Help Your Child With Negative Self-Talk

Reviewed by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person Centred Counsellor and The Ridge Practice and Everlief Child Psychology
Author: Hayley Vaughan-Smith, Person-Centred Counsellor

For us parents, our children’s negative self-talk can be really hard to hear.

If left unchecked, it can sometimes develop into a difficult cycle of negativity which can be limiting and impact their self-esteem and confidence.

Does your child have a hard time dealing with negative thoughts?

Do they have a tendency to expect bad things might happen? 

Are they using self-limiting or self-harming language?

Having a self-critical thought in and of itself is not a problem. If used within a positive mind-set framework, it can be healthy. Your child’s life does not need to be defined by negative or challenging feelings. But it is okay to have them.

What is Negative Self-Talk?

Negative self-talk is talking about yourself (in your head or out loud) in a way that has an unhelpful impact on your emotional wellbeing. Here are some classic examples:

Personalizing: When you blame everything on yourself: “I’m rubbish”. “I must be useless, I am no good”.

Magnifying: This is when you only focus on the negative aspects of yourself or your experience and are unable to see the counter-positive aspects.

Catastrophizing: Negative experiences can build a narrative within you of always expecting the worst outcome. For instance: “I just know I won’t do well in the exam and that means my future plans are ruined”. “My friends won’t pick me for the team and I’ll get rejected from the group”.

Negative Self-Talk and Low Self-Esteem

An internal dialogue or inner voice develops through early life experiences.  We internalise messages and beliefs, shaping the way we think of ourselves.  It can become a real problem when the critical inner voice undermines positive feelings about ourselves and others, impacting self-esteem and confidence.

close up of tween boy sad, thoughtful

There is a definite link between child negative self-talk and low esteem. A 2015 UK study of adolescents suggested that negative self-talk was linked to low self-esteem, and “personal failure self-talk” significantly predicted low self-esteem. A 1994 study of upper elementary children in the USA found that positive self-talk was positively related to self-esteem and negatively related to depression.

Negative Self-Talk and Anxiety

A number of studies have linked negative self-talk to increased anxiety. For example, a study of 71 8-13 year-olds with anxiety disorders and 80 children without an anxiety disorder found that negative self-statements of children with anxiety disorders significantly predicted anxiety.

Growth Mindset

The way our brain perceives us as a person and the world in which we live is called a MINDSET.  A ‘growth mindset’ is one that can develop, mature, change and evolve. In contrast to a ‘fixed mindset’ which can be limiting, the growth mindset provides freedom to explore.

How can you nurture a growth mindset to tackle child negative self-talk?

  • Show your child what having a positive mindset is. Embrace your own mistakes and what you learn from them.
  • Share your pride in things that you’ve found difficult.
  • Seek out the good things your child achieves, praise and talk about them to help build confidence.
  • Talk to them about their brain being a muscle which grows every time they use it.
  • Tell them it’s ok to have bad days. Feelings are fleeting and space allows us to see difficult things in a different light.
  • Remind your child of how far they’ve progressed.
  • Avoid using negative statements towards them e.g. “it’s not going to go well”, or “Adam always beats you”.
  • Give lots of encouragement when your child tries something difficult for the first time.
DIAGRAM SHOWING THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN GROWTH MINDSET AND FIXED MINDSET

Teaching Positive Self-Talk

Practising positive self-talk is a powerful tool in a child’s mental health toolkit.  When a child’s self-esteem is strong and healthy, self-doubt reduces and confidence and emotional resilience rises.

Positive Self-Talk: What to Teach Your Child

  1. Encourage your child to talk about their thoughts and ideas, listen and validate.
  2. Help your child to avoid falling into critical self-talk traps (I’m stupid, I’ll fail).  Try not to automatically respond with ‘you’re not stupid’ as this invalidates what they are thinking. Instead, ask what makes them think or believe that. This opens up dialogue so you can really understand what’s going on for them.
  3. Avoid negative thinking traps too. The next time your child thinks negatively about a difficult situation, help them seek out the alternative perspectives they could view the situation from. What could they take control of now or in the future?
  4. Teach and encourage your child to self-praise and acknowledge their positives and wins.
  5. Encourage your child to treat themselves like they would a good friend. Would they tell a good friend that they are stupid, or that they are going to fail?
  6. Limit your child’s exposure to negativity. This includes genres of TV programmes or movies and social media.

A great idea is to have space and time each day or each week to check in with one another and share positive and difficult experiences. You can make it fun too.  You could do it while eating supper or whilst walking the dog. When we share experiences, your child can access another person’s perspective, broadening their thinking and allowing them to get curious.

The Power of Positive Thoughts and Positive Self-Talk

Developing a habit of positive self-talk can…

Overcoming Negative Self-Talk: Case Studies

Alena

Last week, Alena started a new dance class in her village. She’s a sensitive child who is quite shy.  Her parents thought joining a group might help Alena build confidence whilst having lots of fun. Alena’s best friend Zoe has been going for over a year.

Despite initial nerves, Alena met Zoe at the door and they went in together.  

