“I’m so stupid, I’m SO STUPID!” Most parents at some point are faced with a discouraged, self-condemning child. That’s painful to hear.
Our anxiety often drives us to try to talk a child out of their opinion, in an effort to soothe everyone’s distressed feelings. “You are not, you’re plenty smart!” The child, now feeling invalidated in their discouragement, often makes it their primary goal to enlighten their oblivious parent – “I am too! Nobody else makes a mistake like that. All the kids think I’m dumb!” and the conversation disintegrates into irrational, extreme thinking.
So what’s a truly helpful response when your child hurls condemnation at him or herself? We’ll tackle this question with a real life example from our 20-something daughter.
Bethany typically has a cool head and very strong sense of self-worth. But on this particular day, she realized that failure to sign up for a one-credit college class while still under full-time student status would probably cost her over a thousand dollars. In her precarious financial state, that was a huge deal. And so she ranted, “I’m SO STUPID” several times.
I calmly reflected her words back to her, and looked for the feeling beneath the extreme statement.
“Huh, ‘I’m so stupid.’ Those are pretty strong words. You must be pretty discouraged. That’s not how I think about you, but what’s important is what you’re feeling right now. I’ve seen you be discouraged before, and not label yourself like that. What do you think is behind needing to make such a strong statement this time?”
As we talked, she realized it was a combination of shame and self-protection. She felt like she deserved a verbal lashing for her mistake, and preferred it to come from herself. The logic goes – If I criticize myself, maybe my parents won’t.
This became a great discipleship opportunity to talk about our challenge of hanging onto the truth about ourselves in Christ, and refusing to listen to “The Accuser.” I shared a bit of my own journey with this. After talking about it, I asked, “So, how you might describe your situation more objectively?” She calmly said, “I procrastinated, and it might cost me a lot of money.”
I asked, “What do you think is a helpful way of looking at challenge areas and mistakes?”
We decided to identify the initial trigger that caused the mistake, and then look for ways in which she was making progress with that challenge. We realized that a lack of forward thinking about the natural impact of not getting registered for the class in time was the initial problem. I asked, “What were some times you did well with forward thinking?” We analyzed the instances she identified with questions to strengthen that budding skill: “How did you do that?” “What kind of questions did you ask yourself?” “What was the natural impact of the forward thinking?” Our discussion turned out to be an encouraging and connective conversation.
Apply it now:
When your child wallows in self-condemnation or discouragement:
- Let go of your anxiety, judgments and need to “fix” your child. Instead, validate their emotions without agreeing with their opinion. (This communicates messages of emotional safety and unconditional love.)
- Focus on objective observations and helpful questions. (This communicates the message, “You are capable of thinking this through.”)
- Help them discover their own solutions, either from evaluating past successes related to the issue, or simply asking, “So what would you like to do about how you feel?” (This communicates the message, “You are responsible for your emotions and your choices, not me.”)
As we assume the role of a loving coach when our kids are discouraged, we can capitalize on the great opportunity for growing wisdom and faith.
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