Who is your children’s worst critic?
Would it surprise you to know it’s probably your children themselves?
Often the most incriminating things that our children hear come from the negative self-talk inside their own heads. And we can’t protect them from what we don’t hear, can we?
As it turns out we can.
The key to helping our children break out of this habit is to teach them to see it, to own it, and to banish it from their world.
Here is a very simple and effective formula for doing just that, called the SOFT process:
See those negative thoughts for what they are
Observe the caller ID of the thoughts in your head
Flip the negative to the positive
Throw those mean words away
Let’s take a look in more detail.
#1 See Those Negative Thoughts for What They Are
Your child’s outward expression of negative self-talk is a prime opportunity to help them recognize it.
It may be tempting to sweep in, awash with positivity. But while this is great modeling, it will initially only serve to make your child feel unheard and as if their feelings are wrong in some way.
Instead, when your child voices a thought such as ‘I can’t do it!’ or ‘I’m going to mess up!’ get down to their level. Play back their message to them and say:
‘I hear you. There are thoughts in your mind that are making you feel sad/angry/frustrated/bad …’
Then resist fixing and offering solutions in favor of suggesting an alternative view. A choice:
‘I wonder if there is something different we can do with those thoughts?’
This recognition and ability to name it for what it is, will set them on the path to being able to tame it eventually.
This leads nicely onto our next step.
#2 Observe the Caller ID of the Thoughts in Your Head
Now that kids know what negative self-talk is, and can identify it in general, it is time to catch it when it occurs in their own head.
Our children can only manage negative self-talk if they can identify it in the first place, within themselves while it is happening. Learning this skill is not as tricky as you may think, because negative thoughts often have a familiar pattern.
Tamar Chansky, author of the super-helpful book Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking has some stellar advice in this respect. The stand-out tip for me was about helping your child recognize the familiar ‘ring tone’ of their personal Mr. Negative.
Once they can do this, initially with lots of help from you, they are better prepared to answer the ‘call’ – either in a way that turns the message around to the positive, or to ignore it altogether.
Just yesterday I had the chance to do this with my 5-year old son. He’s learning to read, and gets terribly frustrated when the jumble of letters on the page don’t instantly link as words in his head. It’s like his brain shuts down and he needs help to see that and fight his way out:
Joe: I can’t do it Mommy, it’s too hard!
Me, first empathizing: Hmm, I can see our old buddy Mr Can’t has come to play again and those thoughts are making you feel cross and upset. We need to deal with Mr Can’t somehow. What do you think we could do?
Joe: Nothing! I can’t, I can’t, I can’t do it!
Me: You know, listening is a choice we all have. If Mr Can’t is making you feel bad, we could choose not to listen him?
Joe: You mean ignore him?
Me: Sure, and maybe we could transform those thoughts into something awesome and positive instead, like your robots do when they switch mode?
Joe: Pow! I’m stronger than you Mr Can’t!
Me: Great! Pow to Mr Can’t … shall we try reading the words again and see if your awesome robot mode has worked?
And it had. And we read. And my little lad beamed with pride. (And I did a little too.)
The ‘Transformers’ analogy works for my son, but you can substitute any character, idea or story that your child views as positive. Once you’ve guided them through it a few times you will find your child tuning into it themselves whenever the Caller ID in their head is negative.
#3 Flip the Negative to the Positive
When the brain is wired to absorb negativity its natural response to a compliment is to down play it, and negate it with a ‘Yes, but …’ statement:
KidPower author and primary care physician Abby Bleistein has a great example of this in action. Imagine a child who has just come off the ball field:
You say: ‘You had a great hit at bat today!’
They immediately counter with: ‘Yeah, but I dropped the ball in the outfield.’
Bleistein suggests we step in at this point and remind our child how to take in the kindness that is being offered. It’s a simple technique, but with repetition it can quickly become the new default for our child.
I have a name for it too – the power of positive thinking. Nothing new there, but I’m a big fan of reframing as a concept.
I use it so often with my children that they now frequently throw it back at me. When I fumbled a bottle and sent a tsunami of milk across the kitchen floor the other day my daughter responded to my mutterings of clumsiness by saying:
‘But Mom, it could have been worse – you caught it before the whole lot spilt. It was a great catch!’
And she was right too.
#4 Throw those Mean Words Away
Negative self-talk is a choice. It may be a subconscious one until we realize what’s going on, but once we tune into it, the opportunity exists to kick it into touch.
Think of negative self-talk as a form of intense, personal, internal bullying.
It is possible to rewire the brain and erase these harmful messages. We need to teach our kids that harmful words, and negative thoughts, whether they come from inside or from out, only have power when we choose to give it to them.
