Teaching children and teenagers that their thoughts and self-talk can make them feel better or worse and providing strategies to increase helpful thinking will increase coping during difficult situations and improve mood. This is an effective way to build confidence and resiliency.
While everyone has negative thoughts, when children have frequent patterns of negative thinking or self-critical statements it is important to understand the underlying reasons and to support more helpful thinking (and self-talk). The following article (https://childmind.org/article/how-to-help-kids-who-are-too-hard-on-themselves/) helps outline reasons to consider for why a child might be engaging in negative self-talk (e.g., globalized thinking, perfectionism, attention seeking).
Increasing helpful thoughts and self-talk
The Child Mind Institute also recommends that parents can help children who frequently use negative self-talk by: 1) listening and validating 2) offering a realistic approach (not just “positive thinking” but realistic and balanced) 3) Putting statements in context 4) Model realistic and helpful / positive self talk and 4) “correct the record” such that if you make a critical statement about yourself you turn it into a teachable moment.
In addition, parents can use the following to increase helpful thinking and self-talk:
- Step 1 Teach young children about thoughts or “self talk”. Start with teaching that “thoughts are what we say to ourselves” or “thoughts are the words we say to ourselves without speaking out loud”. Tell children that they have many thoughts each hour of the day and these thoughts can change.
- Step 2 Help children recognize self-talk and share thoughts. Talk about the difference between thoughts and feelings; label statements and give examples. Often, we are unaware of what we are thinking, and it can take time to learn to identify our specific thoughts. Point to characters in books or movies and ask the child what the person might be thinking. People can have different thoughts about the same thing.
- Step 3 Teach children that what you think affects how you feel. For example, recognizing anxious self-talk leads to anxious feelings, which then increases anxious behaviors. Provide alternative perspectives and offer balanced thoughts while talking about how these types of thoughts can produce different emotions.
- Step 4 Encourage children to change their thoughts or self talk from unhelpful to helpful. Provide examples of helpful and unhelpful thoughts. Let children know that unhelpful thoughts make you feel more worried, sad, nervous or angry. Helpful thoughts increase calm, confident, brave, happy feelings.
- Play a game by tossing a ball back and forth with your child taking turns transforming unhelpful thoughts to helpful thoughts.
- Add “yet” to “I can’t” statements.
- Remind a child to say encouraging words to him or herself or ask what might you say to a friend who made the same negative or critical comment
- Help children come up with helpful phrases, such as “I can handle it”, “it is going to be ok” “ “I can do this” “ I can take some deep breaths and calm myself down”
Finally, it is important to try to understand the reason for the negative self-talk or comments. Listen to your children, explore thoughts, and help identify feelings behind critical or negative comments. (For younger children provide statements that represent the feeling behind negative statements such as, I am frustrated because…I feel bad about…. I am worried about). Empathize with your child. Let your child know that it is ok to feel angry, frustrated, sad, worried… but we have choices in how we act on those feelings. Provide support and try not to minimize a child’s feelings or experience. Dismissive statements will not help understand underlying reasons for the comments or build positive connections. Engage your child in discussions with respect and compassion. Be aware of how you talk about and label your child- what you say, even joking, can influence self-concept and limit comments that might be perceived as criticism (see the Gottman Institute for information about the importance of a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative comments in relationships). Also, be aware of the messages children are hearing from television and movies as well as social media. Model healthy self-talk. Realize that what you say to your child that might feel like criticism. Make an effort to praise the positive and give attention to what your child is doing well (Keep in mind the 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative comments for healthy relationships www.gottman.com).
If negative self-talk is persistent and pervasive or impacts functioning it might be time to get additional support.
RESOURCES and REFERENCES
For a description of CBT see: