Addressing a child expressing self-hatred or discontent with their life is a delicate matter that requires sensitivity, empathy, and active listening.
Children’s feelings are always big, and so the words they use are big, too. They can’t assess the situation through a balanced view, so they choose the words that best symbolize what’s going on inside, and these words are almost always big.
Moreover, it can be emotionally triggering for us parents to hear our children express such painful words, so it’s crucial to regulate our own emotions before responding.
Here’s a guide on what to say when your child says they hate themselves, along with five alternatives that focus on active listening, empathy, and emotion coaching:
Start With YOU
Before responding, take a moment to regulate your emotions. Hearing a child express self-hatred can evoke strong reactions, and responding from a place of emotional stability is essential.
Avoid reacting with shock, judgment, or frustration. Children need to feel safe expressing their emotions without fear of additional negativity. Anything that sounds like “Oh, common, your life is wonderful” or “There are children with real problems out there” will leave your child disconnected and lonely, feeling no one gets them. And this is not a pleasant feeling, especially when they are not feeling too great already…
Encouraging open communication helps create an environment where your child feels seen, heard, and understood by you. Establishing trust and letting them know their feelings are valid is crucial not only for the now, but also for the future.
Five Alternatives for Responding:
1. Active Listening and Validation:
- Child: “I hate myself.”
- You: “I hear that you’re feeling really upset right now. Can you tell me more about what’s happening so I can understand better?”
This response demonstrates active listening and encourages your child to express their feelings, fostering a sense of validation and connection.
2. Empathy and Understanding:
- Child: “My life is terrible.”
- Parent: “It sounds like you’re going through a tough time. I’m here for you. Can you help me understand what’s making you feel this way?”
By expressing empathy and a willingness to understand, you create an open space for your child to share their concerns. This practice remains the same as your child grows and matures.
3. Emotion Coaching:
- Child: “Everything is awful.”
- Parent: “I can see that you’re feeling overwhelmed. Let’s work through these emotions together. When you say that everything is awful, what’s the first cause that comes to mind?”
Emotion coaching involves guiding your child on their path to recognize and manage their emotions, promoting problem-solving and emotional resilience.
When we help them break down their BIG feelings into smaller sentences, they can start seeing things for what they are.
4. Affirmation of Unconditional Love:
- Child: “I’m a failure.”
- Parent: “I love you no matter what, and we can work through any challenges together. What’s going on that’s making you feel this way?”
Reassuring your child of unconditional love emphasizes the strength of your bond and creates a foundation for support.
5. Seeking Professional Help:
- Child: “I can’t handle life anymore.”
- Parent: “I’m really sorry to hear that you’re feeling this way. It’s important, and I want to help. Let’s talk to a professional together who can provide the support you need.”
If the child expresses thoughts of self-harm or severe distress, suggesting professional help shows a joint commitment to their well-being and safety, and there’s no shame in seeking professional support.
Knowing what to say when your child says they hate themselves or their lives, requires patience, empathy, and an understanding of the child’s perspective. You can create a supportive environment that encourages open communication by practicing active listening, offering empathy, and incorporating emotional coaching.
Remember that children’s feelings are big, and so are their words; when we help them break things down, we enable them to see things as they are, and not as they initially thought of them.
You can do this!
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