Expert / 5 September, 2023 / My Baba
Do you have a self-critical child? It’s more common than you think. Clinical psychologist Dr. Holly Symons joins us to offer her expert insights on supporting children struggling with self-criticism.
What we tell our brain matters. We often think our mind has control over us, but it is actually the reverse! We have control over our brain by the thoughts we allow in or by the thoughts we emotionally attach to.
Have you ever experienced your heart racing and found that you can feel much calmer by breathing deeply and reassuring yourself with “I’m ok, I’m ok, I’m ok,”? That’s because the breathing, paired with the positive self-talk, told your nervous system and brain there was not an actual threat happening. Or have you tried to do something physical and visualised yourself completing it or told yourself, “I’ve got this,” and noticed it felt easier?
What we say to ourselves matters. There is an entire area of psychology dedicated to positivity. This is because research time and time again shows the amazing effect positive thoughts have on our functioning. There is also research that highlights the detrimental effect negative thoughts can have on our mental health.
So, what happens when we hear our children engaging in negative self-talk? Can it mean something serious? Does it mean you have a self-critical child? How can we support them? How can we get them to stop?
Self-talk is our inner monologue or a way of narrating what is happening in our world or around us. Negative self-talk sounds like “I’m stupid, “I’m ugly,” “Nobody likes me,” “I can’t do anything right,” or “I’m bad at ___.” It can be specific or globalised. It is important to note that we have all engaged in negative self-talk at some point in our lives! In fact, I bet you can think of one time today you did it; I know I did! It happens. The important thing is to notice it, understand it, and then reframe it.
Once you notice the negative self-talk, try and think of why your child might be talking themselves down. Is it a habit that has formed or perfectionism, attention seeking, or perhaps to fit into a social group? Are they being bullied? Or is their self-esteem low? Or are they struggling with a mental health difficulty?
If your child’s negative self-talk is persistent or pervasive, or not based in reality (e.g., believes they have no friends but get asked on playdates frequently), is impacting their daily life, their eating or sleeping patterns have changed, or they lack enjoyment in things they used to enjoy, it is important you speak to a mental health professional. These things highlight a more significant issue for which a mental health professional can support your child as well as yourself.
Not all negative self-talk suggests a larger issue. Frequently, children engaging in negative self-talk seems to be almost a habit or negative spiral that we get stuck in. The good news is we can easily support our children in changing this thought pattern. One of the first ways to do this is to make sure you aren’t in the same negative feedback loop. I know this can be difficult, but our children often model their behaviors on ours. So check in with yourself and your parenting partner to ensure that you are not in the negative self-talk feedback loop as well. If you are, don’t worry. You can engage in the below to stop it for yourself as well.
First, let’s start the #reframeyourbrain game! This is so fun because the whole family can join in! The key is to reframe the negative thought into a positive thought that is realistic, not overly positive.
For instance, “I am bad at football” can be reframed to “I struggled in the game today, but that was just one game, and I am learning and getting better at football every day.” Another example is “I am stupid,” which can be reframed to “I am a kid, and I am learning and growing every day.”
The way to make it a fun game is to teach your family if anyone hears any negative self-talk, they can say, “reframe your brain,” and then the person must reframe right then and there. You can make it silly and add positivity after the reframe is made, like giving a high five. Some of my families have even had members put small change into a jar for every reframe and then gone to the movies together with the money. Have fun with this, and get creative!
Once you are going on the #reframeyourbrain game, you can also start working with your children on positive affirmations. Positive affirmations help bring positive energy to our day and can build resilience. You can buy affirmation cards online, but my favourite is to have your children create their own affirmation cards. That way, it says things that resonate with them.
Once the cards are made (10-20 cards), you put them into a deck and pull one out every morning. That, then, is your affirmation for the day. You read it allowed in the mirror, you say it on the way to school, you repeat it as you remember throughout the day and again right before bed.
Here are some examples of affirmations you could use “I am brave,” “I am strong,” “I am kind,” “I can do anything I put my mind to,” “I am safe,” “I have control of my mind and body,” “my challenges help me grow,” “I can do hard things,” “I am loved, and I belong,” and “I love me.”
The list is endless, and you will be amazed at the wonderful affirmations your children will come up with. The key here is to be consistent and make sure you start your day with a positive affirmation card. For younger children, they can draw a picture on one side of the card, and you can write the affirmation that you come up with. For older kids or teens, give them some more autonomy by supporting them in the set-up and then letting them complete the task.
We have talked about the ways to turn negative thoughts into positive ones, but there is another important piece to letting go of negative self-talk, and that is to give space to the expression of negative thoughts and big feelings. That means we don’t just shove them down or forget about them. Instead, we acknowledge them, express them, and let them go. But how do we help our children do this? One great way is through journaling. This helps even little children express how they have felt each day. I find it works well to do it after school or before bed.
If you have a child who struggles to fall asleep, a “brain dump” in their journal can really help. For some children, the journal will be made of pictures. For others, it will be a written journal. Here are some prompts to help your children get started: My favourite thing about today; I felt sad or mad when…; I wish…; I was proud…; I am grateful for…; and I love… A little extra tip is to have your children pick the journal and a special pen or pencil to write with, as this will make it even more enjoyable. For teens, a great way to do this is to share a journal and send it back and forth to one another to read. This creates a safe place for expression when it feels too difficult to talk about.
Listening is a skill that many of us are lacking, and active listening is key when it comes to helping your self-critical child put things into perspective. However, it is so important in creating the connection needed to support our children. So how do we ensure we are really hearing our children when they are talking to us? Try using active listening. When you’re speaking with your child, get down on their level, touch their arm or shoulder, make eye contact, and then repeat what you hear them saying back to them with empathy. “I hear you saying you are upset that your mark on your test was lower than you wanted. Is that right? That is hard; I saw how hard you revised. How can I support you?”
Here your goal is to let them know you hear them, can hold their big feelings, and are there to support them. Active listening can be really difficult as we are very busy. My advice is to practise until it becomes a habit. I find that the more we actively listen, the less time it takes and the happier and healthier the whole family is. This tool is important not only when building connection with our children but also with our partners!
Praise your self-critical child. If we are trying to support our children in having a positive mindset, we must ensure we are praising them. Often praise is used in an overarching and nonspecific way, such as “good job” or “well done.” However, this is not the praise I want you to engage in. Instead, I want you to practise praising your children in a very specific way – and frequently. Notice all the positive things you can about them and praise them accordingly. Try and do this as often as you can.
Here are some examples: “I can see how hard you are working, and I am so impressed by you,” “You are learning and growing every day. What an inspiration you are,” “Thank you for helping me, I really appreciate you,” “You are so brave,” “I love spending time with you,” “Wow, I love the creativity you have and the fun you had while making that,” “That was really tricky, but you problem solved so well.”
The key is to praise them for their effort and growth and for how special you think they are. This helps build confidence and resiliency. It is also proven through research that what we praise, we see more of behaviorally, so that is a double win!
Remember that negative self-talk can creep up on us at any point in our lives, so don’t add to it by being hard on yourself or your kiddos! Instead, take note of it and start engaging in the tools more consistently again. Growth is continuous and can be fun! The above tools are examples, and you may not resonate with all of them. That is okay. Even just one will support your children in positive change. Lastly, you know your kids best, and if you are concerned something deeper is going on, seek support. You can ask your GP, your health visitor, school mental health lead, or a therapist of your choice. You can also call the Young Minds Parents Helpline on 0808 802 5544.
Article by Dr. Holly Symons, Clinical Psychologist
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