Children with poor self-beliefs often have bombarded themselves for so long with a steady stream of derogatory messages. Their potential for success is greatly limited, because they don’t believe in their capabilities.
Self-talk is a critical part of how children acquire beliefs about themselves. One of the most powerful ways to help your youngster develop a firm belief in himself is to teach him to practice positive self-talk. If he learns the skill now, he’ll use it forever.
But what if you have a child who is a pessimistic thinker or has gotten into the habit of saying negative self-statements? Don’t despair, there are strategies you can use to turn negativity around.
Here is an example of how I helped a mom and dad turn their child’s negative thinking around and develop more positive inner dialogues.
FROM MY FILES: Meet Jose, His Parents, & How We Turned Negative Thinking Around
Six months after Jose appeared to adjust to his new school, the eight-year-old suddenly began protesting he didn’t want to go to school and complaining he had no friends. His mom noticed how often he reacted to situations by saying, “I can’t,” or “why bother?”, as though he assumed he’d fail.
Jose’s teacher confirmed he was using the same negative self-talk at school. His teacher and parents agreed that Jose’s new pessimistic attitude would be disastrous to his self-beliefs as well as to his learning, behavior and social competence.
But what could they do?
Jose’s teacher suggested that the parents call me for a visit and we arranged a time. I observed Jose, talked with his teacher’s and then chatted with his parents. It was obvious that Jose’s self-esteem was taking a steep decline due to his negative self-talk and beliefs. I explained to his parents the importance of children’s positive self-talk, and its potential to enhance self-confidence. I then offered six ideas that would help switch Jose’s negative thinking into more positive self-statements. I stressed that change takes time, but if they were consistent and encouraged Jose, change would happen.
We spent time reviewing each strategy. His parents decided to try the ideas, even though they knew it would take time and hard work. I stressed that they should try only one new idea at a time and provide many opportunities for Jose to practice the strategy so it would become a habit and he would finally be able to use it without their reminders.
A few weeks later, when Jose’s teacher called to say he seemed so much happier, was trying harder, and even making friends, the parents realized their efforts had actually paid off. Jose’s new behavior meant one thing: he was developing a more positive picture of himself. But the real golden moment came when I met with the family. Jose was the one who admitted the change, “No more stinkin’ thinkin’,” he said. “Now I catch myself!” Believe me, all four of us were wearing big smiles that day.
6 Ways to Turn “Cant’s” Into “Cans”
Helping a child break the habit of using negative self-talk is not easy. Like trying to break any habit, you’ll need to be consistent in your efforts to help change your child’s behavior usually for a minimum of three weeks.
Here are the six ideas I suggested Jose’s parents use to help their son develop a more positive self picture and reduce his negative self talk.
1. Model Positive Self-Talk
Recognizing that kids learn much of their self-talk from listening to others, Jose’s parents deliberately began saying more positive messages out loud so Jose would overhear them. One day his mom said, “I love the recipe I used today. I’m really liking how it turned out.” The same day his dad’s said: “I like how I really stuck to my ‘To Do’ list today and finished everything I’d planned.” At first they felt strange affirming themselves, but when they noticed their son praising himself more, they overcame their hesitancies.
2. Develop a Family “I Can” Slogan
Whenever someone in the family said, “I can’t,” they learned to say to the person: “Success comes in cans, not in cannots.” The simple little slogan became an effective way of encouraging family members to think more positively.
3. Point Out Stinkin’ Thinkin’
To remind Jose negative talk was not allowed, they created a private signal of pulling on their ear whenever he said a negative comment in public.
4. Confront Negative Voices
The boys’ parents gently encouraged him to talk back to his negative voice. They began by explaining how they confront their inner negative talk. His dad said,
“I remember when I was in school. Sometimes right before I’d take a test I’d hear a voice inside me say, ‘This stuff is hard. You’re not going to do well on this test.” I used to hate that voice, because it would take my confidence away. I learned to talk back to it, so I’d just say, ‘I’m a good learner. I’m going to try my best. If I try my best, I’ll do okay.’”
