Do you have a child who is often emotional or moody – or prone to anxiety or depression? If so, you might be familiar with the negative self-talk that often contributes to these conditions. And, actually, any child – or adult – is subject to these thoughts on occasion.
Negative or anxious self-talk – sometimes also called “automatic negative thoughts” – is unhelpful, often skewed thinking that tends to drive negative emotions and behaviors. For example, your daughter might react to a friend who gets angry while playing and goes home, by thinking “I’m no fun to play with….nobody likes me” – and might avoid inviting any other kids to come over and play.
I learned about the concept of negative self-talk years ago through cognitive behavioral therapy while dealing with issues from my childhood. But I was surprised when I first began noticing examples of this thought pattern in my young son. When Elliott was in his first couple of years of elementary school, he would often come home at the end of the day and report that his day was “terrible”.
After digging a little I would often find out that one “bad” thing had happened each of these days – which then tainted the whole rest of the day. This overgeneralization / all-or-nothing thinking is an example of negative self-talk – and caused Elliott to have negative emotions about school and resist going in the mornings.
There are several different types of negative or anxious self-talk. A good reference book on anxiety for teens and kids – My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic (by Michael A. Tompkins, PhD and Katherine Martinez PhD) – gives an interesting classification for these unhelpful thoughts (a summary is listed at the end of this post). This book was recommended to me by a child and family psychologist and is well worth a read.
As the book title suggests, there are ways to deal with and manage such unhelpful thinking – and it’s useful to start early with kids who are prone to negative thoughts. At a minimum, it helps to start by identifying and unpacking the negative thought.
For example, with my son Elliott and his “terrible” days at school, I started asking him if anything good happened during the day. This got him to go over all the events of his time at school and put the “bad” experience into context – and I suggested that one or two bad experiences might not make a whole day terrible. Pretty soon, when I asked him how his day was, Elliott would outline how different parts of the day went (great, so-so, neutral, awful, etc) – and this pattern has persisted for more than five years! Even better, he has generally been much more positive about his school days ever since.
Additional exercises for recognizing and dealing with negative self-talk are provided in My Anxious Mind. Another practical book, with useful exercise to help teens cope with negative thoughts and other drivers of anxiety, is The Anxiety Workbook for Teens, by Lisa M. Schab, LCSW.
Types of Anxious Self-Talk (from My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic)
This is anxious thinking that assumes there are only two possible outcomes of a situation – both at opposite extremes, with no possibilities in the middle. So, the child in the earlier example might be focused on how the play date with her friend needed to be perfect, and if that didn’t happen it would be a disaster.
In this unhelpful thought process, your child will “magnify” the effect of something bad – like failing a test – and assume that he won’t be able to go to college as a result. Or he might “shrink” the importance of something good, like all his excellent grades in other classes.
This type of self-talk involves your child thinking he or she can predict the future – usually thinking something bad will happen. For example, your child is engaging in fortune telling if she decides to audition for a part in the school play but spends the weeks leading up to the audition thinking “I’m not going to get the part”. Maybe she will, maybe she won’t – but she doesn’t know, and anxious self-talk won’t help the outcome either way.
In the earlier example, the girl whose friend got angry and went home assumed that she could read her friend’s mind; that the friend thought she wasn’t fun and didn’t like her anymore. This is the mind reading track – and it’s important for the girl to know she isn’t a psychic and her friend will probably be back to play the next day.
With overgeneralization, similar to binocular vision, your child will focus on something small (usually bad) to make broad conclusions or sweeping statements – like, if one friend gets angry at me then no one likes me. Or if your son has one bad soccer game, assuming he’s no good and will get cut from the team.
End of the World
With this anxious track, your child is always expecting something terrible to happen. This could be at school or in relationships with friends, but it could also be thinking that every noise around the house is a burglar.
Too many thoughts with “shoulds” and “musts” can set the bar for performance and life experience way too high – and make your child anxious and less confident.
In this type of unhelpful thinking your child will jump to conclusions (usually negative) without all the facts – like when hearing that he isn’t invited to a party at a friend’s house, your son assumes his friend doesn’t like him. Getting the facts might tell him otherwise, especially if he finds out it’s a family-only affair (for example).
Okay. You admit you have a materialistic little critter on your hands. Take comfort. There are proven ways to deprogram a materialistic kid. It will take time and commitment, but the benefits are profound for your child and your family. Kids who are less materialistic are more “we” oriented, than “me.” They are more concerned about others, and less worried about how they look and what they own. Their self-esteem is more authentic. But perhaps most important, research clearly shows that these children are more empathetic, caring, collaborate, compassionate and morally courageous.
