How to respond to your child’s negative self talk

child's negative self talk

Have you ever heard your child putting themselves down? Saying that they are no good at something? It’s heartbreaking to hear a child’s negative self talk, isn’t it? As parents however, we are in an amazing position to be able to address their negative self talk. And ultimately help steer them onto more positive paths. Today, I’m delighted to have Julia Philpott of JP Parent Coaching, to help us navigate through the water’s of your child’s negative self talk.

What is self talk?

We all talk to ourselves, both out loud and in our heads. It is perfectly healthy to do so – it is merely a verbalisation of our thought processes.  As children grow up, their self talk is evidence of their developing self-awareness. It demonstrates their ‘self-concept’, i.e. a reflection of how they see themselves.

It isn’t just reflective, though.  Many studies have demonstrated the link between what people say to themselves and how they feel and behave.  So getting a hold on our self talk, and making it work for us in positive ways, is really important.  It is also a positive habit we can encourage in our kids.

When does self talk develop in children?

A child’s ability to recognise themselves in a mirror or a photograph is a key milestone in their development.  This is when they understand that they are a separate entity from their major care-giver, usually their mother, and can see themselves as other people might see them.  This happens at around 15 to 24 months, depending on the child.  So, for self talk to happen, they have to be able to see themselves as an ‘object’ (in order to talk to that object).

The sophistication of the self talk will then increase in pace with the child’s command of language.  Although it is important to note that, like many of us learning a new language, we understand a lot more than we can produce, so children do not need to be verbalising comments out loud for self talk to be happening.  Further, the ‘talk’ happens in whatever system of language available to them (for example, deaf children have ‘self talk’ too – it is just represented differently in their minds).

child's negative self talk

What factors influence self talk?

There are three key factors that influence a child’s developing self-concept and therefore their self talk: the child’s temperament (nature), the environment they are brought up in (nurture) and the immediate situation (the context). 

Nature

It is true that some children are born with a more reserved and anxious temperament than others, which may be reflected in their self talk as their language develops.  This need not be a barrier to positive self talk, however.

Nurture

At the same time, the environment – the influences on a child as they grow up – is equally, if not more, important for their self-concept and therefore self talk.  Research has shown that children whose parents, teachers, siblings and peers talk positively to them, have higher levels of positive self talk than those who hear negative things about themselves.  In the words of Peggy O’Mara (Editor and Publisher of Mothering Magazine from 1980 to 2011), ‘The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice’.

As an example, after a school hockey match recently I heard a father recount his daughter’s performance to her mother, who had arrived late.  He said, “She got the Most Valued Player award, but I’ve no idea why.  She’s so lazy on the pitch.”  It is possible that this comment was made in jest, but I happen to know the girl in question can often lack self-esteem – now I understand why.

You may also want to reflect on how you talk to yourself when your children are around.  If you are in the habit of saying ‘I’m so stupid, I forgot to buy any milk’, don’t be surprised if your children also start calling themselves stupid when they make minor mistakes.

An important note:  Research in psychology has consistently shown that it is very difficult to separate out nature and nurture (the environment) – they are, in fact, completely interwoven.  For example, a more outgoing child is likely to place themselves in environments that are different from a reserved child, e.g. in the thick of the action in the toddler group, rather than at the edge (i.e. nature choosing the environment). 

Similarly, the same environment will impact on children with different temperaments in different ways, e.g. some children respond very positively to a competitive environment, while others will not flourish (i.e. nurture’s impact on nature).  Thus nature and nurture act together to shape how we develop.

Context

Finally we need to recognise that the unique demands of the immediate situation will influence how our children talk.  The fight-flight-freeze response that is triggered when we feel threatened (for whatever reason) pumps a cocktail of hormones around our system that might cause us to say uncharacteristic things (like most cocktails then!).