5. Turn Negatives Into Positives
The family developed a rule to combat negativity they called: “1 Negative = 1 Positive”. Whenever a family member said a negative comment, the sender must turn it into something positive.
If Jose said, “I’m so stupid.” His parents encouraged him to say something positive: “I’m pretty good at spelling.” Consistently enforcing the rule gradually diminished Jose’s use of negative statements.
They also taught Jose to reduce his self-defeating talk by helping him learn to say positive phrases instead. It’s best to help your child choose only one phase and help him practice saying the same phrase five or six times a day until he learns it.
Here are a few: • I know I can do it. • I can handle this. • I have confidence in me. • I’ll just do my best.
6. Send Positive Self-Statement Reminders
Their final step was to privately remind him to praise himself inside his head when deserved. The day he brought home a good spelling test, his mom said:
“Jose, you did a great job on your spelling test today. Did you remember to tell yourself inside your head what a super job you did?” After his soccer game, his dad said, “Jose, that was a great side kick you used today. I hope you praised yourself, because you sure deserved it.”
The technique took awhile for Jose to feel comfortable using, but gradually his comfort level increased as he slowly erased his negative thinking patterns.
Remember, change is possible but it takes consistent effort and a good plan.
Don’t give up!
Dr Borba’s book The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries, is one of the most comprehensive parenting book for kids 3 to 13. This down-to-earth guide offers advice for dealing with children’s difficult behavior and hot button issues including biting, tantrums, cheating, bad friends, inappropriate clothing, sex, drugs, peer pressure and much more. Each of the 101 challenging parenting issues includes specific step-by-step solutions and practical advice that is age appropriate based on the latest research. The Big Book of Parenting Solutions is available at amazon.com.
Happy Thanksgiving! Whether you had your turkey yesterday, or (like us) yours is delayed until today to accommodate friends and family, this is a time to give thanks for the good in our lives and to think about the plight of others who may be less fortunate. It is also a time when many of us parents reflect on how well our kids are developing the skills of gratitude and empathy. These are important skills year-round as they play critical roles in personal happiness, prosocial behavior and emotional intelligence or EQ.
Based on my reflection this week, we have some work to do in our house on both gratitude and empathy. Most days our son complains about his classes and the other kids at school, and focuses on the negative that happened. One bad experience can “ruin” a whole day. He also recently complained about “tension in the house” (among his parents) – but couldn’t seem to understand our situation and how his recent behavior issues (e.g. not getting his homework done on time, not doing what he’s told in a timely manner, arguing with us on almost every request – ah, the joys of tween-dom!) contributed to said tension. Don’t get me wrong, Elliott is generally a happy and sweet kid, but he’s definitely not seeing enough of the bright side of life these days. However, based on my conversations with other parents of kids his age at recent sports events, we aren’t alone in this experience. Why is it so hard to help kids, especially in the tween and teen phases, learn gratitude and empathy?
Well, first of all these skills require a life-long learning process. Who among us adults couldn’t express more gratitude and empathy? But for our kids it’s an even bigger challenge since the frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for higher-order thinking processes – including empathy (which requires imagining and understanding another’s perspective) – isn’t fully developed until young adulthood, about age 25. This is also partly why kids and teens are more impulsive and have trouble considering the consequences of their actions.
So what can we do in the face of this biological reality? Well, practice now can help kids maximize their cognitive abilities, and lay the foundation for future development:
- Model it – demonstrating gratitude and empathy ourselves is one of the best ways to teach kids these skills. Try to talk about the positive things in your day before mentioning the negative. When discussing issue with someone in your life, make sure to speak about the other person’s perspective and what they might be experiencing.
- Emphasize the positive – one of the best ways to cultivate a focus on the positive is to keep a gratitude journal, listing 3 things at the end of the day – whether big or small – that were good. Or you can make this a part of the discussion over family dinners. One thing I do with Elliott is ask him to tell me both the good and bad that happened during his school day. Once he’s done a more balanced assessment, most days are getting at least an “OK” rating.
