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‘My seven-year-old is very negative and this can be very difficult to tackle’

Negative self-thinking and low self-esteem go hand in hand. Build your child’s self-esteem

‘The level of negativity can be very hard to turn around.’ Photograph: iStock

Question: My seven-year-old daughter seems to have very low self-esteem. Most of the time, she is happy, content and hard-working, but she can get upset easily and talks very negatively about herself. She says things like she is an idiot, wishes the world didn't exist, wishes she was dead, is going to kill herself.

She has a secure family life, one younger brother, some extracurricular activities and is able to keep up with school work. We praise her, are affectionate with her and are always open to talking about feelings. The level of negativity can be very hard to turn around.

I am worried about her coping skills and confidence as she gets older.

Answer: As a parent, it is very upsetting to hear your child speak negatively about themselves. This is especially the case when they are very young and you think they should be happy-go-lucky and enjoying their childhood. Hearing your child express dark thoughts of frustration and anger directed towards themselves can make us worry greatly and wonder how they will cope in the future. This is all the more confusing when there are no obvious reasons for this negativity, as is the case with your daughter, who has a secure, happy family life.

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Understanding negative emotions

Experiencing intense negative emotions in response to the stresses and strains of living is normal for everyone, and children are no different than adults. Whereas adults have a lifetime of learning to manage these emotions, young children are only starting out in their learning. That is why it is much more common for children to have tantrums and meltdowns when overwhelmed by these emotions (though adults often have tantrums too). Some children express these emotions outward, blaming and attacking others for how they feel. Other children internalise these emotions and blame themselves – “I am an idiot” or “I hate myself” and so on. Emotional regulation is learning to neither blame yourself nor others for how you feel. Emotionally intelligent people are aware of their negative emotions, but don’t over-react to them and instead learn how to express these emotions appropriately. As a parent the goal is to help your children compassionately understand their emotions so they can manage them better.

Below are some ideas as to how to do this.

Notice how you normally react

Sometimes our reactions as parents can make things worse. For example, it is easy to become frustrated when a child is continually negative. We can think they are being ungrateful and resent how their negativity is affecting others. This can cause us to react angrily or in a dismissive way. Alternatively, we can become overly reassuring and not listen to their feelings – “Don’t be silly, you have nothing to worry about”. Noticing our repeated emotional reactions to our children, and the impact of these, is the first step to positive change.

Validate your child’s emotions

Make sure to respond empathically when your daughter expresses strong negative emotions. The goal is draw her out and to encourage her to tell you more – “You sound really upset … Tell me what is bothering you.” Make sure to name and normalise her emotions: “You sound very frustrated that things did not go your way. It’s normal to feel that way. It’s a sign you care.” Patiently listening to a child’s upset emotions is a good way to help diffuse them. If you don’t have time in the moment to listen to your feelings, sometimes you can postpone the discussion: “We have to get ready now … Let’s talk more when you get home.”

Soothe negative emotions

Take time to show your daughter how to soothe her negative emotions so they don’t take over. This can be as simple as giving her time to vent and say how she feels. Sometimes all a young child needs is a good cry and a hug from a caring parent to help them move on and feel better. Others need to be distracted by doing something physical such as going for walk or listening to music or doing a relaxing activity. Notice what works for your daughter. What soothes her and helps her feel better?

Challenge your daughter’s thinking

When your daughter makes negative self-statements it helps if you gently challenge the thinking that underpins them: “You just made a mistake, that does not mean you’re an idiot. Everyone makes mistakes.” When she says worrying statements such as “I want to kill myself”, draw her out using a compassionate tone of voice: “What makes you say that?” You want to encourage her to express the thoughts that underpin her statement so you can challenge them: “Is that really true? You are being very hard on yourself … We all love you” and so on.

Notice triggers for her negativity

Sometimes there are very specific triggers for a child’s bout of negativity that you can address. For example, some children might have a meltdown when they come home from school (indicating stress at school). For other this might happen when they are going to a social activity (indicating social anxiety) or attending a sport (suggesting stress about performance). You can work at changing these triggers and teaching them skills for managing these challenging social situations.

Build your daughter’s self-esteem

Negative self-thinking and low self-esteem go hand in hand. You can patiently build your daughter's self-esteem by helping her discover and express her strengths, identifying activities and hobbies that she enjoys and is passionate about, as well as giving her responsibility and facilitating her to learn new skills she can be proud of. It is also important to keep your own relationship with her warm and fun. Make sure you have daily fun activities and chats with her where you can really encourage her. A reliable and warm relationship with a parent is the biggest boost to a child's self-esteem. For more ideas on building children's self-esteem, see my previous six-part series on The Irish Times website.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. See solutiontalk.ie