My 11-year-old son has really low self-esteem
Ask the Expert: My son keeps saying he is stupid and has no friends
Encourage your son to challenge his own thinking so he can learn to reassure himself.
Question: My son, who was 11 last week, has really low self-esteem. He is always saying things such as, “I am bad at this” or “I can’t do that”, and getting really frustrated with himself. This is despite the fact that he is very capable and can do most of the things he is talking about. When he talks about school, he keeps saying he is stupid and has no friends. Once again, this is not true.
We have talked to the teacher, and she says he is doing above average and is very well behaved in class. Though he is a quieter boy, he does have friends and two in particular who come on regular play dates. When he puts himself down, myself and my husband try to reassure him and tell him that what he is saying is simply not true, that he has friends or is doing well in school, etc.
But our reassurance does not seem to be going in. Also it gets a little bit wearing and exhausting at times. Now I am wondering is there is something else wrong that I am not picking up.
What would you advise?
Answer: Many children get into the habit of being self-critical or putting themselves down, which you see in your son when he says “I can’t do that” or “I’m stupid”. Sometimes it is a sign of perfectionism, where they might avoid doing something for fear of failure or sometimes it is a lack of belief in their ability (despite the fact they are well capable). Whatever the reason it is hard to witness your child being self-critical like this and you can wonder if it has a specific cause such as stress in school or actually being put down or bullied by others. In responding, the key is to strike a balance between listening carefully to draw him out and reassuring him to support him to manage better.
Listening and drawing your son out
When your son says something such as “I have no friends” or “I’m stupid”, as well as gently reassuring him that this is not true, it is worth taking some time to listen and to gently probe – “What makes you say that?” or “How come you think that way?” Giving him a bit of space to talk will help you understand what is going through his mind and how he is thinking about things. It is also worth checking with him if there are any specific triggers to what he is saying.
For example, you might gently ask: “Did something happen today that has upset you?” “Did someone say something today to upset you?” This will help you gauge whether he is experiencing any particular stresses that he might need to talk about with you. Even if there are no big problems going on for him, his lack of confidence could be triggered by everyday events that he might have blown out of proportion such as negatively interpreting a teacher’s comment or what a friend said to him.
Either way, getting him to talk about the specifics of what is on his mind will help him feel better and gives you a chance to help him. He might initially find it hard to talk and then it is important to be patient and give him the message that you are there to listen when he is ready.
However, often there may not be a specific trigger and his self-critical reaction is simply a habit he has got into that comes from a sense of insecurity. In these situations it is important to acknowledge this: “I think this is just your habit of putting yourself down” and then to look to reassure him.
Reassuring your son effectively
When our children are self-critical, our immediate reaction as parents is to jump to be reassuring and to say the opposite of what they are saying. For example, if your son says he is stupid, you might immediately say, “Well, that is not true, I know you are very clever.” While such reassurance can work sometimes (and children benefit from hearing their parents express positive beliefs about them), it can be less effective with children with more ingrained patterns of self-criticism. In these situations, the goal is to encourage your son to challenge his own thinking so he can learn to reassure himself.
For example, if he says he is stupid, you might help him challenge this by asking: “Is that really true? Isn’t that something you say to yourself when you find some of your homework hard? Don’t you always get it done in the end?” Then you might encourage him to think differently by asking questions such as “What does it say about you, that you always get the homework done? What does it mean that your teacher gives you good marks for it?”
You can also encourage your son to positively “coach” himself when he experiences a challenge – “Instead of putting yourself down, what can you say to yourself when you find the homework hard?” When I work with children, I encourage them to write down a series of coaching statements (such as “I know I can do it when I put my mind to it”) that they can use to counteract their negative thinking.
Encouraging your son to self-challenge and to come up with new ways of thinking about himself is more effective in the long term, though it takes a lot of patience and persistence as a parent. Do seek further support from a professional if you need it.
John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is author of several parenting books, including Positive Parenting and Parenting for Teenagers. See solutiontalk.ie for details of courses and articles.