- Build a warm connection – studies have shown that connection and warmth between parent and child, developed at the youngest ages, result in greater empathy as children grow. Spend time with your small children, mimic their experiences, and demonstrate your love and affection.
- Show empathy to your kids – when they are feeling down or talking about the bad things that happened, it’s important to fully acknowledge their experience and feelings. But then it can help to ask them what they learned from the situation, what they might do differently, or what another involved might be feeling.
- Celebrate the successes – recently our son helped out a kid at school who was upset over a bullying incident, and was very affected by this boy’s experience. We really emphasized to him how proud we were of his actions and his concern for another person. Hopefully this will encourage more of this type of behavior in future.
My dentist was a mother of two teen boys, and I hungered to know what kind of life might lie ahead of me. What I really needed to know was this: How did she keep her teen boys talking to her? Her curious response: skiing. She explained, “I got them into skiing nearly as soon as they could stand. It’s something they love, that I love, that we’ve always done together. It gives us common ground.”
Here I am now, unpacking the last piece of equipment from one of countless quickie weekend ski trips that my own family has taken. I marvel at how right my dentist was. Not specifically about skiing but about how important it is for us as parents to cultivate that common ground with our kids, especially those of the opposite gender.
My 77-year-old mother-in-law, herself a mom of two sons, chose football. She might not know the first thing about Twitter or have a clue what’s on anybody’s iPod, but you should have seen her with all her boys cheering on the Saints, arguing calls and making penny bets watching the Super Bowl last month. My father got my sister and me camping and hiking early in life. Fifty years later, our wilderness adventures are still my family’s touchstone.
So here’s my advice: While your kids are still young, take a little time to figure out what your own family touchstone will be. Then forge ahead and make it happen.
Children are naturally creative: Their napkins become hats, their drinks are magic potions, and ketchup turns into paint. But aside from being endlessly entertaining, creativity is also critical to their developing brains. Creative and artistic experiences help kids express their feelings and come up with new ideas and ways to solve problems. Studies show that involvement in the arts boosts test scores and promotes academic achievement across the board.
These discoveries may explain why children’s art studios are popping up across the country, giving kids a chance to let their imaginations run wild with paint, clay, and in the case of Make-a-Messterpiece in Glenview, Ill., even bubbles. In addition to private studios (such as KidsArt in California and Washington) and foundations (such as Creative Art Space for Kids in New York), many YMCA branches and local art museums offer art programs.
You can also get your child’s creative juices flowing at home with some very basic art supplies and the right attitude. Bring out the creative genius in your children with these simple tips.
Start With a Blank Slate
Leave projects open-ended so kids are free to imagine the endless possibilities. For example, if you’re painting pumpkins, don’t paint one first as an example, because your kids are likely to try to copy it, quashing their creativity. Instead, simply give children paint and paintbrushes and let them begin. Keep in mind that there are no wrong ways to paint a pumpkin.
Focus on the creative process rather than the finished product. For example, your child may find tremendous fun and fulfillment in shaping, squishing, pounding and poking at clay for an hour – even if the end result is a shapeless lump.
Don’t Mind the Mess
Art is not a neat business, and nothing stifles creativity faster than a wet mop or a dustpan underfoot. Let your child get dirty – that’s how she’ll learn to take risks. (Plus, it’s fun!) You can wipe up the glitter later.
Mix It up
Spice up your at-home art projects by using different materials instead of the usual paint, felt, pipe cleaners and beads. Challenge your children to find art supplies in their environment: a sponge, chopsticks, gum wrappers, bottle caps and egg cartons, for example. Head outside and collect leaves, sticks, acorns and small pebbles. Supply children with glue and paper and give no other direction. Be ready for anything.
