It’s hard to hear our kids say unkind things about themselves. We parents often want to shift their thinking immediately so they have a more positive view of themselves. (We hear them say, “I’m so stupid!” and immediately counter with, “Oh no, you are so smart!”) And while we mean the best, when we do this, we can easily dismiss their real emotions and don’t help them learn to rewire their brains for long-term benefit.
Everyone has an inner dialogue, and it can vary between positive, neutral, and negative. This inner dialogue can guide us and help us process life.
Our brains are amazing, but they can sometimes become overactive. We can get sticky thoughts that are hard to turn off. Negative thoughts can easily become ingrained in our brains and become our beliefs. We can teach our kids that negative thoughts are not part of their identity and how to replace these with more positive, growth-based thoughts.
What negative self-talk is:
Negative self-talk is when we (or our kids) say negative things about ourselves or have negative inner thoughts. We all do it from time to time, but these inner thoughts can easily become wired and become detrimental. There are many forms of negative inner dialogue, ranging from catastrophic thinking, to seemingly mundane self-criticisms.
- “I failed that spelling test. I am so stupid.”
- “That kid is really good at soccer. I’ll never be that good.”
- “Those kids didn’t play with me. Everyone hates me.”
- “I only did good on my homework because my Dad helped me.”
- “My dad isn’t feeling well. He is going to die like Grandpa.”
Why kids develop negative self-talk:
There are many reasons kids could develop this kind of negative self-talk, but here are a few of the most common.
- Not being resilient
- Negative/Unfavorable labels placed on them
- Feelings of inadequacy
- Fixed mindset (Read more on Growth Mindset here.)
- Pessimistic mindset (Read more on Optimism here.)
- Low feelings of self-worth and confidence (Read more on Fostering Self-Worth here.)
- Holding themselves to too high of a standard
- Conflict with peers or worrying about kids liking them
- Not feeling or experiencing unconditional love
When our kids have negative self-talk or have developed unhealthy patterns of thinking, here are a few things we can do to help them create more positive ways of thinking:
- Let kids know why they feel the way they do. Our brains are made to protect us, which often means that fear can get loud and scary. Let kids know their brains recognize fear to protect us, but we can control how much it runs our lives. Our brain can also develop sticky thoughts that are hard to get rid of. Sometimes it’s negative self-talk, sometimes it’s a scary belief that Mom or Dad might die, or another thought they can’t break. We can talk to our kids about their brains and how we can train them like we’d train a new puppy. We can break bad habits and rewire our brain.
- Talk about facts versus stories. Facts are facts. Stories are what we tell ourselves about the facts. It’s often these stories that cause problems. So, the fact may be that your kid failed a test and the story they tell themselves is that they are stupid. It is the story that needs to be countered before your child’s brain wires it as a belief.
- Don’t jump right in with, “Oh that’s not true. You are so smart!” or “Don’t say that. You are great at baseball.” We are trying to make our kids feel better, but the feeling they feel is valid to them. Young kids are learning metacognition. They are learning how to think about their thoughts and themselves. If we constantly and habitually dismiss their feelings, they learn not to trust how they feel. While we don’t have to agree with the feeling (especially the negative), we don’t need to dismiss it. Use empathy and validate how they feel. “It must be hard to feel that way.” Another one I’ve heard parents say is, “Aren’t you glad I don’t believe that.”
- Replace. Negative thoughts can easily get stuck. Our brains can have ‘sticky thoughts’ that are really hard to stop focusing on. (A great book on this is “Overcoming Unwanted and Intrusive Thoughts” by Sally Winston and Martin Seif.) Replacing them with something positive right away may not always work because our brains won’t believe it. Sometimes it’s better to start with something neutral and then move to something positive. With repetition, these new thoughts can replace the negative thought patterns. So, a kid who is automatically saying, “I am so bad at soccer!” every time his kick is off, can first learn to say something like, “I am learning how to play soccer” or “I am still new at soccer and learning more every time I kick.” Eventually, with practice, those kicks will get better, and the neutral thought can be replaced with something more positive like, “I am a good kicker” or “My kicks are getting stronger.”
- Practice Optimism. An optimistic person has a growth mindset and knows they can do hard things or learn from a challenge or mistake. Optimism is a mindset we want to foster in our kids. Read more on Optimism for Kids here. Optimism and toxic positivity can easily be confused. We don’t want to give our kids a pair of rose-colored glasses with which to view the world. They need to see reality, but they also need to see themselves as capable of growth. Read more on Helping Kids Develop a Growth Mindset here. A child who is optimistic will have a more positive outlook, be more willing to face challenges, and build resilience.
- Reflect. Whenever our kids overcome something hard, ask them how it feels. Let them know they are a person who can do hard things and can use that same mindset and skills the next time they face a problem.
Here are some reflection questions:
- How does that feel?
- How did you do this?
- Was there a problem? How did you solve it?
- What steps did you take?
- What worked well?
- What didn’t work so well?
- What would you do different/same next time?
- What did you learn?
- When can you apply this lesson again?
Parents have a lot of power in how our kids develop their metacognition and view of self. The way we speak to our children and about our children can have a major impact on how they view themselves. Be cautious of what you say about them when you think they aren’t listening. Also, be cautious of overly praising or giving them too much “constructive criticism.” We don’t need to make kids feel bad to get them to behave or work harder. Kids need to know they are loved even when they have negative self-beliefs, don’t get good grades, or make mistakes.
By: Emily Scott, PhD
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