Step 4 – Building Positive Self Talk
Persistent fears can cause our children to avoid situations and become anxious when they are forced to face them. Even the idea of a situation can start children feeling frightened or anxious. This comes from their self-talk telling them they need to be afraid and effectively convincing them to be afraid.
Children can get stuck in a cycle of negative self-talk which can greatly limit them during childhood, even leading to clinical anxiety later on in life.
The purpose of this strategy is to help your child build positive self-talk, ensuring that the comments they make about themselves and their fears are constructive. This self-talk goes on to form the basis of your child’s thinking and WeParent can’t stress enough how important this can be for them.
Psychology Fun Facts
Psychologists use the word ‘self-talk’ to refer to thoughts that people have. Self-talk comes from the inner voice in our head that comments on what we do. We start to experience self-talk from around the age of 4. Children effectively listen to their own thoughts as a voice in their own head.
Self-talk can help a child to reflect on their actions. Or self-talk can be directive, telling a child what to do.
Young children presume that comments made by their self-talk are always correct and view self-talk as an authority figure. However, comments made by self-talk are often incorrect, especially when a child is anxious and fearful. The self-talk of children who are scared and anxious is often overly critical and pessimistic. Listening to critical self-talk reduces a child’s confidence.
It’s important to check whether your child’s self-talk is constructive. This can only be done by bringing your child’s self-talk out into the open by asking your child to say aloud what they’re thinking.
A child can learn to change their self-talk. Our brain appears to accept whatever our inner voice says until the brain hears our voice say something else aloud.
A parent telling a child what to think is one way for a child to change their self-talk. However, a better way to change self-talk is for a child to hear themself say something out loud. The brain then hears its own voice say something it can accept as being correct.
A child’s brain that doesn’t hear clear comments made by the child’s voice is slower to develop standards the brain can accept. The brain works better when it hears the child’s voice state a clear view.
Young children often consider that their beliefs are fixed and are correct. During the mid-childhood years, children are developing their ability to reflect on their own beliefs and then based on their day to day life experiences, are now beginning to update and correct these beliefs.
Children check the validity of their beliefs against three sources:
- their own experiences
- what authority figures say
- what their peers say
Your child will naturally update their self-talk over time. As parent’s, you can help your child to develop positive self-talk over time by regularly enquiring about it and accepting changes in their self-talk as they occur.
For example, if your child has overcome their fear of dogs, accept this as fact and let them enjoy playing with dogs now they don’t feel frightened anymore.
When a child vocalises their self-talk, it gives them an opportunity to challenge comments, rather than accept comments as always being correct. As a parent, you can help your child to challenge their negative self-talk by helping them to reflect on whether comments are realistic, or are too negative. You can help your child to recognise comments that are too pessimistic, and to replace these with positive thoughts.
Negative self-talk can effectively act as a bully to some children, putting them down and telling them they aren’t good enough. However, children can be taught to dismiss this negative self-talk and replace it with more constructive self-talk.
Getting your child to state their new positive point of view out loud reinforces their self-talk and helps them to recognise evidence that supports their belief.
Confident children hear self-talk that makes more positive comments about what they can do. Their self-talk tells them about ways they can respond to situations, and what outcomes they can expect following their responses. Children who hear positive self-talk are more willing to try new ways to deal with situations.
On the other hand, anxious children experience more negative and cautionary self-talk. The negative self-talk makes pessimistic comments about their ability to deal with situations, and predicts that negative outcomes are likely to occur following their responses. Children who hear negative self-talk are likely to remain passive and not try new ways of dealing with situations, so they remain afraid.
By regularly discussing your child’s self-talk with them, you help them to form a lifelong habit of reviewing their self-talk and developing positive self-talk. These habits will alleviate your child’s fears and help them to overcome concerns by becoming more confident about trying new ways to deal with difficulties and frightening situations.
Self-talk is often based on old experiences about a child’s abilities they had months ago. As a child grows older and their abilities and potential improves, it’s important they update their self-talk.
In this activity, you are going to get your child to vocalise their self-talk and help them to challenge any negative self-talk. This technique is far more effective than simply telling your child what to think about their fear.
Encouraging your child to make more positive self-talk statements will help your child to process their fears and anxieties and to find better ways to manage it.
