5 Things You Should Tell Your Self-Critical Child

Being self-critical is natural and can help you improve. But too much of negative self-talk is unhealthy and is a cause for concern. What will you do if you find your child being too hard on herself?

By Amrita Gracias  • 9 min read

5 Things You Should Tell Your Self-Critical Child

'I’m not good enough', 'I can’t do this', 'I won’t be able to do it', 'I’m terrible at this '— as a parent, you must have heard your child express such thoughts. 

Yes, it is normal for children to feel frustrated and disappointed when they are unable to do something. But, if you hear your child frequently make such negative statements, it's time to sit up and take notice. Your child is most likely overly self-critical.

The self-critical child

It is natural for children to indulge in negative self-talk, occasionally. But how will you know if your child is overly self-critical?

“A self-critical child is a sad, unhappy person whose mind is filled with negative thoughts about himself. He doesn’t think much of himself, yet seeks to be a perfect person. He says things like ‘I knew I wasn’t good enough’ or ‘Others are better than me'. He is also quick to criticise himself and engages in negative self-talk.” Arundhati Swamy, Counsellor, Head Parent-Engagement Programmes, ParentCircle 

So, it is possible that a child who is always hard on himself nurtures feelings of disappointment and defeat.

What promotes an overly self-critical attitude?

When parents have high expectations from their child and she is unable to live up to them, she can end up feeling that she isn’t good enough. The child struggles to cope with the feelings that arise as a result. Which means, the child ends up becoming highly judgemental and self-critical.

Also, when parents set the bar too high for themselves or are hard on themselves, they tend to pass on that quality to their children as well. Children of such parents may also feel that they need to succeed all the time, which is an unrealistically high expectation.

There are cases, however, when a child might even resort to self-criticism to seek attention or to manipulate others. At the same time, this attitude could simply indicate that a child lacks grit or resilience.

How does self-criticism affect a child?

“Negative self-talk prevents a child’s confidence from improving. He prefers to give up rather than work hard and is afraid of making mistakes,” says Arundhati Swamy. “Poor self-image makes him an easy target for bullies and the lack of self-belief deters him from making use of opportunities. He becomes anxious about performance and evaluation. The low feelings can later develop into depression and anxiety,” she explains.

What you should tell your self-critical child

  1. 'I know how it feels when things don’t go right' — Acknowledge your child's emotions: When you witness your child being self-critical, acknowledge her feelings and try to understand why she feels this way. Don’t dismiss her statements as silly or unimportant; be empathetic, instead. Help her calm down and then listen to what she has to say. This will help her learn to remain in control of her feelings before they escalate or cause her to have a meltdown. Offer words of comfort like, 'I know how it must feel when you cannot get the answers right', or 'It’s okay to feel upset because you couldn’t do it'. It is also important that you take time to deal with your own disappointment before you begin to comfort your child.
  2. 'It’s okay to not get it right the first time' — Failure is a stepping stone to success: When a child attempts something new, it’s quite common for him to not succeed at first. This can make him feel frustrated and defeated. The key here, however, is to make your child understand that it’s absolutely okay to fall, falter or fail. So, tell him 'It’s alright to not get it right the first time', or 'It’s okay if you didn’t succeed'. By doing so, you are helping him understand that there's nothing wrong with being unsuccessful initially, and that he should treat failures as learning experiences. Make your child realise the importance of continuing to try rather than simply give up on himself.
  3. 'I know you can do it' — Affirm faith in her ability: If you are familiar with the judgemental phrases your child uses, the next you hear her put herself down, counter it with positivity. Self-criticism can be extremely discouraging to others as well, so it is important that you continue to provide your child with support and encouragement. A pep talk can help. You can try saying something like, 'Just because you got it wrong doesn’t mean you aren’t good at it' or 'I know you can do it. Have faith in yourself'.
  4. 'You can do it if you put in your best efforts' — Be realistic: Praise and encouragement go a long way. But don't offer false praise. For example, if your child is upset or anxious about an upcoming project, you may be tempted to say 'Your project is going to win hands down' or 'You’re the best'. Saying so can make your child feel that you have high expectations of him. And, when he is unable to meet the expectations, it will only cause him to become more self-critical. Instead, appreciate and praise your child's efforts. For example, you can say, 'I’m proud that you tried your best' or 'It’s great that you put in your best effort'. Such words can make your child feel encouraged. 
  5. 'I know I can do this' — Model positive vibes: As parents, we are sometimes critical of ourselves when we make mistakes. Since our children are constantly watching and modelling our behaviours, we must remember to not be too self-deprecatory. If you are upset at the way something has turned out, you could say, 'I’m disappointed at the way things have turned out, but hopefully, I can do better the next time'. Another great way to set a positive example is to tell your child about difficult situations that you experienced while growing up, and how you overcame them. Keep in mind that parents too need to stop being judgemental of ourselves. Remember, stories of resilience and success can help your child fight negativity and defeat in a more positive manner.  

The self-critical child is driven to perform better, every time. This can be constructive but it can also be harmful, if taken to extremes. So, it is important that you help your child understand the fine line between eagerness to succeed and striving for perfection. Instead, be supportive and help him realise his strengths so that he is not always so self-critical. Remember, a balanced approach is the healthiest way to grow.  

Looking for fun ways to keep your preschooler engaged at home during the pandemic? Check out Little Learners at Home, a home learning programme specifically designed for 3 to 5 year olds by our team of experts.

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