A young girl was doing the best in her class, beating everyone in school races, and winning tons of awards. One day, a voice she’d never heard before spoke to her.
“Are you sure you’ll ace the test this time?”
“I don’t think you will. You didn’t study enough.”
“You’re not in good shape today. You shouldn’t even go to gym class. You’ll humiliate yourself.”
And so it went.
She began faltering at school. The motivation was hard to find.
Her grandmother asked her what was wrong and she told her about the voice. The old woman told her, “There are two birds within every person. One shrieks with fear, sadness, pain, and regret. The other one chirps with joy, faith, happiness, and love.”
The girl asks, “Which bird wins, grandma?”
The grandma replies, “The bird you feed.”
This girl could be anyone’s child, even yours. In fact, she could be the child you once were. She’s a rather disheartening example of how quickly our children can lapse into negative self-talk. Like adults, they can feel overwhelmed and overreact when things don’t go their way. The problem is that with time, negative self-talk can become a pattern and erode their self-esteem, leading to a state of learned helplessness and self-fulfilling prophecies of failure.
In layman’s terms: When a child says to themselves, over and over again, things like, “I can’t,” “I suck at this”, “I’m stupid”, “I’m garbage at this,” “I hate this” and so on, they come to believe them. They become certain they will fail. Let’s say they’re not good at math. Surely there’s nothing wrong with admitting to yourself you’re not good at math? Then, you get an average or bad grade in English. The negative self-talk extends to English, then to something else, and so on. When you keep telling yourself you can’t do something, you make less effort (because you know you’ll fail anyway), and ultimately you do fail, but not because “you’re stupid”, but because you didn’t make an effort.
Needless to say, this attitude has dire implications in adulthood. You have to catch it early on, when your child is still young, and take every measure you can to transform it into a positive approach that entails a solid, healthy dose of self-kindness.
To get started, we present to you the 4 Ds – a simple approach to achieve just that.
By “decipher” we mean to become aware of negative thoughts. Negative thoughts trigger negative feelings. Then, we proceed to “define” or “determine” the origin of these thoughts. We “demarcate”, drawing a clear line between positive and negative and “devise” an approach to transform negative into positive. Finally, we “discard” the negative thoughts, feelings, and words.
This is easier than it sounds. When your child says something like, “I’ll mess this up” or “this will be an epic fail”, tell them this is a negative thought and you two must do something to change it. A lot of parents ignore negative talk (ignoring is not recommended, it affirms negativity) or counter it with something like, “No you won’t, you’ll be great!” with a smile from ear to ear. Excessive positivism will make the child think their feelings are somehow wrong.
Your goal is to help your child recognize that some thoughts can cause sadness and frustration, which doesn’t mean the thoughts aren’t normal.
Normally, our negative thoughts have patterns we can identify. They have a common origin. For example, they can relate to social interactions. Your child is shy and feels uncomfortable around other kids. They say they’ll never have friends. Once you identify the origin, you can move on to the next step:
When your child says something negative, counter with ‘Yes, but …’. For example, they say they lost a game at tennis after missing a ball. You say, “Yes, but you won (another game, the match, or the set) after they couldn’t return your amazing serve!” This will encourage self-kindness because they’ll be proud of their success and feel better about themselves. Apply this tactic consistently and self-kindness will become the new default.
Work with your child to create new phrases. They could say “I’m working hard on math” instead of “Math is impossible.”
Rewiring the brain and erasing negative words is doable because negative talk is a choice. Teach your child that negative thoughts and harmful words only have power over us if we let them. Set an example by avoiding negative talk yourself (more on this later). Talk to yourself like you would to someone you love and they’ll follow your lead.
Adults have bad attitudes, bad days, and bad moods all the time. We are being hypocritical if we expect our children to be nice, positive, and respectful all the time. Be compassionate. If the child falls and gets hurt, say, “I know it hurts, I’m sorry, it’ll pass” instead of “Why didn’t you see that__________ (something they tripped over)?” If they’re visibly getting frustrated with physics homework, say, “When you’re tired, physics is really hard” instead of “Try harder! Stop complaining!” or another form of criticism. “I know it’s hard” will always work if you don’t know what to say in a particular situation.
Acknowledge their stress, their pain, their struggle, and show them these things are normal. Say, “I have bad days too!” or “I can’t really get work done when I’m exhausted either.” Chances are they’ll be genuinely surprised – and pleased. Maybe it doesn’t occur to your child that other people have the same experiences too. This is an important step toward self-kindness because they understand their feelings are OK to have and they’re not alone.
There isn’t much you can do about external influences over your child – school, friends, teachers, TV, the Internet, and more. You can control them, but only to an extent. When it comes to influences within the home though, you have full control. This includes watching your own negative self-talk because children learn by imitating.
Make sure the messages you’re sending to your child or children are not exacerbating their frustration in some way. This can be challenging because parents sometimes don’t recognize their negative thoughts or words. Your own child will provide ample clues. An example: they say, “I suck at this (some activity) – I must take after you.” Hearing something along those lines shows you that you should correct your own self-talk because you run the risk of your child adopting it as a norm.
Self-kindness is key to healthy self-esteem in adulthood. Children who grow up with the feeling that they can trust themselves to decide what’s right and what’s wrong are far less likely to enter into unhealthy relationships or adopt maladaptive or self-destructive forms of behavior. They are also more likely to be successful in their professional lives because they are more determined and consistent.
Amy Petrou is a content advocate at GenMindful.com, and a mother of two. In her free time, you will find her writing on her blog, reading and searching for pottery and paintings to add to her growing collection.