How to help your child with negative self talk
Hearing your child say things like, “I’m so dumb”, or “No one likes me” is heartbreaking, isn’t it? Negative self talk from our children is hard to hear. And often, we have no idea what to say in return. “No you’re not,” probably feels a bit hollow. Like it’s not enough. And, well…that’s because it isn’t really.
Now, we all engage in negative self talk from time to time. No one is positive 100% of the time. But sometimes, we get stuck in negative patterns and find it hard to shift our perspective. If it happens too frequently, it can have pretty serious consequences. It causes us to feel stressed. It stops us from trying new things. It stops us from reaching our full potential. Kids are no different.
Negative self talk and the brain
Every time we do something, every time we respond to something – either in our external or internal environment – our brain controls that response, right? All the areas of our brain needed for that response are activated in a particular order. A pathway is then created between all the different parts of our brain involved. The more we use that pathway, the stronger it becomes.
This means that the more we do something, the more automatic it becomes. The brain remembers what we’ve done previously and does it again. This is how those negative thoughts become so automatic. So to change them, we need to teach the brain to use a different pathway. To react differently to the same situation next time.
So how do we do that? Here are some things to try if you’d like to help your child change their negative self talk:
Acknowledge how they feel
I know it’s tempting to jump in and save the day with some positivity and praise when you hear your child engaging in negative self talk. But the problem with this approach is that it can feel invalidating to your child. Like you’re not listening to how they feel, or that the way they feel is wrong somehow. Which of course, may make them feel even worse.
Now obviously you don’t need to agree with your child. But you can acknowledge the feeling that triggered the statement. Try something like, “I hear you. There are some negative thoughts in your head right now and you’re feeling frustrated/sad/angry.”
Catch negative thoughts
It can sometimes be hard for a child (or an adult) to recognise their negative self talk in the moment. It is quite automatic and often slips out before they’ve even realised. I like to talk to kids about “catching” thoughts.
We can do this by helping them recognise patterns. Look for situations where negative self talk seems to happen often. Does maths homework frequently lead to frustration? Pause and notice the negative thoughts that are triggering the feeling. Catch that thought in the act. Some kids like to imagine they are using a great big net to catch their runaway thoughts!
Challenge negative thoughts
We often fall into the trap of believing everything our brain tells us. But sometimes our thoughts and feelings get so tangled up, it’s hard to separate them. Our emotions affect our thinking and cause it to become negative. And inaccurate.
Help your child to test their thinking. Ask them for examples and evidence that their thought is true. For example, if they tell you they’re dumb, ask them to think about a time when they’ve done something really clever. Aced an exam. Figured out a problem. Learned something new. All evidence that their thought is not true after all.
Reframe negative thinking
Now you can help your child find a new way of looking at or thinking about the situation, based on the evidence they’ve just found. This is not the same as positive thinking, which as I’ve already mentioned, can feel a bit dismissive to your child. It’s about being realistic, but perhaps considering a different perspective. For example, “I can’t do this” becomes, “I can’t do this yet”. Or “This is too hard”, becomes “This is hard but I’ve done hard things before.” “This is terrible,” becomes, “This is not my best work, but I can keep trying.”
Once they’ve come up with their new thought, have your child practice it often. Every time they practice it, they strengthen the new pathway in their brain, so that eventually, this new way of thinking becomes automatic.
Address the core belief
Negative self talk is a symptom of a deeper belief that your child holds about themselves. The tip of the ice berg so to speak. It is often triggered by fear. Fear of failure, of disappointing others, of not being “enough”. It can be a sign of negative self esteem.
Explore this fear with your child. Be curious and ask them questions. “Why is this homework so important to you? What are you worried will happen if you can’t finish your homework? What does it mean about you if you don’t know the answer?” This will give you a lot of insight into what is driving the negative self talk, as well as an opportunity to address it with your child.
Manage your own negative self talk
How’s your negative self talk? Let’s do a bit of an audit. Do you refer to yourself in a negative way? Mutter about being an idiot when you spill your tea? Exclaim that learning this new computer program is too hard and you’ll never get it?
Remember that your child is always watching. What you do is far more important than what you tell them to do. Pay attention to the negative self talk that slips into your day to day dialogue. Try to catch it. Challenge it. Reframe it. Show your child how it’s done, and they will learn to do it for themselves.
Need more help dealing with your child’s negative self talk? You might like to check out my Self Esteem Workbook for Children. It is a printable workbook jam packed with information, worksheets and activities. All designed to teach kids the skills they need to change negative thinking, shift their mindset and feel more confident.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.