fixating on mistakes you’ve made, or worrying out loud about your appearance. Modelling positive self-esteem makes it more likely that your child will pick it up for themselves. Child psychologist Dr Busman suggests offering stories from your own life to relate to your child – this provides examples of non-anxious coping and more realistic self-talk for your child to copy.
- Put it into perspective: If you can identify specifically what upset them or made them make the self-critical statement, e.g. losing a race at sports day, you can help them acknowledge that one bad experience doesn’t equate to them being the worst at something, and in fact, there will be many other opportunities and experiences.
- Involve them in setting realistic standards and goals for themselves: You could make a list together of things that they want to achieve and break down the steps to achieve them. For example, they might want to improve their handwriting, learn to tell the time or ride their bike without stabilisers.
- Help them practise saying kind comments to others and themselves: You could create a ‘kindness chart’ where nice things they have said about themselves or to somebody else are written down, so they can be reminded of the lovely feeling it gave them and how much kindness they have sent out into the world this week.
- Touch base with school: Speak to teachers about what you are hearing from your child. Their perspective might help you see the whole picture of what is going on.
We hope these tips help you support your child in reducing their self-criticism.
However, if the behaviour is persistent and negatively impacting your child’s life, or if it is linked to other troubling shifts in mood and behaviour, it might be time to visit the GP or an educational Psychologist to help determine what is causing the problem.Tags: child development, children, expectations, parenting, school, self criticism
This post was written by Sarah Welland