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Ask a Professional: Self Confidence and negative thinking

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Ask a Professional: Self Confidence and negative thinking

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Ask a Professional: Self Confidence and negative thinking

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My son turns 13 next month. He is a beautiful person but has always lacked self confidence. He has 3 or 4 close friends but constantly tells me how they consider him last, don't include him everything ("in" jokes, group chats etc.). It's like he can never see the positives, he searches for the negatives. Everyday is a story about some kids at school who did or said something to him. He makes it sound like he's always the victim. Whilst I am sure some of his concerns are valid, I feel like he is constantly looking for things to worry about and complain about. I always listen to his concerns but I also don't want to validate every negative thought. I constantly try to get him to look at the positives but I also don't want him to feel like I'm not supportive. Is anyone else's son like this?


Dear @Mum333,

It sounds like you really want what’s best for your son, and his tendency to see the negative side of things is causing you a great deal of worry and frustration.

You’re correct that focusing on negative aspects of things can contribute to a lack of self-confidence and a more pessimistic view of the world. Our minds can focus on the negative aspects of the world for a number of reasons. For example, we can find it easier to remember things which match our current mood - remembering happy events when we are feeling happy, or frightening events when we are feeling scared. Therefore, if someone is feeling sad or upset, they are more likely to remember the negative things that have happened, or to interpret ambiguous situations as more negative. It can also be hard to focus on positive things when someone is dealing with mental health difficulties like depression or anxiety.
When someone is feeling anxious or insecure about a situation, they may try to identify anything that could go wrong, or any behaviour from others which could be threatening (which includes things which feel emotionally threatening, like being excluded or laughed at). This is part of the way that our brains have evolved - to be able to identify and respond to potential threats, and it can persist even in situations where it is unhelpful.

It sounds like you’re already doing some helpful things when it comes to addressing this. You mentioned that you do listen to your son’s concerns (which is great, being listened to and understood is really important for wellbeing), but you also don't want to validate every thought, when some of these thoughts may be unhelpful ones. It’s absolutely okay not to validate interpretations of events that you don’t agree with, and instead focus on validating the emotion your son is feeling.

As far as trying to get him to see the positives, as you have no doubt noticed, this can be tricky! Often, if we try to get people to notice the positives by pointing these out, this can turn into a conversation where each person takes the opposite view, and there might be times when it feels like the more you encourage a positive viewpoint the more your son insists that things are worse than you think. Often, it’s more effective if the person themselves challenges these negative ideas. We do have an article about challenging negative thoughts for young people. 

I’m wondering if you’ve spoken with your son about the overall pattern you’ve noticed, of him noticing negative events more than positive events? This could sound something like “I’ve noticed that often when you’re talking about things that happen at school, you tend to talk about things that are wrong, and rarely mention anything positive. I’m worried that it seems like you’re feeling pretty down about things in general.” 

It could be helpful to ask him whether there is anything he thinks would be helpful in order for him to feel better about things. You could also suggest trying some strategies together, like the one about challenging negative thoughts above, or identifying some forms of self-care he could do when feeling upset.

Another option would be to talk to a psychologist or a counsellor. They can help your son work out what is going on, and help him begin to notice and tackle patterns of negative thinking. I’d particularly recommend them if it feels like other strategies aren’t working, if it seems like things are getting worse, or if it seems like this is impacting your son’s mood in general.

Lastly, don’t forget to look after yourself as well! Listening to someone who is feeling pessimistic can be pretty emotionally draining, so make sure you are also taking time to do things that recharge your batteries. If you’re finding it hard to prioritise self-care, you can think of it as leading by example for your son - when we see the people around us use self-care as a way of balancing their emotions and maintaining wellbeing, we’re more likely to try it ourselves.

Best wishes,

Linda is a psychologist experienced in working with people across the lifespan, including teenagers and their families, in a variety of settings, and is ReachOut's Clinical Lead.