For example, we recently took our, normally completely placid, ‘take-it-all-in-my-stride’, 14-year-old son to an Under 17s driving experience.  He spent the whole hour before his drive saying ‘This is terrifying, I’m going to die’, to the point that I was really quite cross!  It took every ounce of my self-control to recognise that he was uncharacteristically very nervous and would be fine once the drive was underway (which he was).  This was not typical self talk for him.

Similarly, a bevy of young girls running around before a ballet or stage show whimpering ‘I’m so nervous, I know I’m going to be terrible’ are probably enjoying the drama of the moment. One look at their over-excited, delighted faces will tell you this is not worrying self talk either.

When should we be worried about our child’s negative self talk?

Negative self talk is more worrying when you notice it consistently over time and it cannot be put down to the nerves or excitement of the situation.  This suggests it has developed into a habit and it reflects your child’s overriding beliefs about themselves and their capabilities.

The bad news is that the knock-on effects of negative self talk can be that kids miss out on opportunities. It has been found that positive people are generally more ‘lucky’ than negative people. Fewer people want to spend time with people who engage with negative self talk and, ultimately it can be a symptom of anxiety and depression.

The good news is that negative self talk can be changed.

child's negative self talk

What should parents do when they hear their child talking to themselves in a negative way?

It is important that your children notice their negative self talk if they are going to change it. But be gentle in pointing it out.

As a child, it used to drive me mad when my parents said “There’s no such word as can’t!”.  When I said “I can’t do it”, it was an implicit request for some sort of help or guidance.  I know they were probably trying to encourage me but I found their response completely unhelpful. It left me feeling isolated and stupid.

So, instead, here are some suggestions for what you can say when you hear your child talking to themselves in a negative way.

child's negative self talk

 There isn’t always an ‘if your child says this, say that instead’ answer, but in general look out for:

– Extremes of language (‘always’, ‘never’, ‘everyone’, ‘no-one’) and replace them with more qualifying language (‘sometimes’, ‘occasionally’, ‘some people’).

– Ways to make the problem more specific and time-bound à ‘Which part in particular are you finding difficult?’, ‘I understand you’re sad you didn’t get picked today.  What do you want to do about that?’

– Opportunities to remind them of how they solved a similar problem in the past. For example, ‘This reminds me of when you had that argument with Sam and you sorted that out all by yourself’.

– Ways to de-personalise the comments, e.g. ‘I’m stupid’ à ‘Oh, it’s quite normal to struggle with fractions’, ‘It’s all my fault’ à ‘I think that’s unlikely.  What other explanations might there be?’

If you consistently model positive self talk in your own language and help your child to ‘catch, challenge and change’ their own negative self talk, you can create new habits of positive thinking.

child's negative self talk

If you had to give a pep talk to parents who want to address their child’s negative self talk it would be:

Consider this Cherokee proverb:

An elderly Cherokee Native American was teaching his grandchildren about life…  He said to them, “A fight is going on inside me, it is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves.  One wolf is evil – he is fear, anger, self-pity and resentment.  The other is good – he is joy, peace, love and compassion.  The grandchildren thought about it for a minute, and then one asked her grandfather, “Which wolf will win, Grandfather?”  The Elder smiled and replied, “Whichever wolf you feed.”

Share this with your kids and make sure you don’t feed the bad wolf!

Have you ever hear your child’s negative self talk and wondered how to respond? What do you think of the above advice? Do share in a comment below.

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About JP Parent Coaching

JP Parent Coaching is a team of experienced and qualified coaches, led by Julia Philpott, which offers a range of services to parents, organisations and schools:

  • Workshops for parents and teachers
  • Group coaching for parents and teachers
  • One-to-one coaching
  • Public speaking and seminars

Julia works to offer tools and techniques so that parents can help their children navigate the primary school years with confidence. Her particular area of expertise is resilience – how to create environments that develop resilience in children, as well as building resilience in both parents and children.

Cover picture credit: Girl photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com

and School photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com

3 comments

  1. I am so happy to have found such an important blog post. I agree with everything you said in it, whatever we say to our kids becomes their inner voice. Hence, we should mindfully pick the words, think about our body language and actions. All the best x

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