5 tips for supporting young people who are too hard on themselves

I’m stupid

I’m annoying

I will never be good enough

I’m fat

Nobody likes me

…are some of the self-critical comments I’d say to myself daily. 

All young people think bad things about themselves at times, but when their inner voices constantly put them down and make them feel like a failure, it can have a profound effect on their self-confidence and self-esteem.

In my teenage years, I was constantly hard on myself. It came from the social pressures of being a young person, growing up and finding my identity, from using negative self-talk as a way to protect myself from what I thought others thought of me, and from my extended family constantly comparing me to the other young people in my family. 

The problem was that I started to believe some of these critical statements.

I’m writing this blog to give parents and loved ones some support and guidance as to how you can help your own child steer away from destructive self-criticism

…and to happier, healthier, thoughts.

What can parents do?

#1 Help them embrace their imperfections

For me, seeing the impossible standards of being perfect, happy, and successful on social media and on the TV, really impacted my self-esteem and confidence. There were times where my parents would make me feel worse about my imperfections and the overwhelming pressure to be this picture perfect daughter.  

My advice for parents is to remind them that being less than perfect is only human. That's okay. Most of the time my parents would encourage my perfectionistic tendencies, which made me so stressed and hard on myself. Encouraging your child to accept who they are, even with the less than perfect parts, will help them to appreciate themselves for who they truly are.  

Things that helped me embrace my own imperfections were: 

  • Knowing what I can’t do - there are many things that I wasn’t naturally gifted at, but knowing what I excelled at helped me see my self-worth. 
  • Knowing what I couldn't control - I couldn’t control how my parents, friends, and teachers viewed me, but I could control how I viewed myself and the effort I put into my own accomplishments.
  • Having fewer expectations on myself - putting less pressure on myself to be ‘perfect’ allowed me to be happier with every achievement I accomplished.

What I learnt was to stop comparing myself to others because they weren’t me. We are all truly unique and amazing in our own little ways. Instead of being embarrassed of my differences to other people, I learnt to embrace my own little quirkiness. 

#2 Being a role model for realistic and positive self-talk

The hardest part of breaking out of my cycle of self-criticism was listening to my parents constantly being hard and negative about themselves. I needed my parents to provide a positive role model and show me a healthy outlet for the times where I was overly harsh on myself. Not having a strong and stable role model made me have anxious coping mechanisms for my failures and being more pessimistic about myself. 

It’s important to remember that all the self-critical things you say about yourself, can have a negative response to your child. I understand it can be difficult to practice positivity all the time, but by not fixating on your mistakes, or worrying out loud about your work, or being frustrated about your weight, and many other things, you can model good self esteem for your child. 

#3 Listen and validate 

There were days where I wanted to express my insecurities about not being enough and not living up to the expectations of what myself and others had of me. My parents would often act like they didn’t care or were too ‘busy’ or ‘distracted’ to listen to me. This made me feel so lonely and stressed all the time. 

I was always frightened to express my emotions to my parents and family because I never felt like they would understand and they previously would downplay my feelings. I understand it can be difficult to know what to say to your child when they are speaking negatively about themselves and the urge ‘to fix their issue’ is tempting, but most of the time young people just need to feel heard and know that they are loved. My parents often wanted to avoid or hide these difficult emotions and situations, because what isn’t spoken about wasn’t truly there in their eyes. 

Things I wished my parents would have done for me in these moments are:

  • To not ignore or brush off my negative comments about myself - I needed to feel understood and even though sometimes my comments were silly or seemed far from the truth in their eyes, I wanted that reassurance to feel better about myself.
  • I needed a safe and non-judgemental space to express my concerns or what was going on emotionally in my head - my household was very much anti emotions or feelings, which led me to bottle so much inside and made me worse long-term.
  • To not disagree with me - my parents constantly would disagree with my negative beliefs which made me super frustrated and made me withdraw from wanting to speak to them about future concerns.

#4 Don’t get upset about their mistakes

I understand that watching your child make mistakes can be frustrating or upsetting at times and it’s natural to want to protect your child from failure, but it’s important to remember that mistakes are all a part of learning.  For me, making a mistake was the most daunting experience because of the fear of my parents finding out and being so angry at myself for making a foolish error. 

 What I wish I knew then that I know now is that life is all about trial and error. That falling short at times is not a sign of weakness, but actually taught me resilience and effort to try again, which is so important later in life. My parents expected me to be good at everything I tried, from sports, to exams, in comparison to my family and friends. I always had to uphold a high standard for myself.  

What I wish I knew as a teen: 

  • To not dwell on my mistakes - learning and moving on from your shortcomings is what builds character and perseverance.
  • To not let failure get in the way - once I failed something I always found it difficult to carry on with it, but it’s pushing yourself to do better that makes the difference.
  • Learn to take setbacks - life is full of achievements and failures, taking them both in your stride makes a world of difference.
  • Mistakes and failures are not a sign of weakness - you can’t be good at everything and that’s okay because no one else is either!

#5 Offer a realistic approach

My parents had unrealistic expectations about my achievements and goals and thought that if I put in the effort then it would always translate into positives. This is not the case. There will be achievements and failures in everything you do in life. I needed my parents to not be ‘overly negative’ or ‘overly positive’ about my battle with critical self-talk. 

What could the middle ground be for this? There needs to be a balance of being positive, yet realistic, in the way you encourage your child. For example, I used to move around a lot from school to school and became heavily anxious that no one would like me. My parents would try to be overly positive saying ‘Everyone is going to love you and you’ll fit right in and meet a million friends’, which made me feel like they didn’t understand my fear of change and not being good enough. Instead I wish they would have said ‘starting a new school is a little bit scary, but in time as you settle in you’ll make some friends and grow to love it’. This shows understanding, love, and support, whilst being realistic about your child’s expectations. 


 SIGN-UP FOR OUR FREE ONLINE COURSE where we coach you to play a key role supporting your child’s healing & recovery; their journey back to health and happiness: www.youthmentalhealthfoundation.org/onlinecourse 

DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE BOOKLET and learn how a mother led her self-harming teenage child back to health & happiness: www.YouthMentalHealthFoundation.org/e-boo

We will be publishing an article in our blog very soon - so watch this space.


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