Negative self-talk is damaging. A critical inner voice that just won’t quit is emotionally and mentally harmful. It’s important not to let our children’s negative self-talk go unchecked. Our inner voice won’t go away. But we can change how it talks to us. Here’s how to tackle a child’s habit of negative self-talk. Better still, here’s how you help them turn that negative self-talk into a helpful friend.
What is Negative Self-Talk?
Our self-talk is how we talk to ourselves. It’s our inner narrator who sits with us for the ride as we travel through life.
Negative self-talk is the voice of a judge, a doubter, a critic. It belittles us. Makes us believe we are incapable of reaching our goals.
Sometimes that self-talk is filling in gaps and making assumptions. A teacher wants to talk to your child after class so a child assumes they have done something wrong.
A friend can’t play after school today but gives no reason, so a child fills in the missing information with self-talk: “He doesn’t like hanging with me anymore because playing with me is boring.”
Self-talk can make us take minor events and blow them up into major disasters. This is something that highly sensitive children are often skilled in. Read: Highly Sensitive Children are Masters at Magnifying the Negatives .
Negative self-talk can be not accepting compliments.
Or it can be chastising yourself for getting 95% on a test, focusing on the 5% you missed.
Negative self-talk can also be an extreme overreaction, a negative blanket description that is wildly out of proportion.
Why is Negative Self-Talk a Problem?
When an inner voice does nothing but belittle you, sow doubt and make you feel like you will achieve nothing, it’s a serious problem.
It’s a sign of a fixed mindset. Read: How to Turn a Fixed Mindset into a Growth Mindset and Why It Matters.
At best negative self-talk limits a child, at worst it causes mental health problems.
Reacting to a Child’s Negative Self-Talk
He wanted to write the word family but was struggling with the ending of the word (getting mixed up with his Dutch mother tongue as we were working in English) and got angry with himself.
“I’m so stupid,” he uttered, “I can’t even spell family.”
I gathered my thoughts and fought my knee jerk reaction to the outburst, which was to respond with, “Of course you’re not stupid.” But of course, he knows he’s not stupid. That wasn’t the real issue.
“It feels like you might be frustrated. How could you find out how to spell family?” I asked.
He paused, “Look it up.”
“Where?” I prompted.
“Internet. Or a dictionary.”
We wrote down the steps he needed to take, he found the correct spelling and wrote ‘family’ a few times. After that he got on with thinking up more affirmations. The hurdle had been jumped. The switch had been made in his head and the ideas flowed.
Later, as he laid in bed, he gave me a hug and said, “Thank you for earlier. It really helped.”
Focus on the Emotion Behind the Words
First things first. A child needs to be aware that their self-talk is negative. Addressing the way they talk about themselves is an important first step.
Instead of focusing on the words used, focus on the emotion behind the words.
Acknowledge how they feel. Don’t offer a rebuttal to their negative statement.
It may be that a child is scared they are not up to a task.
Maybe a child knows they should have studied harder and is battling with regret.
It could be that a child is simply frustrated and needs an outlet.
By addressing the why instead of the what you can help your child better understand how they can transform their inner critic into a helpful friend.
How we feel is fleeting. It’s temporary. It will pass. A feeling does not define us. Helping a child challenge their own thought process around feelings will help them with negative self-talk.
Feeling stupid because a child can’t do something the first time they try doesn’t mean that they are stupid. Feeling unloveable because they have hurt their little sister doesn’t mean they are unloveable. Help a child understand the difference.
When a child learns to see their feeling or reaction not as a brick wall, but as a hurdle to get over, they learn to steer their self-talk in a more helpful direction.
Once you have established the emotion behind the words, you can steer your child towards a solution.
Work together to identify solutions.
Reiterate the steps to solving the issue, so that they can use the same steps in the future.
Yet is such a powerful tool.
I can’t do this.
I can’t do this YET.
I don’t know the answer.
I don’t know the answer YET.
I haven’t achieved my goal.
I haven’t achieved my goal YET.
I can’t spell family.
I can’t spell family yet.
A child who forms the habit of using yet when they are using their inner voice has a potent tool to conquer negative self-talk.
A growth mindset means learning from mistakes, seeing them as learning experiences and not the end of the road.
A child who understands that making mistakes is just part of life is less likely to let negative self-talk rule them when something doesn’t go to plan.
Shine a spotlight on your own your failures or mistakes, share what you have learned and how you are trying again. Lead by example. Use humour. Keep it lighthearted when something goes wrong.
Tip: Listen to your own inner voice. Is your self-talk negative? It’s not just children who suffer from negative self-talk.