When Mum picked her up, Alena was very quiet. Over the next few days, Mum noticed that Alena was using very negative talk about herself. She told mum she didn’t think she was any good, she was too slow, didn’t look pretty and kept getting the instructions mixed up. Mum had an underlying feeling that Alena might express a desire not to go the next week.

Two days before the next class, Mum checked in with Alena about how she was feeling about it. This is how Mum responded to Alena.

  1. Mum listened patiently.
  2. She validated Alena’s worries: “I can hear your frustration, I get it”, “it sounds like you’re finding the choreography quite tricky”.
  3. Mum asked some enquiry questions. “What makes you believe that?”, “Why do you think you feel so strongly about that?”
  4. Mum gently challenged Alena to look at some her worries through a different lens (another perspective). For example: “Everyone was new once, after a few weeks you won’t be new anymore”. “Tell me about the steps and exercises you liked doing”
  5. She explored what Alena might try in preparation for the next class. Could she practice what she’d learnt the week before so that she felt more confidence?
  6. Mum hugged Alena and suggested maybe she could be a little kinder towards herself and be proud of trying something new.
teen girl on her bed sitting up, reflective

Ethan

Mark’s 13 year old son, Ethan is a bright student who loves English and creative studies at school. Up until recently Ethan has managed well in exams, gaining consistently excellent results.  On a recent writing assignment, Ethan got an unexpected low mark.

In front of his friends, Ethan’s knee-jerk reaction was to deflect blame onto the cover teacher who had marked the work.  However, in reality, Ethan was experiencing a difficult internal battle with his thoughts. He wondered what was wrong with him? Why couldn’t he write well anymore? He felt stupid and ashamed because he believed everyone expected him to get great results all the time.

Ethan came home from school muttering inaudibly. He went straight upstairs to play on his video game.  Mark sensed he needed some space and wasn’t ready to talk yet. Over supper Mark asked Ethan to tell him what had happened. Mark was shocked at the negative self-language Ethan used when describing his ‘perceived’ failure in English.

Two things were particularly evident to Mark:-

  1. That Ethan felt he had ‘failed’ and was therefore ‘stupid’
  2. Ethan had not experienced a low mark before, it wasn’t something he knew how to deal with.

In addition to the approach used in Alena’s case study, let’s think about how to support a child in this or similar scenarios…..

Praise and Labelling Success

Give specific recognition to the areas of your child’s life that they are successful or make effort in.  For example:-

  • I’m so proud of you for putting yourself forward.
  • Well done for giving it a go, even though you were nervous.
  • You’ve worked really hard this week.

Everyone has unique qualities, strengths and talents. It’s great to point these out in your child.  By focussing on your child’s positive aspects you are reinforcing their self-esteem

Learn Constructively From Mistakes and Failures

When something doesn’t go well talk it through together, remembering to acknowledge and validate your child’s version of their experience.  Think about what could or needs to change, what can they commit to and if it’s something they might need further support with.

Reframe

When negative experiences are approached from different angles you and your child can ‘reframe’ a difficult experience.  Ethan had one negative experience which knocked him off balance.  Mark helped Ethan to rationalise that one negative experience does not define him.

Ethan understood that he doesn’t have to be good at everything and even it wasn’t the outcome he had hoped for, he learnt a lot about himself including his strengths and weaknesses.

Build Resilience

Your child will be better able to cope with life’s obstacles and challenges, both physically and mentally when they are resilient.  Help them by…

Encourage a Positive Self-View

Ask you child what they like about themselves. What do they think they are good at and why? Our strengths cards are an invaluable tool which you will love.

Teach Stress Response Skills

Teach your child how to relax through stressful moments. This might be with grounding or breathing techniques. These strategies can diffuse building stress which can lead and feed into negative thought patterns.

Professional Help For Negative Self-Talk

Child negative self-talk can become habitual and entrenched and can become self-fulfilling.  “I believe it, therefore, I am”.  

Circumstance, childhood experience, genetics, parenting style and environment can all have a negative impact on how a child views themselves and how they cope with life.

Getting to the root cause of a child’s negative self-talk isn’t always straightforward. If you are concerned about your child, their mood or demeanour, visit your doctor or healthcare provider. They can check if there are any underlying issues that warrant further exploration.

A referral to a Counsellor or a Clinical Psychologist may be needed. There are different therapeutic approaches that can help a child with negative thinking patterns and low self-esteem. CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is an evidence based therapy which can help challenge and reframe negative thinking patterns and foster a positive mind-set. CBT can be extremely powerful for negative self-talk when it is combined with CFT (compassion-focused therapy). CFT teaches self-compassion including management of complex emotions such as shame.

Closing Thought

Turn down the volume of your negative inner voice and create a nurturing inner voice to take its place. When you make a mistake, forgive yourself, learn from it, and move on instead of obsessing about it. Equally important, don’t allow anyone else to dwell on your mistakes or shortcomings or to expect perfection from you.

Beverly Engel

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Why Supportive Parenting is Key to Child Mental Health

Getting Help for Teenage Low Self Esteem

Overcoming Anxiety Together: How to Help Your Child With Anxiety

Hayley Vaughan-Smith is a Person-Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling & Psychotherapy Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.

Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care for four years.

Hayley is mum to 3 grown up girls, and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.


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