One of the most painful things to hear our children or students say is: “I’m stupid” or “I’m dumb.” Our first reaction might be to utter something to counter their statement like, “No, you’re not!” but that response may actually not be helpful. Using phrases that show our children how to address their negative core belief thinking and change it will grow their self-confidence and motivation to handle any tough stuff that arises.
To know better how to respond to “I’m stupid” in a supportive way, it’s good to understand where this thinking comes from.
You may have heard of Carol Dweck’s work regarding something called “mindsets.” In her words: “For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt of yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life.”
Dweck believes the views we have of ourselves fit into two general categories: fixed and growth mindsets. She says that these mindsets are the opinion we have of our qualities and characteristics, where they have come from, and whether these are able to change. The fixed mindset comes from the belief that your qualities are not changeable – you are who you are. A growth mindset is derived from the belief that your basic qualities are things that can be changed through some effort.
If you have been following my writing, you have likely heard me mention the term: negative and positive core beliefs. These beliefs support or detract from the mindsets we have of ourselves, others, and the world around us. Core beliefs are the messages we tell ourselves based on the experiences we have. How much we believe these messages depends on the supports around us and how much reinforcement we get that further solidifies a particular message.
I’ll use an example to explain. Consider the situation where a child tries some math at home, doesn’t understand it, and gets it wrong. If she cries, saying, “I don’t get this! Math sucks,” and is met with this reaction from a parent: “I don’t blame you, I didn’t get math either. I guess you’re just like me,” she might start to believe that being bad at math is just her lot in life. If she continually hears this kind of message, she might just throw her hands up and expect math to suck her whole life. The negative core belief of I’m not capable to do math or I’m not smart enough to do math might grow and stick with her.
There’s a saying attributed to Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.”
The “I’m stupid” words might be coming from a negative core belief that has grown as a result of some experience regarding learning in the past but it can also be simply a child-view of overwhelming frustration.
Our job as parents is to help children be aware of the idea that our minds and our thinking can really change how successful we are, to promote the growth of positive core beliefs, and foster the development of a growth mindset.
How do we do that? Try these:
In order to support our children and students to address this kind of thinking, the first step is to focus on the idea that her words are a reaction to a situation, not a trait she has. It’s not about being smart or not smart: it’s about facing a challenge and feeling frustrated.
Try language like this: “Did you know that most of us have trouble with words sometimes. That’s pretty normal – I even get stuck on some words when I read.”
Or this: “I see that you are frustrated because the word you’re reading is new to you.”
Avoid saying this: “You’re not dumb. You’re smart – look at how many words you did get right.” We don’t want to argue with them about how smart they are: we want to demonstrate that what they said is a reaction to frustration, not who they are.
Dr Dan Siegel’s mantra of, “Name it to tame it” works beautifully in this situation. Putting words to our child’s feelings help them to process those and move on. Use specific feelings words to describe what you see your child going through.
“It looks like you feel embarrassed when you don’t know how to say a word. Is that right?”
And, “Reading can be really tough sometimes, can’t it. Do I see you feeling frustrated about that?”
These words can really trigger us, particularly if we’ve ever thought them ourselves. We also can feel emotional when we hear statements like this because we don’t want our children to feel so badly. Please do remember to reel in your reaction and stay calm and cool.
Respond immediately, providing clear and consistent feedback to counter the comment.
If your child comes home saying, “I’m stupid” but you don’t really know why he or she is saying that, remind yourself that the context is important. Put your detective hat on and try to learn as much as you can about the situation that prompted the comment. Once your child feels safe and relaxed enough to share that with you, calmly go back to the first three steps of addressing the remark.
Show your child that it’s okay to experience challenges. I often say things like: “That was tricky, but that’s okay, we can do ‘tricky’.”
Also, questions like: “If you want to get better at this, what do you need to do?” help show children that practice, making mistakes, and going through rough patches are quite normal and even expected.
I also like this question: “I love trying new things even if I make mistakes. Can you think of why I’d say that?”
These kinds of questions can help your child see that he or she is in a process of learning and it doesn’t happen in one burst. This will also show your child that there aren’t specific labels to define her. Challenges can make us better at things!
If you would like more information about Core beliefs, please look at the first section of my eBook called Taming Tantrums: A Connect Four Approach to Raising Cooperative Toddlers. I know this book has toddlers in the title, but the first section on core beliefs is for parents with children of any age. I also recommend looking at my app also called Taming Tantrums (search for it in your smartphone app store), for more examples of phrases to help grow positive core beliefs. Do you have any questions? Feel free to ask those over on my Facebook page.