Is there anything more heartbreaking than hearing your child say, "I'm so stupid"? It can feel very uncomfortable to hear our children talk badly about themselves. Children sense our discomfort and may interpret it to mean that their feelings are not normal or okay.
While your automatic response is likely to tell them that nothing could be further from the truth, that they're smart and perfect, there are specific things you can say to your child to help build their confidence when they're hurting.
1. "You seem discouraged. Tell me about it."
While we understandably want to shut down any negative feelings our children are experiencing, we must create room to reflect on the situation. If you're too quick to jump in, you may miss out on an illuminating conversation.
If your child tells you they're stupid, take a breath and try to take a backseat, letting your child lead the conversation. You are much more likely to get a glimpse into how they're actually feeling if you focus more on listening than changing their feelings.
2. "I need your help."
To give your kid's confidence a boost, try asking them for help.
Think of something your kid is great at and let them know that you see their special talents and that they have value. Does your child know the name of every dinosaur ever discovered? Ask for their help in making a dino card for a cousin's birthday.
Do they love playing basketball? Ask them to show you how to shoot a layup. Let your child feel like the expert and experience the self-confidence that comes with the role.
3. "I remember when you learned to read.
"Children may feel unintelligent when they're working hard at a new skill and it isn't clicking. Help them remember something hard they mastered in the past, whether it's tying their shoes or learning to read. Remind them of how hard the skill used to be, and how easy it is for them now.
4. "I feel that way about myself sometimes too."
Be a little bit vulnerable and let them know that you don't always feel great about yourself either. Talk about how silly you felt when you realized your shirt was on backward or when you got lost and were late to meet your friends.
Our children see us as superheroes and knowing that we struggle with confidence too can make their feelings a little less scary.
5. "Some things take a lot of practice."
Let your child know that some of the most interesting, rewarding things in life take a lot of practice. Whether it's learning a new language or learning to play an instrument, new things are hard, and that's okay.
Talk to them about how their favorite musician had to start at the beginning and learn how to play the guitar, or how their favorite baseball player had to learn to pitch. Talk to them about how you had to practice a lot to get better at yoga and how your first class felt a little bit scary. That doesn't mean you're bad at yoga, you just had to practice.
Put the emphasis on hard work and practice, rather than talent and natural ability, to encourage your child to persevere and welcome the challenge that comes with learning something new.
6. "I love you just the way you are."
Whatever the reason your child is feeling down about themselves, there is nothing more comforting than hearing that you love them just as they are, without expectations or caveats.
Try to make time for a few extra snuggles and say, "I love you" while your child is working through their feelings.
7. "Good job! You kept trying and figured it out all by yourself."
While telling your child they're smart is a natural instinct, putting too much emphasis on their intelligence can actually make them afraid. Afraid to fail, let you down and try.
While there's no need to completely censor your natural inclination to praise your child's intelligence, try to focus on praising the process. Let them know that you see their perseverance, their focus and their tenacity. Let them know these are the things that matter.
Remember to offer encouragement, but try to stay calm and let them lead. Otherwise, they may become so fascinated by our strong reaction that they keep saying "I'm stupid" far longer than they otherwise would.
Build your child up, praise their hard work and process, and trust that their confidence will grow with time and encouragement.