Expose Them to Diversity
Take trips to museums and zoos; see plays and concerts; attend an African drumming circle, a Mexican fiesta, a Chinese New Year celebration. Every experience your children have with people or situations outside their normal routine widens their range of creative expression.
Encourage experimentation with musical instruments without showing how it’s done. Let her play piano with her toes or beat the drum with maracas if she wants. You can make your own instruments too. Dried beans in a toilet paper tube make a great shaker; waxed paper secured over a coffee can is a drum; rubber bands stretched over a shoebox make a guitar. Grab an instrument and play along for a fun family hootenanny.
Allow for Unconventional Ideas
Thinking outside the box is what creativity is all about. When kids come up with a new way of doing things – making a sculpture out of plastic hangers, for instance – go with it (as long as it’s safe, of course). Your support will encourage more creative thinking and problem solving down the road.
Earlier this year I wrote a post on stress and kids and promised to review a valuable stress-reducing technique for children and adults, progressive muscle relaxation, in my next post. It took longer than planned, but I wanted to make sure to highlight this useful approach.
Many children suffer from stress and anxiety, even at quite young ages, driven by grades and homework, family, and issues with friends and teasing. Even if there are no particular signs of stress, some kids just have difficulty relaxing, which can affect their ability to fall asleep easily. This was definitely the case with our son, Elliott, who figured out how to climb out of his crib at age two and struggled to nap or go to sleep at night ever since. He could most easily sleep when something was restraining him, like a car seat – so that it seemed like his brain needed to be told, “Stop! Calm down, no moving, now you need to sleep.” Over time, sleep became so challenging that I spoke to a child psychologist who recommended a CD for children to walk them through progressive muscle relaxation (PMR).
“Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that involves tensing specific muscle groups and then relaxing them to create awareness of tension and relaxation. It is termed progressive because it proceeds through all major muscle groups, relaxing them one at a time, and eventually leads to total muscle relaxation” (amsa.org). PMR is useful for stress, anxiety and sleep issues because one way the body responds to stress is with muscle tension – which you may know if you ever get a stiff neck or aching shoulders when doing stressful work. I first learned about progressive muscle relaxation through a public health graduate course on understanding and managing stress, and have used PMR to help me relax at night while going to sleep. Through the PMR process I realized that I had been holding the muscles in my neck and jaw tight, like when concentrating on some difficult work task. My ability to fall asleep or to go back to sleep in the middle of the night has greatly improved since oral hgh using the PMR approach.
So it made a lot of sense to me to try PMR for my son. I am willing to believe that we aren’t all born with a natural or at least optimal ability to relax, and this is a key life skill! The CD that was recommended to me is called I Can Relax!, and is produced by The Child Anxiety Network for children aged 4 to 12. The CD features the voice of Dr. Donna Pincus, a clinical psychologist and expert in child anxiety disorders, who walks children through playful versions of the PMR process for each part of the body. In the box below you can see the sections of the CD.
I Can Relax! CD Contents
Taking Deep Breaths
A Relaxing Place
The Worry Train
The Turtle and the Stream
Relax Your Face
Hungry at the Beach
Taking a Nap
The Strong, Tall Tree
I Can Relax!
I Can Relax! is available via Amazon for $17.95 and on iTunes for $9.99. It is also available in Canada via other online booksellers. It’s interesting to note that the reviews on Amazon are almost all very positive. One parent who gave a lower three star rating found that her younger child got great benefit but that her 10-year old wasn’t willing to try and got no benefit after being “forced.” I can say that was also an issue with my son, who was older when we tried it. He did get some benefit, but he resisted the idea. I, on the other hand, found huge benefit from squeezing my hands to “make lemonade!” So it may be better to try this out while your children are still young enough to be less resistant to parental suggestions. I also want to highlight that there are many free options for progressive muscle relaxation, with sample scripts online for parents to read aloud to their children, or videos online or at your local library. I hope you find this approach useful because there is nothing more challenging or disheartening than when your child is anxious or can’t relax.