elevating child care

When Your Child Doesn’t Like Herself

It can be so difficult to remain calm, open, and curious when our kids say alarming things.

Hi Janet,

We moved from one side of the state to the other approximately 4 months ago with our then 2-year-old (since turned 3). She has taken the move quite badly and still cries for her old friends. She often says she wants to go back to our old home and doesn’t want to live where we now live. She had been friends with those children since they were born so had a strong bond. She has, in the meantime, made new friends here but is still establishing bonds. She has now also started saying she doesn’t like herself and continues to say she wants to move back.

I have tried focusing on the positives of where we live now, organizing playdates, enrolling her in activities and daycare, face-timing her old friends and helping her write postcards to them, but she still seems very upset about the move. How can I help her move forward? When she says she doesn’t like herself, I am worried that she is spiraling into self-loathing or depression. Is this possible at this age, and what can I do to help her?

Many thanks,

Chontelle

Hi Chontelle,

As our children’s pillars of strength, the leaders they look to for support and guidance, our feelings in any given situation have a powerful impact. They not only influence our children’s perceptions of experiences, but tend to completely define them. So, one of the big challenges we face as parents is learning to hold the reins on our fears. Regulating our own feelings is the key to supporting our children to express theirs in the healthiest possible manner. It’s also the starting point for understanding what is going on with our child.

The first thing I would advise is dialing back concerns and projections like these: “I am worried that she is spiraling into self-loathing or depression.”

A 3-year-old child might say “I don’t like myself” for a number of reasons, none of which reflect a deep affliction. In your daughter’s case, it sounds like she is trying to process her feelings around moving, which is a major transition for her. “I don’t like myself” is part of that processing and could easily mean:

“I don’t like the unsettled, uncomfortable way I feel inside.” Children often feel that their emotions actually are them. This brings up an important point: It’s vital that we accept all our children’s feelings, no matter how inappropriate, overblown, ridiculous, wrong, fake, or worrisome to us they might seem. When we give children the message that their feelings are wrong, shameful, or unsafe, we teach them that they are those things. That makes it harder for our children to accept, trust and like themselves.

“I don’t like this new “me” as much as the “me” I was with my old friends. I miss them.” Moving means loss, particularly in the hearts and minds of young children. In your daughter’s case, she not only lost her familiar home and routines, but also some intimate relationships that were affirming and important to her. Years ago, one of my friends shared an observation that has always resonated with me. The gist was that we choose our friends not so much because of who they are, but because of the sides they bring out in us. We like people because of who we are with them. That might sound self-centered, but I believe there’s truth to it, and that your daughter has had to leave behind the self those friends brought out in her.

If we allow ourselves to run with our concerns and projections (which our children seem to instantly sense), our children’s reasons for making their provocative statements might shift.  As innately curious, eager learners, kids can be compelled to repeat words and actions that they sense have thrown us for a loop, puzzled or upset us. They want to understand why. So, when repeating a phrase like “I don’t like myself,” your daughter’s intention might have shifted to wondering: “How do these words have the power to upset you?” Or,”My mother seems fearful… does that mean I should be afraid of not liking myself?” That’s how these situations get complicated and harder to unravel.

So, besides dialing back projections of self-loathing and future depression (and I hope the perspective I’ve shared helps you to do that), I would work on supporting your daughter to process and heal her feelings of loss in her way and time. Here’s how:

1) Stop trying to make it better.

It pains us when our children express unhappiness, and we naturally want to help them feel better. Your efforts to keep her busy, active, and “focused on the positives” are certainly understandable and the instinct most of us have. The problem is that our children, like all of us, can only truly heal when they’ve fully expressed their sadness. This is where respectful, attuned parenting can be totally counter-intuitive. Yet, it’s imperative.

2) Perceive grieving as healthy.

Rather than perceiving her cries and complaints as a problem or something negative, try seeing each of these moments as golden opportunities for you to encourage your daughter’s healing.

