The other day my six year old fell riding her bike. When I went over to her to comfort her, she was crying because she skinned her knee, but she was also saying she hates herself. I didn’t know how to handle it or what to think.
It probably does not take a psychologist to tell you that kids (especially young kids) often speak in code. Kids, lacking complete emotional awareness and abstract cognitive/language skills, have a hard time explaining what is really going on with them. Sometimes “I hate myself” means “The experience of falling off my bike was horrific and terrible and intolerable to me” and sometimes “I hate myself” actually means “I just turned into the curb and stumbled, so I feel a sense of shame and self-loathing for making that mistake.”
Whether the child is crying out with “I hate this EXPERIENCE SO SO SO MUCH!” or “I had a bad experience/made a mistake, so I hate MYSELF SO SO MUCH!” a formative parental teaching opportunity exists:
A child who makes a mistake or has a bad experience, and thus feels bad about himself is PERSONALIZING. We know that PERSONALIZING (automatically interpreting negative experiences/other people as having something to do with one’s self) is a fast-track to shame and depression. We also know that it is possible to TEACH a child not to PERSONALIZE.
A child who encounters a negative experience, and concludes that his whole life is terrible, is CATASTROPHIZING. We know that CATASTROPHIZING (interpreting negative experiences as absolutely horrific and intolerable) is a fast-track to anxiety and depression. We also know that it is possible to TEACH a child not to CATASTROPHIZE.
In either case, nipping this way of thinking in the bud is very important. There are several things you as a parent can do to help a child see a situation realistically as opposed to taking negative scenarios personally and/or catastrophizing:
- Check your own reactions. Some children (like my middle child, and possibly like your child) are highly sensitive. They absorb the non-verbal cues and nuances of others, and quickly integrate those into their interpretations of themselves and their lives. My son has said “I hate myself” a few times in his life, each time after I have given an intense non-verbal reaction to something he did or experienced. A few months ago, he accidentally poked himself with a fork because he had taped the fork to his chair and then sat down on it (yes, this insane story is legit. They love duct tape and playing “inventor”). I freaked out because he was bleeding, and my highly sensitive child interpreted my reaction as anger toward him. In a split second, he was given the non-verbal message “you incurred my disapproval and wrath because you forgot about your fork on the chair.” It is emotionally dangerous when sensitive kids absorb our intense non-verbals before they have learned alternative explanations to buffer their shame and fear. It is important to try to keep tension, discord, and heated anger to a minimum in the household with young children who are prone to absorbing and integrating messages of anger and disapproval. However, try as we may to be perpetually calm and collected, I know not one parent who is in fact a robot. Therefore, on those rare occasions where intensity ensues, it is important to explain reality to the child: “Mommy was scared that you got hurt, not mad at you.”
- Label her feelings and “reframe” her thoughts. Labeling her actual feelings is important, because personalizing and catastrophizing creep-in easily when a child’s emotions are confusing and overwhelming. “Reframing” is when you take an irrational thought/assumption and phrase it in a way that is grounded in reality. When your daughter says “I hate myself,” you could label her feelings and reframe by saying something like: “It sounds like you feel a little embarrassed and angry with yourself for hitting the curb. Honey, making mistakes is perfectly okay. Mistakes teach you things, and making a mistake never means you are a bad person.” **
- Self-disclose. A major risk-factor for personalizing is feeling a sense of “shame.” Shame is the fear or belief that you are bad (which is different from “guilt,” which is the belief that something you did was bad.). My favorite way to diminish a child’s shame is to introduce that child to the concept that even adults who they respect and idolize, have made similar mistakes/learned similar lessons. “When I was seven, I got distracted on my bike one time, and fell right in a big puddle!”
- DON’T sugar-coat, but DO say “this is situational and/or temporary.” A major risk-factor for catastrophizing is the expectation that the bad things in life are ubiquitous and long-lasting. While empathizing-with her negative emotions is important (“I’m so sorry that you feel scared and embarrassed right now.“), it is also important to emphasize how these feelings are temporary and contained to the particular situation. However, saying bluntly, “you’ll feel better in no time,” can come across as dismissive and invalidating. Instead, when you catch your child playing and having fun twenty minutes later, point out matter-of-factly that “your yucky feeling only lasted 14 minutes- That’s the cool thing about yucky feelings, they only last a certain number of minutes….”
- Ask your child for two alternative facts: If your child says, “I hate myself,” have her tell you two things she DOES like about herself. If she says (or you suspect she also means) “I hate my life” or “This whole day/experience/etc. is catastrophic,” ask her to tell you two things she likes about the situation/her life. Of course, it is unlikely that your child will participate in such a conversation in-the-moment when she is upset, but quiet/calm times like while driving or before-bed are good opportunities to revisit the topic.
Unfortunately, repeated catastrophic and personalizing thinking often goes hand in hand with depression and anxiety. If you notice that your child tends to make self-deprecating and/or catastrophic conclusions often (or shows any other signs of depression or anxiety), please seek out a good pediatric therapist who will continue to help your child understand and manage her experiences in a healthy manner.
** Note: In some rare cases, a child may use self-loathing as a tool to manipulate the scenario by eliciting sympathy and attention. If you come to this conclusion, do not be angry and punishing. Rather, remember that attention and consideration are basic human needs, and simply aim to teach your child more appropriate and direct ways of meeting these needs. Therefore, if you suspect that your child is intentionally trying to elicit sympathy/attention, the same rules of labeling and reframing apply: “It sounds like you are feeling really alone and overlooked, and maybe you’re thinking that if you say mean things about yourself, Mommy will show you love. The truth is, mommy will give you cuddles if you just tell her you need a hug.”
Of course, Mom-caught-off-guard, no parent ever wants to hear their child say they hate themselves. But unfortunately “I hate myself” is a phrase all-too-familiar to many parents of kids who personalize and catastrophize. I hope that this article has helped you and other parents feel more equipped to help your children learn and grow from these situations.
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