Step 1: Identify your child’s self-talk
When your child shows signs of being afraid, then don’t push them into the situation they’re afraid of. It’s likely that your child will be reserved to begin with and will think they are being silly. So, it’s important you be non-judgmental.
Begin by encouraging your child to talk about the situation and to analyse it together by:
- Ask your child to express their thoughts about the situation.
- Ask them to state how they feel. Do not ask your child to justify their fear.
- Ask your child to tell you what they have been thinking.
Step 2: Identify what self-talk needs changing
Identify parts of your child’s self-talk that you consider to be realistic and not needing change. Agree with your child about their realistic self-talk to reinforce this.
Identify any aspects of self-talk where you child is either confused or expresses an idea that appears to you to be exaggerated. This is what you are going to work on together to change over time.
Don’t tell your child their self-talk is wrong. Instead, question what makes them believe it. Asking your child to reflect on whether their thoughts are always correct, allows their brain to hear what they’re saying out loud.
Step 3: Challenging your child’s self-talk
If some self-talk appears to be negative or exaggerated, you are going to give your child an alternative way to think by simply replacing their negative or exaggerated belief with your own positive statement.
Let your child hear you talk about alternative ideas, and how different ideas lead to different actions.
You’re aiming to help your child focus on self-talk that is more constructive in dealing with their fear.
Then, you are going to ask your child some questions to challenge their beliefs around their fear.
Here are some examples of telling your child what positive self-talk to think and a way to challenge them instead of telling.
Situation A parent’s positive statement Questions to challenge fears and to help your child form positive self-talk Child is scared of going to bed thinking there could be a monster under their bed. “Don’t be silly, there’s no such thing as monsters.”
“Monsters are all really friendly so there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“What makes you think there’s a monster under your bed?”
“I thought monsters were only on tv, so how could they get under your bed?”
Child is always anxious about going to their football lesson as they think they’ll mess up and everyone will laugh at them. “You’re really good at football, no-one’s going to laugh at you.”
“Your team are your friends, of course they won’t laugh.”
“What has happened to make you think this?”
“If your friends did laugh, might they have been laughing about something else?”
Child gets frightened of a dog jumping up and getting excited when you arrive at a friend’s house. “You’re ok. The dog is just really happy to see us.”
“He’s a friendly dog, he won’t do anything to you.”
“What’s going to help you not be as scared of the dog?”
“Do you know how to tell when a dog is happy and friendly or is angry?”
Step 4: Finding a positive statement about their fear
Together, agree on a positive statement that your child can use to overcome their fear and help them build positive self-talk. Ask them to state their positive beliefs aloud. If they sound unconvinced, then get them to say it again more confidently. Louder!
If your child expresses reservations, then be sure to adjust the statement to make it one they are happy with.
Step 5: Time to face their fear
You will know when your child is ready to face their fear and step into the situation they have previously been scared of when they express realistic self-talk about ways they could manage the situation.
If your child appears ready to enter a situation that is frightening for them, rehearse their positive self-talk with them just before they enter the situation.
Step 6: Compliments
After your child has entered a situation they were previously frightened about, encourage them to compliment themselves for how well they handled their fear. These self-compliments really help to build your child’s positive self-talk.
The best compliments use descriptive praise that a child can repeat to themselves. Descriptive praise focusses on an action and helps a child to accept positive self-talk.
An example of descriptive praise is, ‘I used to be afraid of dogs, but now I love playing with them. I am not scared anymore.’
Step 7: Encourage up-dated self-talk
After your child has approached a situation they used to be afraid of, encourage your child to state their self-talk that is new and updated. Help your child to recognise that their new self-talk is consistent with their recent experience, and will be correct in the future.
WeParent Top Tip
How to challenge very negative self-talk
A common pitfall parents fall into with persistent negative self-talk is to become frustrated and start to comment on who your child is, rather than how they feel. If you find yourself making comments that describe their character, for example “you’re such a scaredy cat”, or, “you’re always frightened of everything”, take a step back. Focus on the specific situation rather than letting your child’s fears define them in your eyes.
Where to next?
Now that your child has learnt a way to calm themselves down, can vocalise to you how they’re feeling and are learning to manage their self-talk with positive beliefs, it’s time to move on to our final strategy in the Fears and Anxieties module, which is Step 5 – Dealing With Hazards.