Here are a few of the best parenting solutions from my latest book, UnSelfie to help you succeed:
1. Watch those TV commercials!
Research shows that the fewer commercials kids see, the less materialistic they become. When kids’ TV viewing was cut by one-third; they were 70 percent less likely than their peers to ask parents for a toy the next week.
Solution: Hit the mute button on your television remote and talk whenever those commercials are on. Turn your child toward more commercial-free television shows or even TVO his “have-to-see” favorite so he can cut out the commercials all together.
2. Spend more time than money on your kids
Materialistic kids go on far more shopping outings with their parents. So be honest: How many outings stress non-material values?
Make a conscious effort to spend time together doing things that don’t cost a dime: Go to the park and the museum, talk, take bike rides, build forts, bake cookies, watch the clouds, and play Monopoly. Show your kid the “other” side of life.
3. Rotate “stuff”
Instead of letting your child view his stockpile of matchbox cars, action figures, CDs or whatever, store some away in a closet for a week or month.
Your new rule is when stowed, items are returned, while new ones are stored in their place.
The simple solution of rotating stuff makes bedroom cleanups easier, and helps kids learn they don’t need so much to have a good time. Best yet, the returned items are more appreciated and treated like new.
My girlfriend was master at this. She figured out quite early that her kids didn’t need all those toys and so she would simply “store” items her kids didn’t play with as often in a closet. Then a month later she’d rotate the toys – taking out the stored items and putting away toys that weren’t so popular for a later day. Most amazing – her kids were elated to find the “new” toys!
4. Curb those $$$$$ rewards
“I’ll do it if you’ll buy me those jeans.” “How much will you give me?” “But I wanted the X-Box!”
If you’ve heard those words from your kid chances are he’s been reward with monetary prizes and material possessions for behaving, working or just plain breathing. And materialistic kids keep upping the ante, they want more. From this moment on your new response is to just expect your child to do the job or behave without compensation.
Instead put away your wallet, and give praise, hugs and pats on the back whenever they are earned.
5. Stop hoarding
Materialistic kids tend to be pack rats and the more stuff the better. So take a Reality Check. Might your child be the next poster kid for the reality show, “Hoarders?” If so, it’s time for serious action.
To break your child’s hoarding habit provide three boxes labeled with one of these words: “Trash” (for ripped, torn, or broken items; “Memories,” (items with special meaning); and “Charity” (gently used toys, accessories or clothing that other kids may appreciate). Then encourage him to go through his drawers, closets, and shelves.
Explain that he should keep what he really needs, uses and wears, and put the rest into the specified box. Make sure that he helps you take the “Charity” box to an organization such as Goodwill or Red Cross to help him realize that not everyone is so fortunate.
6. Teach “Needs” vs. “Wants”
Materialistic kids often want things “N.O.W.” and don’t stop to consider if the item is even necessary.
Solution: Whenever your kid pleads for some nonessential thing he just “must have” ask: “Is it something you really need or just want?” Consistency is crucial…don’t back down!
Then outlaw nonessential, “have to have it” NOW spending.
7. Teach the habit of “giving” not “getting”
“Hands on” giving helps counter materialism more powerfully than almost anything else. So take your kids with you to bring dinner to a sick neighbor or to volunteer in a soup kitchen together.
Require your kids give part of a weekly allowance to needy kids. To stretch empathy, have your child shut his eyes and visualize the recipients’ reactions to the child’s gift.
Choose a cause as a family: adopting an orphan through Save the Children; befriending the lonely neighbor. Let your kid feel the power of giving.
8. Model restraint
Research shows that parents who are materialistic raise the most materialistic kids. You’re the best role model for helping your child cope with our complicated material world, so what kind of example are you setting for your kid?
Or just use the simplest parenting solution: the next time your kid says “I want….” say, “Honey, I want to boost your self-esteem and decrease your chance for depression, so NO!”
On this note, research is clear: money does not buy happiness. In fact, the wealthier are exactly less happier. Don’t think you’re doing your child any favor by buying to think it will create a more content critter. Instead, help your child learn constraint and to monitor “impulsiveness” by not spending ASAP. And focus your efforts on boosting your child’s “inside” qualities. Who she is on the inside, matters far more for self-esteem and happiness than the brand she wears.
For more solutions, signs of materialism, the latest research on how to curb it, or dozens more practical and proven parenting tips on 101 hot-button topics see The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries
Meanwhile, what are you doing to help raise a less materialistic kid in a materialistic world? If you have ideas you’d like to pass on, please post your best tip! I’d love to hear from you.
