We hear kids say negative things about themselves all the time: “I’m so stupid!” “Nobody likes me.” And, of course, “I’m fat.” Or “I’m ugly.” Sometimes these things are throwaway lines, or fishing for reassurance. They may be harmless. But what experts call negative self-talk can also reflect an unhealthy tendency in kids to think the worst of themselves, and that can lead to—or be a sign of—something more serious.

What is self-talk?

Self-talk is essentially our inner monologue, explains Rachel Busman, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute. It can be a way of narrating what is happening around you, practicing language, and guiding yourself through a task.

While self-talk is often constructive, it can also go the other way. We all engage in self-critical behavior from time to time, and it isn’t an immediate cause for concern. But it’s useful to think about why your child might be talking herself down, and when it might reflect a problem.

Globalized thinking

Kids often make statements about themselves that reflect “all or none thinking,” explains Lisa Brown, PsyD, a private practitioner and psychologist at the Rodeph Sholom Day School in New York. For example, when a child doesn’t do well in one soccer game and exclaims, “I stink at soccer!” When this kind of globalized thinking persists, she says, it “can affect how children think and feel about themselves in general.”

Perfectionism

“Children who set impossibly high standards for themselves,” says Dr. Brown, “are prone to engage in negative self-talk.” These perfectionists can be so hard on themselves that they run themselves down trying to reach their goals.

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