I recently saw a post from a mum sharing about how her young daughter had started to express discomfort with her weight, and to call herself fat. And then another post by a mum about how her son was having trouble learning, and had called himself dumb. In both of these situations, I really connected in with how heartbreaking it can be as parents to hear our children saying disparaging things about themselves, especially when we see them as beautiful and bright human beings.
Often our natural inclination is to go straight into offering reassurance, “Oh no, darling, you are not fat, you are just right!”, or “Sweetheart, you’re not dumb. I think you’re very smart!”. I sometimes react in this way when I am not responding more mindfully, but my reassurance inevitably falls on deaf ears.
Sometimes our children’s expressions might have been triggered by things that others have said to them, perhaps someone calling them fat or dumb. And we might advise them not to worry about things that others have said to them, to just ignore them. But we all know that negative judgements from others can be experienced as hurtful.
All of this comes from our best intentions, we really don’t want our dear children thinking these kinds of things about themselves, or feeling hurt when others have said these things about them. We don’t want them to experience the ongoing pain of these negative self judgments. But offering immediate reassurance and advice seems unlikely to make the painful thoughts and feelings just go away.
Instead, I wonder if these kinds of comments might sometimes even do the complete opposite of what we are intending. They might encourage our children to insist even more strongly that they really are that thing they are judging themselves to be (“Yes, I am!”), thereby strengthening their negative self judgements. Or they might shut down our child’s expression, so they stop saying these things out loud in front of us, but continue to think and say them to themselves, experiencing the associated pain in isolation.
So it seems to me that rather than offering reassurance and advice, which might be an attempt to stop our children from thinking and feeling these things, that the opposite might be more helpful. Instead of shutting down the conversation, that it might help to open the conversation up; to welcome the thoughts and feelings that our child is experiencing and offer an empathic ear, even though it can be painful for us to hear our children speaking this way about themselves.
We could say, “Tell me more about how you’re feeling … how this is for you … I’m listening”. We could invite our child to talk freely about any hurtful things they have experienced, and how it felt. If we can gently listen, our child may feel able to let some of their feelings out through crying, and the more we can just listen and show them signs of our love, and let their feelings take their natural course, the clearer they are likely to feel afterwards.
It can be really challenging to listen in this way. As well as being hard to see and hear our children upset, it can also trigger parts of us that resonate with those thoughts and feelings. So one thing that can really help is to find someone to listen to our feelings first, someone who won’t judge us or give us advice, but who will just listen to all our feelings in the same way that we will be wanting to listen to our gorgeous child. This could be a friend, family member, counsellor or listening partner (another parent who we set up to exchange listening time with on a regular basis).
Then it might take a few big listening sessions to make a difference to our child, or perhaps just one, but usually when we allow our children to get it all off their chest, to offload all of the hurt feelings and fears, they soon return to their clearer, more confident selves. They might then be more able to hear that we see them as beautiful and bright, and to really take that in. And in the mean time, we have also strengthened our relationship with them; shown our children that they really can tell us anything, and that we will be there for them unequivocally.
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