How to Address Negative Self TalkJun 20, 2022
In our private practices, we often have parents who share concerns as their children make negative comments about themselves, but we also see this when actively working with children. They easily get frustrated during a task and make exclamations such as “This is too hard for me!” “I’m so dumb!” or “I can never get it right!” When we don’t put these thoughts in check, it continues to grow and we start believing these tricky thoughts.
At times, our inner voice can give us good feedback so that we can work towards goals or have better interactions. However, when that inner voice becomes overly critical, we as individuals can get stuck in a cycle which turn into cognitive distortions (those biased perspectives we start believing). Here are some common ones, but this list is not exhaustive:
- catastrophizing (always expecting the worst)
- polarized thinking (no middle ground, you have to be perfect or its unacceptable)
- emotional reasoning (what you feel is automatically true, so if you feel stupid you are stupid).
- overgeneralizing (creating a negative pattern based on one event, you may find your child using words like always or never)
- filtering (even though you get positive feedback, you focus on only the one negative)
You may have heard some of your children continue with this thought process which produces statements such as “I’ll never be able to graduate!” “I’ll never be good enough to make the team!” or “Everyone hates me!” This is alarming and we want to fix it! You may find yourself giving many compliments or telling your child they really can do something, but this is not getting to the root of the issue. Also, you may recall that when your own parents said something positive you may have had that sneaky thought that they were only saying those things because they had to as the parent, or that every parent thinks their kids are the smartest or best.
Here are steps you can take to help your child (but really, probably ourselves too):
First, understand that negative self-talk is actually fairly common. We all have tricky thoughts! This is an opportunity to start identifying when your brain is having a thought that may not be true. It can be validating for your child to understand that this happens to all of us!
Second, validate the underlying feeling. The exclamation your child is making is a reflection of what is happening underneath. But, our kids (and us!) can have a hard time putting that into words. Validating looks something like this: “I can see that made you frustrated” or “You are having a tough time,” or “You feel like this is too much for you.”
Third, help them explore their thoughts so they can start to understand what is happening internally. Ask them reflective questions as this is moving your child past the overwhelming feeling. Here are some examples, “Hmm, I wonder why this is bothering you more today than usual?” or “Why do you think you are having difficulty with your friends?” The goal is to be supportive, not judgmental. Try to frame it in way that doesn’t make it seem like this is a consequence – no one wants a lecture when they are upset. For example, you can talk about how you can try to “catch your inner critic” or give these thoughts a name like “Mr. Trickster.”
Fourth, help them restate their thoughts. This is giving feedback and practice in turning those negative statements into expressions that help your child make forward progress. Further, it is helping them learn to have less of an internalizing focus in which they attribute all negative interactions or circumstances to their own failure. This may look like this: “I heard you say, ‘Writing is too hard, I’m so stupid.’ Let’s try saying, ‘I’m working really hard on this assignment and need some help’ instead.” Or “You said ‘No one likes me, I will never have friends!’ Let’s try saying, ‘I’m feeling lonely and not included at recess.’”
Finally, help them problem solve! Negative self-talk statements are letting you as a parent know that the current circumstance is overwhelming and your child does not feel equipped to handle it. Remember, this is still a collaborative process because we are trying to teach life-long skills. We as adults still need to pause and figure out how to handle problems! Here are some examples: “I understand you are feeling behind in math class. What are some ways we can make that situation feel better?” or “I hear you saying you feel lonely, how do you think you could change that?”
Even as adults, we find ourselves pushing against these cognitive distortions. So, don’t be surprised when you need to support your child in this process many times across many different circumstances. The more you do this in a collaborative way, the easier it becomes for your child to accept your help and then eventually learn to do this on their own.
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