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The importance of helping your children deal with negative self-talk

Nurturing our children to calm their inner bully will help them to accept themselves

Geraldine Walsh with her children Allegra and Devin. Negative self-talk can affect both adults and children. Photograph: Donall Farmer

Negative self-talk is your internal tormenter telling you that you are not good enough, explains Joanna Fortune, psychotherapist and author of 15-Minute Parenting. “It’s an inner voice that limits and inhibits you in achieving and reaching your full potential.”

A little bully, nit-picking inside our brain at everything we attempt. Often linked to anxiety, it sounds like a very adult-consumed syndrome but that’s not the case. As a parent to a six-year-old, I’ve been surprised how often I hear my daughter talk to herself in a way that could prove damaging to her overall perception of herself.

“I can’t do this. It’s too hard!” she says as she tries to make a kaleidoscope out of a discarded kitchen roll holder. She was adamant and determined when she gathered her supplies, but as the task grew more complicated than she envisaged, she blamed herself for not being competent enough to finish the project without help. Looking over my shoulder as I gathered the dishes, I believed giving her the space to figure out the puzzle by herself was the right thing to do until I heard her angrily give out to herself.

“I’m too stupid,” she muttered.

Pointless efforts

It wasn’t the first time I heard her have such conversations with herself. “You’re not stupid, don’t say that,” I reply in some attempt to comfort her.

My efforts are pointless as she disappointingly abandons the half-made kaleidoscope and is in no mood to listen to my positive acclamations. I realise I have no idea how to handle the situation and I’m sure I’m not the only parent who worries over their children talking negatively to themselves.

Negative thinking is as natural as life itself, says Dr Malie Coyne, clinical psychologist. “Because of the way the human mind works, we all speak to ourselves unkindly sometimes, which has huge power over how we feel about ourselves and others and how we make sense of our experiences.”

Continually being critical of ourselves and using negative self-talk can lead to increased anxiety whether you’re an adult or a child and can negatively affect our self-esteem. As an adult, I know my confidence dips when I’m put in a position that is out of my comfort zone. I could talk down to myself and welcome anxiety which will see me failing and running for the door or I could dig deep and ground myself strengthening my resolve and confidence. As a child, it’s almost easier to give up and devalue yourself as being stupid, incapable or believe you’re doing everything wrong.

“Just like adults, children can be their own worst critics and judge themselves very harshly,” says Dr Coyne. “A child who engages in a lot of negative self-talk is likely to grow up berating themselves unless they are supported by a caring adult who can help them see their inner beauty.

“Researchers have repeatedly found being self-critical can be harmful to both our emotional and physical health and is linked to everything from depression to anxiety to high blood pressure to dissatisfaction with life. Just like a physical attack sends our brains fight or flight response into overdrive, so does an emotional attack directed at ourselves. It’s like the modern day man’s predator is actually himself. To add insult to injury when we engage in self-criticism not only are we the attacked but we are also the attacker and that is exhausting.”

Self-compassion

Dr Coyne recognises that normalising the mind’s inner bully voice as something we all experience is a powerful way to help children feel less alone. “We can help children combat their critical self-talk by cultivating self-compassion or kindfulness,” she says.

“We want our children to treat themselves kindly and comfort themselves, rather than constantly berate themselves for their perceived shortcomings. Providing children with tangible tools to encourage their compassionate voice to calm their inner bully is invaluable, especially in our modern day busy lives where teaching resilience skills is key.”

Tuning out the inner bully takes practice. Encouraging children to take deep calming breaths and putting their hands on their hearts or bellies can help, while also asking their gentler kinder voice to help them. Dr Coyne says mantras or positive affirmations can be a really useful way to encourage children to speak more kindly to themselves.

Fortune knows it may be tempting to jump in and shut down any negative self-talk in your child such as I find myself doing. But rather than dismiss or minimise how they are feeling and expressing those feelings, Fortune suggests trying a more accepting and empathic approach. “For example,” she says, “when you hear your child saying “I’m so stupid” you may want to jump in with “no, you’re not. Don’t say that.” Instead, try empathising with their feelings so they can work their way through and beyond it. “You are finding your homework really challenging today”, and suggest team work as a solution; “Maybe we can work it out together.” And then focus on praising effort over outcome. “I am so proud of how you stuck with this even though it was hard, you kept trying and that makes me so proud of you.”

I listen to my daughter and realise some of her reactions mirror my own when my own inner bully manages to sneak out and criticise. Outside influences have a huge bearing on a child’s negative self-talk, especially the close adults in their lives.

Emotional reserves

Fortune reminds us to be mindful about how we think and talk about ourselves. “Little ears are always listening and little eyes are always watching,” she says, “and our children tend to take their emotional cues from us, which is great because we can lead them by positive example”.

Watching how we talk about ourselves in front of our children is key in modelling self-kindness, says Dr Coyne. “In building our emotional reserves as parents, we need to strive towards compassionate self-acceptance. We do this by working on separating ourselves from our own self-judgments and the judgments of others. It’s about allowing ourselves and others to be human in making mistakes and learning forgiveness.”

It’s a big life lesson for both kids and parents. Nurturing our children to calm their inner bully will help them to love and accept themselves and others and their imperfections.

The unfinished kaleidoscope sat for two days untouched until my daughter’s inner bully disappeared and she attempted the job again.

Successfully this time.