It may be one of the most painful things to hear your child say: “I’m dumb” or “I’m stupid.” Your immediate reaction might be “No you’re not!” But is that a helpful way to respond? How you react can have a positive impact on your child’s self-esteem and his motivation to keep working on his challenges.
Here, five experts weigh in on what to do if your child says he’s dumb.
What’s the most helpful way to react?
Mark Griffin: It’s critical to acknowledge that your child feels like he’s not measuring up. You don’t want to just brush his concerns away or simply tell him that you think he’s smart. He knows you’ll say that because you’re his parent and love him. It’s your job! He needs to hear about his strengths and to feel you have concrete reasons to believe he’ll be successful.
Donna Volpitta: Focus on the idea that this feeling is a reaction to a situation, not a trait he has. It’s not about being smart or not smart. He’s just feeling frustrated about specific things.
Try to understand what’s making him feel this way. Help him realize that he can be in control of finding strategies that can help him with the challenge. Talk about different options he has.
Bob Cunningham: The most helpful way to react depends a lot on the situation. Say your child is having difficulty with a task, like homework. In that case, a matter-of-fact response reminding him that he’s just having trouble with one specific thing usually works best.
Sometimes, though, kids will make a statement about being dumb or feeling stupid seemingly out of the blue. Or they may bring it up a few times over a couple of days. In those cases, having a short conversation usually helps.
In any of these instances, an overly emotional response from you will likely not make the situation better. It’s important to be supportive and caring, but it’s equally important to be realistic. Otherwise, what you say may not seem credible to your child.
Jenn Osen-Foss: Be calm, but respond immediately. That provides clear and constant feedback that counters the comment.
Annie Fox: Before getting too upset and running the risk of overreacting, remember that context is everything. Take on the role of a detective with a mission to find out as much information as possible before weighing in.
For example, does “I’m dumb” reflect your child’s true feelings about himself? Or was he just frustrated by an inability to master a task? Is he repeating an insult he heard from a classmate or sibling? Calmly talk to your child and find out as much as you can.
What are helpful things you can say?
Bob Cunningham: No matter the situation, it’s important to acknowledge your child’s feelings. You can try saying something like, “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time. I know it’s frustrating, but that doesn’t mean you’re dumb.” If your child was reacting to something that’s challenging, you can often leave it at that and move on.
If a longer conversation is needed, you could open it by saying, “It makes me sad when you say that because I know it isn’t true. You’re great at swimming, art and math. So tell me why you feel this way.” This will open up the conversation and will allow you to get a sense of what is going on.
Donna Volpitta: Respond calmly to his comment by saying, “What makes you feel that way?” By doing that, you open up the conversation. From there you can focus on understanding why he’s feeling that way and how he can take action to feel better.
Jenn Osen-Foss: Use “I” statements like “I don’t believe that’s true.” If you’ve never discussed your child’s learning or attention issues with him, this is a good time to explain them in age-appropriate terms. It’s helpful for kids to understand what’s going on in an age-appropriate context.
If your child is in grade school, just explain that taking longer to do something doesn’t mean he’s not smart. If he’s older, you can talk about his specific learning difference in more specific detail.
Mark Griffin: Use clear, concrete responses that let him know he is really capable. But you can also acknowledge that he faces difficulties in some areas.
It’s important to consistently reinforce his strengths and talents. Honest praise can do wonders for kids who struggle. You might say things like, “You’re a smart kid who sometimes has trouble with reading. You know more about sports than anyone in the family and you can fix anything around the house! You’ve also done some incredible work on the senior citizen project in town.”
Annie Fox: Ask what your child means by the word “dumb.” It might not mean the same to him as it does to you. Once you get clearer on his meaning, ask: “What’s making you feel that way?” Or, “What just happened that made you feel ‘dumb’?” Calm, respectful, open-ended questioning will put your child at ease and allow him to speak from the heart.
Remind your child that there are different ways of being “smart” and different learning strengths. Show that you’re well aware of areas in which your child shines by catching him in the act of doing something right.
What’s important to avoid saying?
Donna Volpitta: Your immediate natural reaction when your child says, “I’m dumb” may be to say, “No, you’re not!” But that’s not particularly helpful. That reaction doesn’t encourage a discussion—it’s more likely to end it. Also, you’re not going to change your child’s feeling that he’s “dumb” by contradicting it.
Bob Cunningham: When your child is feeling bad about himself, it’s tempting to talk about your own struggles or the struggles of his siblings or friends. This usually doesn’t make the situation better. It’s more helpful to focus on him and his frustration or feelings. You also might be tempted to tell him that whatever he is facing is no big deal. This also usually backfires.
Jenn Osen-Foss: Try not to sound accusatory, such as exclaiming, “Don’t say that!” Consider your tone when you respond. Avoid raising your voice or scolding your child. Scolding in particular could undermine the message you’re trying to convey.
Also, try not to respond to your child by saying, “You’re wrong.” Saying that may make him feel that he can’t even criticize himself correctly.
Mark Griffin: Short, simple, “I’m your parent and I love you” statements may not be helpful. Kids need to know why you think they’re really not “dumb,” but are capable. If they don’t believe they’re smart, they need constant reinforcement of why you think they are! They want concrete examples to hang on to during their struggles.
Give your child examples of when you saw him doing something successfully. The more specific you are, the better. Kids with learning and attention issues often feel their difficulties are overwhelming and they’re never going to get it right. It’s important to acknowledge that it’s a big challenge. But it’s not an impossible one.
Other Things You Can Do. You are the first line of emotional support for your child. But there are many other people who can help your child when he has negative feelings or experiences a drop in self-esteem.
Talk to him about the people at school who can give emotional support. And if his feelings persist, it can be a good idea to watch for behavior changes that may be signs of depression.
About the Author
The Understood Team is composed of writers, editors and community moderators, many of whom have children with learning and attention issues.