My 10 year old daughter seems to be really hard on herself. She says things like “I am stupid, I am ugly.” It really breaks my heart. Words just don’t seem to make a difference. Is this a self-esteem issue? How can I help her?It seems to be time for some detective work on your part. Something is probably making her feel this way. It’s your job not just to reassure your daughter, but to help her find out why she feels this way.
Here are some possibilities : (1) media images of overly thin young women, (2) changes in the shape of her body, (3) some kind of failure, like a poor grade on a project or the loss of a friend to a rival, (4) teasing by classmates, who often pick on anything a child is sensitive about or just toss out general insults to see who is receptive to believing them, (5) ongoing verbal criticism by an angry adult, or (6) coming out the loser in comparisons with other girls.
Keep these things in mind, but don’t suggest to your daughter why she may feel this way. Just ask her an open-ended question about why she feels stupid and ugly, then listen intently to her answer without interrupting. It’s very tempting to want to interrupt and reassure her that she is beautiful and intelligent, but she won’t believe it just because you say it, and will continue to ask you for reassurance over and over again, unless you get to the root of the problem.
Whatever the problem is, don’t rush in to suggest a solution, but let her come to her own conclusions. She may realize her failure on a school assignment had a specific cause which she can change next time. Or she may realize her disloyal friend wasn’t really worth having as a friend. It’s amazing what just listening to her talk will do. If she cries, don’t try to stop it, but allow her to get in touch with and express her feelings. We have emotions to point us to things that are wrong in our lives, so that we can do something about those situations. If she learns to pay attention to her feelings, she has a skill that will help her all her life.
After she has gone through this process, she may or may not require more from you : it depends on what the problem is. If the problem is with your daughter’s body image, comparing herself to models or to some kind of ideal, and noticing changes in her body, it is best that her mother rather than her father talk with her about it. Girls can feel “creepy” and embarrassed talking about these things with their fathers. Reassurance (and statistics about normal bodies) will help, but not until she has talked about how she feels and why. If the problem is with teasing, she may need you to intervene with the school – but don’t do this unless she authorizes you to do so; such interventions can backfire and make life more difficult for the child.
The most difficult problem is if a parent, grandparent or teacher is shaming her, telling her, for example, that she looks ugly in certain clothes or that she is stupid when she breaks a dish. In this case it’s necessary to confront the problem at its source, that is, the person who’s treating her this way. When children are shamed or emotionally abused by their parents, they internalize this shame and abuse and continue to say to themselves the things their parents have said to them, often for their whole lives. If this is going on, you need to find a way to make it stop. If you’re unable to do this, you can try to counter it by positive statements – but it’s been said that it takes nine positives to make up for one negative.
It doesn’t necessarily take verbal abuse for self-esteem to drop. Our competitive society teaches children to compare themselves in beauty, strength and accomplishment, and decide who are “winners” and who are “losers.” We reinforce this when we make such comparisons, something we tend to do when our children come out on top. However, they learn from this that our appreciation of them is conditional on their being better than others, and later they devalue themselves when they don’t do as well or have a “bad hair day.” It’s important that we stop evaluating our children, positively as well as negatively, and instead express appreciation for them at all times, as well as teaching them to tune in to their emotions for clues to what is bothering them and how to solve their problems.