What to say when kids say they hate themselves

June 3, 2009

Jumping off dockA reader asked her six-year-old son why he was acting up and he said: “Because I hate myself, and I’m stupid”  “So now what do we say?” she inquires.

The first thing to consider is whether there is a “right” thing to say in such a moment.  Better might be sincere interest, and non-judgment, about this statement—lead by listening.  If we are able to listen to such painful moments and, metaphorically, sit on our hands and wait, they may say more.  One of the hardest things in parenting is seeing our children in pain and not being immediately able to make it better.

Secondly, we want to move away from a mind-set of “solving problems,” and toward a philosophy of truly relating.  This means that we continually try to see to the subtle heart of things, to the sacred spirit (and not label, problem or issue) of our children.  If we do this, it will teach us to be happy and our kids will grow like wildflowers in a mountain meadow.  Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher who was embraced by the Jesuits, called this sort of relating “the essential deed.”  Like the Buddhists who try to relinquish fear and desire, Buber urged us to see the other as a “thou” and not an “it.”  Even trying to make someone feel better is “it” relating (and parenting often demands this), but simply seeing with compassion, seeing the beauty in what just simply is, takes any and every moment and busts it open in a good way.  Now of course this “essential deed” is MUCH easier said than done, and in the service of this idea I offer to meet you here and encounter your questions in this spirit, oddly acknowledging that this happens when I’m reading what YOU write, when “nothing” would appear to be happening.  Over time these posts may grow shorter, and our Sangha may grow more mindful.

To facilitate this sort of thinking I recommend yoga, and I also highly recommend reading anything by Thich Nhat Hanh.  And now back to the boy who hates himself.

A preliminary thing to say, might be “I’m sorry that you feel stupid, but I hope that you can be proud of yourself for using your words, which shows how even when you think you are bad and stupid, you are actually growing beautifully toward the time when you won’t need to hit or misbehave to communicate.”  I draw the sentence out to make the point.  Less words is better (but we can’t all be Hemmingway).

Just as parents “mirror” children and teach them about who that child is based on their parents’ interest and delight, or disinterest and depression, a child who hates himself and feels stupid begs the question, “Do the parents feel this way about themselves?”  (And can they heal from realizing that having sat down with the child and having allowed them to say how they hurt, also shows growth on the part of the parent?).

Children model themselves upon us in their early years and if we are miserable, it sets a compelling example that may haunt and sadden us when we see it reflected back to us in our children.  Perhaps the wish to love our kids might even get us over our long-held negative opinions of ourselves—and help us understand how it got started in the first place.  Children need ideal parents, and if they happened to have unhappy parents they may be prone to conclude that, since their parents are ideal, the only reason that they are not happy, delighted, patient and calm is precisely because their child is disappointing, bad and stupid.

Busy parents often neglect to reinforce positive behavior, but stop the presses when a child becomes oppositional, or when they express hostility to the parents or toward themselves.  The bigger picture here can be that we are inadvertently reinforcing negative behavior with our attention.  Imagine a child counting nothing but the volume of our words, and doing whatever gets the most words out of our mouths.  Now once a child is miserable, it’s not a great idea to ignore them, but moving forward it can be highly effective to “catch them being good” by commenting, hugging and noticing the behaviors you wish to reinforce.  Some of my favorite comments for positive behaviors are, “I hope you’re feeling good about yourself” or “I hope you’re proud of yourself,” as it tells a child that their own opinion of themselves is more important than our opinion.  This empowers them to trust themselves, and to develop an inner center of control.

Next to consider is the issue of self-esteem.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, the self is like a colander until it forms into a bowl (largely by virtue of accurate attention and empathy); one cannot truly have good self-esteem if one does not have a solid self.  We might reframe the above quoted child’s statement to mean, “I can’t seem to hold my feelings and when I feel too much, I hit or do ‘bad’ things.  And I think I should be able to do better so I’m not good enough.”

Behavior can be ‘bad’ or unacceptable and still not be a mark of character.  The child is asserting that he behaves badly because he’s “stupid.”  This is an example of shame.  In guilt we feel like our behavior was wrong, in shame we feel that we are wrong.  This is why children, and adults, who carry shame, respond to criticism with rage.  They believe that they are bad to the bone and that they are not in control of their behavior.  With greater understanding of self, the bowl of self forms.  With more solid selves, self-esteem develops.

In conclusion, as parents we want to think deeply and work practically.  Cultivating empathy by accurate listening, and reflecting back (i.e. “it sounds like you feel you’re not very smart and you don’t like yourself right now”) is actually more helpful than negating messages of pain by saying, “you’re terrific, how could you think that?”  We can ask them more about what makes them think they are stupid, keeping in mind that this may be a statement of what they feel when they are mad—in a transient moment—and not necessarily what they feel all the time.  After we’ve really heard our child’s pain, we can later clarify that this is not how we see them, but not until they believe that we have seen and heard them where they are.

The negative statements that six-year-old made are clearly a cry for help.  If we assert that we love them, and want to help them feel better about themselves, we can then clarify what our expectations are for behavior.  And then, when a child is being oppositional or aggressive, we can reflect to them that they are feeling badly about themselves.  You might be surprised how, consistently applied, this strategy can move mountains with kids as it builds self-awareness, which increases a child’s sense of self, which in turn creates feelings of autonomy and self-regulation.  Such children get to understand themselves and then naturally behave better because they have learned to be compassionate with themselves through our example.

Let’s dedicate today to compassionate seeing and listening, to “I and Thou” relating—and to sharing notes about how it goes.

Namaste, Bruce

p.s. For more on helping deeply understand your child, as well as many additional and pragmatic strategies for helping them feel better, please consider my book, Privilege of Parenting.  To order the book from Amazon, please CLICK HERE.