“I’m so dumb,” your child mumbles at the kitchen table. He bangs his fist on the table and growls.

He’s working on a writing assignment. Writing does not come easy. Eraser smudges fill his page showing that he was not happy with his previous attempts.

“You’re not dumb, honey,” you say soothingly.

He crumples the paper and yells back, “Yes I am! I’m so stupid! I’m the worst!”

You hang your head in your hands.

Is he just being dramatic? Does he really think he’s dumb?

How to respond to negative self-talk.

When negative self-talk spews from your child’s mouth, your knee-jerk reaction is to stop it. To give your child some reassurance or to convince them that their thinking is flawed.

Unfortunately, their words may match their feelings. They do not feel “loveable” or “wonderful” (as you may suggest), they feel “dumb,” “stupid,” and “like the worst kid in the world.”

Instead of moving in to fix it, try these ideas to address the underlying feeling and their internal struggle.

  • Empathize: Put yourself in their shoes and try to understand what they may be feeling. “That writing assignment’s pretty challenging, eh?” or “Wow, sounds like you’re feeling frustrated!” If you can’t think of what to say, try a simple response like, “That’s tough” or “Need a hug?”
  • Get curious: Some kids have a hard time verbalizing the problem. When you start to explore the situation together, they may be able to understand what’s really bugging them. “I wonder why this assignment is tripping you up today.” or “Is it all writing assignments or this one in particular?”
  • Rewrite the script: Once you’ve explored, you can work together to create some new phrases to try. Instead of “Writing is hard. I’m stupid,” your child could say, “I’m working hard on writing” or “Making mistakes is part of learning.” Or even, “Mom, I’m so frustrated with this assignment.”
  • Problem-solve together: Resist the urge to suggest a solution to the problem or lead them to an answer that seems right to you. Work as a team. Sometimes, there is no easy solution or quick fix because the answer is, “I have to keep practicing” or “I am working toward the goal.”
  • Challenge thoughts and feelings: Feelings come and go, they do not define you. Your child may FEEL unloveable, but feeling something doesn’t mean it’s true. Someone can struggle and not be stupid. Talk about times when your child has overcome something difficult and felt confident or excited.

Keep your conversations brief, don’t tackle all of this at once.

You’re eager to help your child, but it’s not always easy to accept positive, reassuring comments if you’ve been in a negative-thinking frame of mind. Expect some resistance at first. Especially if your child is not used to seeing things in a different light.

What else can you do?

Create an environment of support, encouragement and teach frustration tolerance using these tips.

  • Give Choices: Let your child have the option to make choices throughout the day, picking their outfit, afternoon snack, or where to do their homework. Give positive feedback for good choices and watch your criticism! If you give them a choice, keep your negative opinions to yourself.
  • Embrace Imperfection: Everyone makes mistakes – even you! Practice using light-hearted responses to mistakes, “Oops! The milk spilled! Let’s wipe it up!” Model healthy ways to handle frustration, apologize after yelling, or acknowledge your part in a misunderstanding.
  • Focus on the Good: Instead of nit-picking or constantly focusing on things that need to be changed, fixed or cleaned, learn to let go. Building or repairing relationship may be more important than a tidy bedroom. Try to give 5 positive statements to every 1 negative statement.
  • Encourage Independence: Kids need parents to help them make good decisions or stay focused, but sometimes constant direction sends the message: “You can’t do it on your own.” Brainstorm or problem-solve together, ask your child’s opinion or have him offer a solution.
  • Value Perseverance: Focus on the little steps that lead to success, overcoming an obstacle, or moving closer to a goal. Phrases such as, “You’re working really hard on that…” or “That took a lot of effort!” help your child see the benefit in the process rather than the prize at the end.
  • Teach Coping Skills: Expose your child to a variety of coping and calming skills, work on deep breathing and create positive, helpful mantras. Practice these skills often so your child is prepared and knows how to handle frustrating situations and discouraging thoughts.
  • Seek support: If you have been working with your child for a while and still hear them struggling with negative self-talk, or if they threaten to harm themselves or others, it may be time to seek help from a local mental health provider. (If your child is suicidal, please get help immediately)

Looking up from your hands, you meet your child’s eyes.

“This is a frustrating assignment.”

“Yeah.” He replies.

“How can I help?” you ask.

Shrugging, he replies, “you could do it for me.”

You both laugh.

It doesn’t change the assignment, but at least you can talk about it without hearing the word “dumb.”

For more suggestions, Check out Katie Hurley’s post, “How to Help Your Negative Thinker.”


These conversations are not always easy. If you are struggling to know what to say (or what not to say!) Parent Coaching can help! We’ll meet “face-to-face” to talk through these challenges and you’ll receive personalized solutions that work for your unique family. Schedule an appointment today!

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