Kids say the darnedest things. It is very difficult to hear a child say "I hate myself" or "I hate my body". Parents or other caregivers may wonder what is at the root of such statements, as well as how to help and what to say. Thankfully, with a little listening, detective work and determination most parents will find these words are simply speaking for big feelings that need expression.
According to Kirk Martin, behavioral consultant and founder of celebratecalm.com, kids act on impulse and often say things when they feel bad that are hard for parents to stomach. Martin suggests looking at our own patterns of impulsiveness so we can learn to model and teach actual self-control. Share brief practices such as meditation, conscious relaxation, deep breathing and whole body listening to help children have some space between impulse and action.
Children are always watching others. If someone in a child's environment uses phrases like "I hate myself" when they feel upset, chances are the child will resort to the same when strong emotions hit the scene. Jean Rubel, Ph.D., suggests switching negative self-talk to loving yourself out loud. Say nice things about yourself and your body when your child can hear you such as, "I like my body, my nose and my voice."
A child who feels like he can't do anything right may deduce that he isn't valuable. Kids who feel guilty may say they hate themselves. If he feels like he did something wrong and that his parents or other may not like him, he may feel disdain for himself. Martin shares that in these moments, and overall in parenting, it can help to let children know it's okay to make mistakes and learn from the lessons.
Punishing and shaming children for their actions may lead to feeling afraid when they do something wrong. This can lead to statements of self-hatred and lying. Instead of resorting to punishment, Martin offers that if we calm ourselves and listen we can get inside of the "I hate myself" statement to see what is troubling the child. As we calm ourselves we ease the child's fear and let him know that it's okay to feel what he's feeling while boosting his confidence. For example, a parent could say something like, "You feel pretty bad right now. It sounds like you are frustrated that you fell. I hear that. I've fallen, too. We all do. Look, you got up again."
Emotionally or physically abused children may say they hate themselves because of the pain caused by the abuse. If a parent or caregiver suspects abuse, contact professional help and open the communication by listening while not asking leading or pointed questions. For example, if you suspect abuse you could say to the child, "I am here to listen. You can tell me anything you need to tell me." Clinical psychologist Bruce Steven Dolin, who writes at privilegeofparenting.com, suggests viewing self-directed hate as a cry for help that we can answer by listening, letting children know we love them and that we want to help them feel better about themselves.
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