Teens today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago. Why is a lack of empathy—along with the self-absorption epidemic Dr. Michele Borba calls the Selfie Syndrome—so dangerous? First, it hurts kids’ academic performance and leads to bullying behaviors. Also, it correlates with more cheating and less resilience. And once children grow up, it hampers their ability to collaborate, innovate and problem-solve—all must-have skills for the global economy. The good news? Empathy is a trait that can be taught and nurtured. UnSelfie is a blueprint for parents and educators who want activate our children’s hearts and shift their focus from I, me, and mine… to we, us, and ours. It’s time to include “empathy” in our parenting and teaching! UnSelfie is AVAILABLE NOW at amazon.com.
When my two youngest children were preschoolers we had a family trauma: our youngest son, Zach, was the same height as our middle son, Adam. The comments from strangers, “Oh, what cute twins!” were certainly not boosting Adam’s confidence. In fact, his self-esteem was taking a steep nose-dive. Why would any five-year old want anyone to think his three-year old brother was his twin? To help him recognize Adam’s own special qualities, I began focusing on a physical attribute that was uniquely his. It wasn’t hard, Adam has gorgeous blue eyes are quite unusual in our brown-eyed family. So over the next few weeks I began intentionally complimenting his asset. I did make sure my praise was genuine (this wasn’t hard: the kid really does have beautiful eyes), and I just quietly reminded him of his asset once or twice a day.
“Oh Adam, your eyes are so beautiful.” Or: “We’re so lucky to have a little boy with such pretty blue eyes.” My husband came on board: “Hey, do you think that great-looking blued-eyed kid of mine wants to shoot some hoops with me?” His grandparents were brought into the plan, “How’s my Grandson with the gorgeous blue eyes?” Even his brothers began introducing him as “The brother with the great eyes.”
It wasn’t until the first day of kindergarten about three weeks later that I knew Adam really believed our praise. He came home that day literally bouncing. “How was school, Adam?” I asked. “Oh, it was so great, Mom!” he said. Without missing a beat he added, “Somebody must have told the teacher about my beautiful blue eyes.” I paused, a bit startled (I certainly hadn’t said anything to his teacher) and asked, “Why do you think so, Adam?” “Oh, she knows all right,” he explained. “She made sure I sit everyday at the blue table everyday–probably to match my blue eyes!”
And he barreled out the door with a smile that could light the world. I knew then he had recognized another of his great strengths and didn’t need reminding. He’d added another new positive image inside himself forever. I also discovered a simple way to boost a child’s self-esteem: Identify a legitimate asset or talent in your child that deserves recognition and remind him of that asset until he can remind himself. At that point he’s internalized the positive image.
I’ve since used the same self-esteem building strategy with dozens of children I’ve taught or counseled. I’ve also shared it with hundreds of parents in my workshops over the years. I can’t tell you how often I’ve received an email from a mom saying: “I never believed that tip would work until I tried it. What a difference in made on my child’s self-esteem and behavior.”
Here is how you can use simple secret to unlocking children’s awareness of their personal talents and boosting their self-esteem. Just remember to use the secret about a minute a day for at least 21 days to achieve the best results.
- Identify your Child’s Strengths. Take a moment to really think about your child’s strengths, positive traits or assets. Over the next few days list them. Here are a few: artistic, musical, kind, honest, reliable, graceful, organized, friendly, positive, sensitive, courageous, spiritual, loving, sensitive, resilient, persevering, hard-working. My girlfriend decided to keep an ongoing profile of each of her children’s strengths. The leather journal is now a fabulous family keepsake.
- Choose 1 to 3 Positive Qualities to Strengthen. Choose one or two attributes you want your child to recognize about herself right away. Make sure the strengths are already present in your child and are not ones you wish were true about her. Jot down the terms you’ll use you point out the strengths to your child. Use the same term every time you praise the quality.
- Find Opportunities to Frequently Praise the Strength. At the beginning you can start giving one strength messages a day and gradually work your way up to two to four strength reminders. Flooding your child with too many compliments a day is probably not valuable. They begin to lose their effectiveness and become too predictable. Usually it takes at least three weeks for a new image to develop, so keep praising your child’s strengths for at least 21 days.
- Praise the Strength Only When Deserved. Compliment the child only when his actions deserve recognition and you mean it. Children are great at picking up the genuine from the insincere.
- Describe Specific Examples of the Strength. Point out examples when your child displays the strength. He may not be able to see these strengths on his own. Be specific in your praise so your child knows exactly what he did to deserve recognition. For instance: “You are so graceful when you dance. Your hands and body move so smoothly to the music.” “You’re very artistic; your drawings always have such great details and color combinations.” “You are so caring. I noticed how you stopped to ask that older woman if she needed help crossing the street.”
Every child deserves to wake up each morning knowing she is special. By giving the right kind of praise you will not only enhance your child’s strength awareness but also increase his self-knowledge and self-esteem. It’s a simple but powerful parenting secret so pass it on.
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