When Sadness Affects Kids’ Self Worth

Kids who are wired to experience strong reactions to life, to feel things deeply, and to think about life deeply seem to experience sadness more intensely and more frequently than other children. These same kids are often creative, bright, and socially and emotionally sensitive.

Raise your hand if you were one of these kids or if you’re teaching, counseling, or raising one of these kids. 🙋🏻‍♀️ I was and I am.

As a child, when I experienced something sad, my go-to response was to internalize the problem and overthink things. Some kids externalize and make things someone else’s fault and others internalize looking within themselves for the reason why something happened to them.

And what’s a natural conclusion for a deep thinking child who internalizes to come to when they try to make sense of their world and can’t figure out why “bad” things are happening?

While I can’t be sure of your answer to this question, I will share my answer. The story my young mind created was that something must be wrong with me.

I had gathered up my normal childhood experiences—getting left out, people saying unkind things to me, getting corrected by my teacher, disappointing people, being told “No” and failing at things—and used them as evidence that I was “no good.”

It’s one thing when the kids in our life feel sad. It’s an entirely different thing when they attach their experience of sadness to their self-worth.

So, how can we help kids build a new internal story?

It’s time to redefine sadness for our children.

Everyone experiences sadness when they lose something they value or when they lose something important that they’d hoped to have.

Sadness does not mean that we are in anyway bad, unworthy, or unlovable. It may feel this way at times, but it’s not the truth.

Here’s a structure I’ve found helpful for talking to kids about sad moments…

Listen to the child’s experience. Be curious.

“Nobody likes me. I have no friends. I’m never going back to school again.”

“Whoa… what happened?”

“I asked all my friends to play basketball with me at recess today and no one would play. Alex got them all to play soccer instead. I was the only one on the basketball court. I wish I had a best friend.”

Clarify that sadness arises when they are (or someone else is) experiencing a loss.

This helps to create connection as they feel heard and understood and it helps to side-step any identification with with their identity and self-worth.

“So, it sounds like you’re feeling sad because you wanted to play basketball at recess today, that was really important to you, and nobody else wanted to play. You’d been looking forward to playing basketball with your friends and you lost that opportunity. Maybe it even felt like you lost your friends since they didn’t play with you.”


Show them that you understand their emotional experience.

“It feels sad when we have our mind set on doing something and it doesn’t work out.”


Share that what they’re experiencing is a normal part of life and that they’re not alone. Tell them a story from your childhood or share that other kids feel the way they’re feeling, too.

“Lots of people feel that way, in fact, when I was a kid, I had just gotten a magic kit and I decided that I was going to put on a magic show for the neighborhood. I made invitations and crafted a cape out of a pillow case, but I forgot one thing. To make sure the magic tricks worked. It was a disaster. In my mind, it was going to be an awesome magic show and in reality none of the tricks worked.”

“When we’re sad it can feel like it’s about us or like everyone is against us, when that’s not really true. What’s true for you is playing basketball with your friends today was important and it is sad that it didn’t happen. What was true for me was I wanted to wow everyone with a magic show and it was sad the tricks didn’t work.”

Externalize The Problem and Co-Create Solutions

Create a sad character to help discuss the situation and work together to solve any problems that arose.

“When sad takes the control panel inside you, what helpful things can you do or think? What can I do or say to help you?”

As with everything I share, this isn’t about doing it my way. I’d invite you to use this format as a starting point to have these conversations with the kids in your life and over time, you’ll find your own rhythm, your own words, and your own way.

I’d love to continue this conversation with you, share your perspective in the comments below and keep the conversation going.

Before you do that, let’s take a moment and acknowledge that having conversations like this and creating a healthy relationship with our emotions has not been a priority in recent generations.

If it is a priority for you and you’d like to be part of a community dedicated to children’s social and emotional learning, we’d love for you to join us inside The Collective.

We’re gathering as parents, educators, counselors, and other helpers to create a world where kids grow up confident and loving themselves because they understand and know how to tend to their emotions.