Tolerance and understanding - the complex issue of self-loathing

WHEN a child says ‘I’m stupid, I hate myself’, it can upset parents.

“They often feel very inadequate around their parenting skills. They wonder are they loving enough,” says parent and child therapist Helen Sholdice.

Such a negative, self-directed comment usually happens when a child is aged between six and nine, says Sholdice, because that’s when children become self-conscious.

“At this age, they’re also thinking in a more abstract way. They’re able to express how they feel about themselves and they do so based on earlier life experiences. They have an image of themselves as not good enough and with that comes a feeling of self-loathing.”

Sholdice says it’s tremendously important to children to see what parents think of them. She believes parents can unwittingly put pressure on children in myriads of ways — being critical: ‘you never go to bed on time’; undermining them: ‘oh, give me those shoes, I’ll tie them for you’; or comparing: ‘he’s not able to swim without the arm-bands yet’. “Parents need to approach new learning situations with tolerance and the understanding that children need to do things over and over again before they perfect them.”

When parents hear ‘I’m stupid, I hate myself’, their instinct might be to deny it — ‘you’re not stupid, don’t be saying that’. But the child is bringing to the parent some very tough feelings.

“He’s trying to alert the parent to something. Denial from the parent creates confusion in the child’s mind,” says Sholdice.

Equally unhelpful from the parent is ‘Darling, don’t say you hate yourself — it really upsets me’. “It’s not the parent’s place to burden the child with how he or she feels. The child is already feeling very strongly.”

What’s helpful is to listen and to hold back from responding until the parent has explored with the child what’s going on.

“Reflect back to the child ‘so you think you’re stupid?’ That usually opens the door for the child to say something like ‘yeah, because yesterday at school my friend said I’m really stupid’ or ‘when I was doing my maths homework you told me I wasn’t getting it right’.”

And if the child doesn’t respond? Then, says Sholdice, the parent needs to sit with the statement and to ask ‘I’m wondering if you think that I think you’re stupid’.

The child might say ‘But don’t you think that?’ And the parent has a great window to say ‘No, never’ and to add ‘Sometimes, you don’t find things easy to do but you just keep trying and you’ll get better and better at it’.”


Top tips

— Refrain from denying what your child has said.

— Listen carefully – make a reflective statement: ‘you think you’re stupid’.

— Don’t jump in – wait for response.

— Explore feeling with child.


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