3) Just acknowledge her feelings and let them be.

When she cries for her old friends, encourage that (really) by acknowledging, “Yes, yes, you miss them so much.” And then leave it at that. The huge challenge for all of us is to refrain from adding: “But we’ll visit them soon,” or “Let’s write them a note right now,” or “But you really like your new friend Dakota” and to simply let missing her friends hang in the air for as long as it needs to. Similarly, if she says she wants to go back, I would acknowledge, “Yes, you want to go back to the home you knew and loved. Of course, you do.” With nothing more. And if she says she doesn’t like it where you are now, just acknowledge, “You don’t like it here,” adding nothing to these sentiments, braving the silence, giving these feelings all the room they need to live and breathe. That’s what will help her to move forward.

4) Fearlessly explore with your daughter the thoughts and sentiments she expresses.

When she shares something that gives you pause like, “I don’t like myself,” be curious, open, patient. Remind yourself that children tend to perceive differently than we do. As always, focus on acknowledging rather than judging or jumping to a conclusion. Go slow and leave lots of room in between your gentle questions and acknowledgements for her to digest and maybe respond. “You don’t like yourself… Hmm… That sounds like it doesn’t feel very good… Which part do you especially not like?” Don’t expect clear answers or worry if you don’t get them. If your daughter needs to share more later, she will.

What matters is that we utilize these opportunities to demonstrate to children that we can be open and calm rather than reactive and scared. This is how we build trust and offer our kids a safe place to share their uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. If you’re anything like me, you’ll feel deeply honored and proud of yourself whenever your child takes you up on it.

I sincerely hope that helps!

Warmly,

Janet

(Photo by Nikolay Gromin on Flickr)

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19 Responses to “When Your Child Doesn’t Like Herself”

  1. avatar rick ackerly says:

    The quality of a relationship is a function of the things you are afraid to talk about–an inverse function.

  2. avatar Nand says:

    Thank you Janet. This came exactly when I needed to hear this. Thanks a lot..

  3. avatar miriam says:

    Dear Janet
    Every word is worth gold!
    I call it learning a new language. I would never say “from tomorrow I will speak French!”
    I know it takes learning a few new words every day. Repeating the words over and over…
    Our automatic response pops up and we must learn to count to 10 or even 5 so that we can use the “new language”.

    Thank you Janet for the loving way that you present all this new knowledge. Parents in Israel in my 9 childcare centers that I councel “know” you and value the words of wisdom that you teach.
    G-d bless you Janet!
    Miriam
    Israel

    • avatar janet says:

      Aww, thank you, Miriam. You are so kind! Bless you for being such an open, thoughtful parent. x Janet

  4. avatar Jen Tejada says:

    Hi Chontelle,

    Of course you have everything here you need from Janet already, but sometimes it helps to know others have gone through similar situations. We recently moved from NY to FL and then back to the area after the FL move didn’t work out for us. So as you can imagine, I was riddled with all kinds of guilty feelings and worries about so much upheaval in a short amount of time. It was what was best for our family at the time, but that didn’t make it easier to accept all the feelings and worries that came along with it. The summer we moved to FL my daughter said some really disturbing things along the same lines that you mention in the article. I had extreme discomfort with all her feelings and projected onto her a lifetime of self loathing and misery. I had gone through struggles with depression and didn’t want that for her. I worried that I was setting it all into motion. I could have used this article; that’s for sure.

    I know there are times when we read these articles, and it feels right to us, so we do it, but we don’t always let go of those nagging thoughts until we understand in a real way why it’s so important. My daughter is now 6 and what she has taught me in the last few years especially is that any and all feelings are truly TRULY ok as long as we can talk about them. I keep getting this lesson over and over again. I think as parents in this day and age, as survival is less of a concern, that is our call – to accept our own feelings with curiosity and compassion and let them know the same. It’s hard to be a mom. To perhaps be the voice they will hear in their heads as they grow up. To feel the weight of our choices shaping who they become. I hope you’ll have compassion for yourself as you feel all that worry and concern. That compassion has saved me and calmed me. The very good news is that you don’t have to shape the world to be perfect around your daughter with no adversity or difficulty. You simply have to let her know that you see her feelings and you can be there with her during those hard times. When you accept her exactly as she is she will learn that she is acceptable exactly as she is. Happiness isn’t the only human emotion and sadness does not equal depression. This I truly believe.

