My 4.5 year old son has begun to say things like "I'm always a bad boy." and "I don't like myself." They only get said when there is already some upset happening, but I don't know whether that feeling or thought has anything to do with the source of the upset.

A little context - he probably has something like ADHD, and watching his behavior, I often find myself wondering if he might have Aspberger's or something similar. And for at least 60% of the time, he seems perfectly "normal" - he is sweet, intelligent, compassionate and enthusiastic.

I think it is hard to evaluate my own parenting, but I don't think either my wife or I are overly critical - closer to the opposite. That said, for sure we have lost our temper with him and yelled at him.

I think it's possible that it's a manipulative thing, but I'm not sure.

Does anyone have any insight on

  • whether this is common?
  • if not - what should I do about it?
  • in general, what is a good way to interact with this?
  • Is he in kindergarten or a school-like setting yet? Self-criticism is often found in ADHD children (they feel like they are always in trouble and failing to meet expectations), but that often comes at a slightly older age. However, it can also happen to neurotypical children just as easily!
    – Acire
    Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 0:34
  • Right.. I kind of had the same feeling that it would happen at a slightly older age. He just started kindergarten last week. This behavior started recently - I'm pretty sure before that, as I think I would've connected the two.
    – dgo
    Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 1:57

3 Answers 3


Each time our kid would say that, we would stop whatever was the conversation and made a point out of explaining to him that he is not a bad kid. We'd say "you're a good kid who only sometimes does something bad", thus shifting the focus from personality to behaviour. It seems it helped. He's 4.5 years old now and if he does something he shouldn't, he says things like "that was a naughty thing to do".

  • Thank you. That has been the way I've been addressing it generally, and I feel reassured that it is not necessarily a symptom of anything.
    – dgo
    Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 15:53

Somewhere along the line your son has gotten into the mindset of "I can't do anything right. I'm always in trouble. Stupid stupid stupid.." He probably sits in time out focusing on how he has screwed up, yet again...

I was exactly this way as a child. Mine developed into more of a "No one wants to be around me because I'm so horrible" mindset.

Who knows where your son got it from. Perhaps someone, maybe not even you, said "Your a bad boy, go to time out." or "Why do you always _____." This kind of labeling, which is soooooo easy to do, can start the thought process on this negative path. Kids are so sensitive to everything they hear.

As a bit of a warning from an adult survivor of childhood negative self talk; it doesn't go away unless you correct it. Sure as an adult I don't sit and think "I'm so stupid I cant do anything" but I do have some heavy anxiety around embarrassing moments where my thougts are along the line of "Why do I always screw something up. I really am just a spaz pretending to be professional..."

Its the same negativity just all grown up.

So after that depressing clip I want to say that - I really like @DadOfTwo 's answer. When you hear him say something like this, casually correct him as if he had just said the wrong answer to a math problem. "Oh actually your behavior isn't you because you can change your behavior at any time. Maybe today you talk really fast but tomorrow you slow down. See you changed your behavior. That's why you can't be a 'Bad Boy', that's just silly."

After that make sure you show him that whats in the past, is in the past. "Remember that vase you broke last month? Not a big deal. Grandma actually bought me this new vase, and I wouldn't have gotten it if I still had the other one."

Feeling closure around events can help re-leave the past experiences of bad behavior so they aren't used as "proof" (in his own mind) of his badness. You can also try listing (or having him list) times where he was really good to help him remember those experiences a bit better.

  • 1
    I appreciate your openness in sharing about your life. Also, you added some helpful context to what @DadOfTwo said, and I appreciate that as well. Both answers have definitely been reassuring.
    – dgo
    Commented Sep 15, 2015 at 15:55

I want to add to the other answers, that you may want to think about that there may be a rolemodel for this behaviour. It is propably a person your child is very close to and the person is propably doing it unconsiously. As a child I experienced this with my mother. Even if she cooked a feast she always said that it is "nothing special" and that she could have done better. Since she praised me quite subtle (subtle for the child that I was), only the critique really stuck in my mind. This way I kind of learnd not to be proud of myself.

So my advice from my own experience is:

  • check if you or someone else is behaving like that
  • make a list of things he can be proud of (even let he himself draw it and hang it on a very visible place) and remaind him constantly if you have the feeling he is not seeing his good sites
  • if you praise - be very clear about it

If this goes on for a longer period be not afraid to consult a therapist. The therapist can give your son the tools to grow into a healthy person.

  • This is a nice point. Humility and modesty are one thing, but poor self-esteem is another...
    – Acire
    Commented Sep 16, 2015 at 11:10

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