How to Act When Your Child Says They're Useless

Being overly protective of children isn't conducive to the development of their self-esteem. Learn how to act when your child tells you that they're useless.
How to Act When Your Child Says They're Useless
Maria Fátima Seppi Vinuales

Written and verified by the psychologist Maria Fátima Seppi Vinuales.

Last update: 15 December, 2022

“I can’t do anything right”, “I’m bad at everything”, “I’m such a loser”. Many of these phrases are part of the daily life of some children. In these cases, we’re looking at self-esteem problems or an expression of something bigger. Let’s see what you can do if your child tells you that they’re useless.

How to act when your child tells you they’re useless

When your child tells you they’re useless, some alarms are probably triggered. The first thing we assume is that they’re not feeling well or that something’s wrong with them. But before worrying, it’s important to take care of it right from the start. Let’s look at how to approach the issue.

Listen, ask questions, and don’t make assumptions

It’s important that you find out what ideas they have, the reasons why they think they’re useless, and where that thought comes from. Also, seek to find out if it’s a general idea or if they’re referring to a particular aspect. For example, being teased at school for not having great soccer skills is one thing, while your child believing that they’re not good at anything is a whole other story. The more you practice proactive listening, the more you can help your child.

Reinforce their achievements and accept their weaknesses

It’s good to recognize their strengths, what they’re good at and what they do well, as well as the areas in which they excel. On the other hand, it’s also necessary to help them develop frustration tolerance. We all have things that we don’t do well, but that we can improve or learn. At the same time, we must also transmit messages where we teach them that it’s not necessary to be excellent at everything, as that would be impossible.

A mother and her pre-teen son washing dishes together.
It’s important that your child has some tasks at home that allow them to feel like they’re part of the family, feel useful, and strengthen their progressive autonomy.

Help them find evidence that what they say isn’t true

This doesn’t mean that you invalidate how they feel, but rather that you help them to look at things from another perspective. For example, on those occasions when your child tells you that they’re useless, you can point out to them that they’re very useful at home, based on their chores or responsibilities. For example, when they help with walking the dog, when they make their bed, or when they tidy their room.

Helping them find nuances

It’s also very useful to help your child find nuances. That is, not to think in terms of “all or nothing” or “always or never”. For example, you can say, “Maybe you didn’t win this game today, but surely you can do better next time”.

Some of these ideas can be adapted to different formats and activities such as stories, games, and dynamics. The age of the child should also always be taken into account, as self-esteem evolves.

Beware of overprotection

Overprotection deserves a special section, as there are two particular situations: Before and after.

  • Before: It often happens that your child feels that they don’t know how to do anything because the environment doesn’t make it easy for them. Everything’s done by their parents in order to protect and pamper them. However, a feeling of incompetence begins to develop.
  • Afterward: That is, once your child expresses how they feel, it’s not a good idea to assume a protectionist attitude. This will increase this feeling of worthlessness. It’s important to accompany them and guide them regarding what they can do, but encourage them to be able to feel useful on their own.
An elementary school boy sitting on the floor feeling useless.
When faced with this situation, we must understand if it’s something specific or if it may be a more complex case, such as an anxiety disorder, depression, or if the child suffers bullying in some area.

What to pay attention to if your child tells you that they’re useless

In addition to the above recommendations, it’s important to relativize the situation. That’s to say, it’s important that you understand if it’s something that’s situational or if it may be a more complex and lasting case. In the second case, your child may be dealing with anxiety, depression, or bullying, among other things. Some possible indicators are the following:

  • They don’t want to get involved in any activity.
  • They have a defeatist attitude and believe they won’t do well before even making an attempt.
  • They’re too demanding and perfectionist
  • They’re very self-critical.

Good self-esteem is well-being for life

Supporting children’s self-esteem is key to their emotional development. The construction of self-esteem is associated with many elements, not only with the image we have of ourselves. We must also take into account the experiences we have in different areas, the messages we hear, and what we get back in our relationships.

Therefore, it’s always good to look at ourselves in relation to others – especially when we’re parents or role models – in order to know how we influence the perspective of children and other people.

Finally, it’s important to avoid making comparisons between family members. Each person is valuable and is capable of contributing their own qualities.

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The contents of You Are Mom is for educational and informational purposes only. At no time do they replace the diagnosis, advice, or treatment from a professional. If in doubt, it's best to consult a trusted specialist.