    Best of luck to you all as you navigate moving. It’s psychologically jarring for everyone involved so remember to find a friend – preferably not your husband who also moved – to share the feelings and difficulties that are always there with moving no matter how great a new place may be so you can have the space you need for your daughter.

    • avatar Maria says:

      What a beautiful comment. Your daughter is quite lucky.

    • avatar janet says:

      Jen – You are amazing to share such insight and wisdom. Thank you, especially, for this wonderful and important addition to the conversation: “…to accept our own feelings with curiosity and compassion and let them know the same. It’s hard to be a mom.” A million times, YES! This must began with us being open to ourselves. Understanding the perspective we have (and why) is the first step to shifting it. Thank you again, Jen, I am so happy to hear from you. x Janet

      • avatar Jen Tejada says:

        Xoxo always – for all that you’ve done for me in so many ways.

    • avatar Chontelle says:

      Hi Jen,

      Thank you for such a wonderful and helpful response. We definitely feel better armed to help our little girl through the move and to settle into her new home.

      Love Chontelle

  5. avatar Emily says:

    Thank you for this. My son who is 3 often says things like, “I don’t like my legs,” or “I don’t like my cheeks.” I think it is something he has heard his older brother say. I usually try to respond with something like, “Hmmm…really? Why do you feel that way?” But I also affirm that we love every part of him and that I think his body is just beautiful the way it is. Should I not tell him that I love him the way he is? Am I jumping too quickly to resolve the issue for him? I just wonder how much of it is seeking reassurance from me or my husband. Thanks so much!

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Emily! This is all wonderful self-reflection on your part. If you feel you may be jumping in too quickly, you probably are. I would consider why you wish to reassure him when he says those things. What is going on there for you? Are you feeling any fear? There is certainly a place for telling him you love him as is, but you might wish to wait longer to say that… or maybe even say it at a completely different time when he is not expressing his displeasure. If he’s heard these kinds of statements from his brother, he may well have sensed your discomfort around them. As I mention in the post, that would compel him to want to explore your response and why these statements have power with you.

      • avatar Emily says:

        Thank you so much! I guess I don’t want him to be uncomfortable with his body, but at the same time I think you are right that often his expression has nothing to do with self-doubt and may be related to something completely different that I don’t understand unless I probe and ask him what he is trying to say! Thanks as always for your insight.

  6. avatar Chontelle says:

    Thank you Janet and everyone so much. The response has given me a path forward as I didn’t know which way to turn to help my daughter. I really appreciate the time you’ve taken to respond and help us. Parenting is such a learning curve and I learn so much from my daughter as well.

    It’s difficult sometimes not to be guided by the fear we have for our children but I feel positive that I can overcome this and guide my girl to be happy in our new home.
    Chontelle x

    • avatar janet says:

      Yes, you can! Thank you for sharing your story with us. I wish you joy in your journey! x Janet

  7. avatar Ruth mason says:

    Beautiful! Thank you, Janet, for making life easier for all us parents who have been lucky enough to find you!

  8. avatar Helen says:

    Thank you for this! I have been a long time follower of the podcasts & your social media but have never commented.

    I must come back to this post in particular in the coming months, we are in the midst of a cross-country move in Canada and my 2 and 3 year olds will be going through the loss of moving.

    Thank you so much for all that you put out here for us Janet. I share your FB page and podcasts all the time on all my mommy-related FB groups up here!

    -Helen

    • avatar janet says:

      Aww, thank you, Helen, and it’s absolutely my pleasure!

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