Don’t listen to the haters
Be kind to yourself
and my personal favorite line:
Speak to yourself like somebody you love …
There you have it – the SOFT approach to breaking the negative Self-talk habit.
Like many other habits though, while negative self-talk is mostly an “inside” job, it is heavily triggered by outside influence. As you help your child develop the ability to break this habit, it is time to look at any outside influence on your child that might be contributing to this habit as well.
Stage 2: Examining Outside Influence
Outside influence comes from two main sources – those outside our homes and those within.
There isn’t a whole lot we can do about the influences outside our homes. As our kids grow up, hopefully we have taught them to trust in themselves to see what’s good for them, so that they will learn to avoid toxic people.
What about those within the home though?
As ever with anything related to raising our kids right, it’s vital to turn the spotlight on ourselves to ensure that the messages we are conveying to our kids are not contributing to the challenges they face. There are two key things we can do where Negative Self-Talk is concerned:
Watch What You Say About Yourself
As parents we are our children’s most influential early role models. They look to us for how to think, act and behave. So naturally, if we engage in negative self-talk ourselves they are likely to adopt that as their ‘norm’.
While I am a generally happy and optimistic soul with many strengths, I will cheerfully admit that I am rubbish at working out mechanical things. I’m cool with that, but what I hadn’t realized was the impact this was having on my daughter.
Last week she was losing a wrestling match with a screwdriver while trying to change her torch batteries. She cast them aside in frustration and said:
‘I’m rubbish at this stuff Mom, I must take after you!’
While I’ve never said anything about her ability working with mechanical things, those were still my words in her mouth. My heart ached for her. She is amazing and capable and I want her to know that.
Time for a swift personal reminder that some of our words of self-awareness can be viewed by the little still-growing people around us as negative self-talk. And also to challenge the instances of my own negative self-talk so I can coach my children from a more positive place.
Our kids are always watching. And learning from what they see. Let’s make their viewing a positive experience.
Watch What Your Say About Your Kids
Close at heel to what we say about ourselves without realizing, is what we say about our kids without conscious thought.
It’s staggeringly easy to fall into the trap of running our children down. When my son was a toddler he would do that perfectly natural toddler thing of hiding behind my legs when someone came to the house, even someone he was familiar with.
When a little person is threatening to tug your pants down in public it can feel embarrassing. In exasperation I would say ‘Come on sweetheart, don’t be shy!’ or worse still I would occasionally mutter justification along the lines of ‘He does this all the time – he finds it hard meeting people!’
Neither of these phrases were intended to do harm in any way to my son – I’d sooner boil my head than knowingly inflict any hurt on him. But in very subtle ways I was implanting messages in his head:
I’m Shy. I don’t like meeting people.
This was brought home to me one day when he was three, and I told him we were off to a social gathering – a birthday party for one of his best friends. He cried. After some gentle probing he opened up:
‘I’ll be shy Mommy. Meeting people is scary for me.’
And just like that I realized how easy it is to wire our children’s brains in to negative patterns of self talk. Cue buckets of Mom-guilt and a valuable lesson learned.
Managing negative self-talk is a core life skill that we can pass on to our children. Eleanor Roosevelt said ‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.’ The sooner we clean up our own act, and help our children learn this truth, the stronger and happier they will be.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take a moment to reflect on the following:
- How well do you manage your own negative self-talk? Are you being kind to yourself?
- How do you talk to your child? Some harmless teasing can be character building, but not it if leaves your child feeling bad about themselves.
- When your child expresses negative thoughts about themselves how do you respond? Could you do it differently?
- Do you model the power of positive thinking for your child to copy?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Put the SOFT process into action whenever the opportunity arises:
See those negative thoughts for what they are – this is about recognizing and acknowledging what a negative thought is in general.
Observe the caller ID of the thoughts in your head – you cannot hide from the negative thoughts. They will always find you. So confront them. In most cases the reality is far less scary than the imagined hurt.
Flip the negative to a positive – ‘Shy?’ flips to ‘Careful with my feelings’; ‘Lazy?’ flips to ‘Take my time with projects to be sure I do my best’; ‘No good at soccer?’ flips to ‘Awesome at crafts’
Throw those mean words away – when you flip the negatives you devalue them. They lose their power. And your child is again free to take back control and move on in a positive way.
And finally, don’t forget that what you say matters! Make sure you are not inadvertently contributing to the Negative Self-Talk habit.
Editor’s Note: Want more on this? Two of my favorite positive parenting writers, Casey O’Roarty and Nicole Schwarz, have got together on a podcast to discuss this. It makes for some great listening as you drive, cook or do laundry 🙂 Check it out – Supporting Our Children’s Negative Self Talk