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5 Top Tips to Challenge Negative Self-Talk in Children

Self-talk is comprised of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and is sometimes called our ‘inner voice’. It influences our beliefs about who we are, how we fit in the world, and how we feel about ourselves. Persistent negative self-talk can lead to feelings of sadness and hopelessness, and when associated with feeling threatened in situations, people can also experience anxiety. With the onset of anxiety now estimated at 6 years of age, even very young children are feeling the social and emotional consequences of negative self-talk – social relationships and academic performance are known to suffer when negative self-talk is pervasive. happychild spoke with Dr Lauren McLellan, psychologist and clinical researcher at the Centre for Emotional Health, to get her recommendations on what parents and carers can do to challenge negative self-talk in children.

1.    Praise Your Child

Genuinely praising a child for their effort reinforces the process of taking positive action, and takes the focus off the end result. “Often, thinking about the outcome is what drives a child’s negative self-talk in the first place,” says Dr McLellan. For example, a child may refuse to participate in an activity for fear he will not perform well, but agreeing to try, and or even talking about having a go, are positive steps towards participation. “I really liked that you talked about giving it a go” is one way adults can praise even a subtle shift in a child’s mindset.

2.    Encourage Positive Self-Talk

While this may seem obvious, Dr McLellan cautions this is about creating a balanced view of the world, not pretending that everything is rosy. “While we know negative self-talk is not helpful, the objective is not necessarily to achieve overly positive self-talk– we want to acknowledge their negative feelings, but help them to notice the positives in situations too.”  For example, at the end of a school day ask your child to tell you the best thing that happened during the day, or one new thing they learned. Don’t dismiss the negative emotions they tell you about, but provide them the opportunity to create positive memories and messages from the day too, explains Dr McLellan.

3.    Move Beyond Black and White Thinking
Encouraging flexible thinking helps children to arrive at a more rational response to a situation. Absolute terms such as ‘I never get it right’, ‘I always make mistakes’, ‘Nobody likes me’, are examples of black and white thinking that prevent a child from acknowledging the holistic experience, which undoubtedly includes positives. For example, when a child says, “I’m always bad”, counter with “Maybe you showed some bad behaviour just now, but there have been plenty of times when you have been very helpful/kind/thoughtful.”

4.    Act as if the Negative Self-Talk is Not True

Parents can be influenced by their child’s negative self-talk and unwittingly take action that reinforces the belief system. In her practice, Dr McLellan has observed parents rush in to help a child who asserts they can’t do something, or is too scared to try, unknowingly reinforcing the negative thinking. “Avoiding a difficult situation is a coping mechanism that children use, but in the long term it denies them the opportunity to try, and to understand that their negative self-talk was inaccurate.” By encouraging small steps towards completing a task, Dr McLellan says children get the opportunity to achieve success and understand that the task is not so scary, embarrassing, or humiliating after all.

5.    Be a Positive Role Model

When parents, teachers or carers model flexible, positive, and open-minded thinking, they are demonstrating the balanced and rational thought process that children need to challenge their own negative self-talk. Clearly, parents are key examples to their children. Dr McLellan also says carers should be careful how they view and talk about a child with negative self-talk. "Though the child can be frustrating to deal with at times, they will quickly pick up on our negative language about them.

While it is difficult to definitively explain why some children experience negative self-talk – emotional sensitivity and temperament seem to matter – Dr McLellan is certain of the benefits of challenging negative self-talk: “Kids who have a balanced view of themselves tend to develop good social relationships and thrive, enjoying a productive and fulfilling life.”

The Centre for Emotional Health offers state-of-the-art assessment and treatment for children and adults experiencing anxiety and related problems.


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