The Invisible Bully and How to Handle Your Child's Negative Self-Talk

Jun 25, 2021

As a parent, do you get concerned and sad when you hear your child talk about their doubts, worries, and negative thoughts about themselves? This came up recently in a coaching session with a Mom who was concerned about the things that her 4 year old daughter was saying about herself.  She was starting to hear her daughter talk negatively about herself…  that she wasn’t a good listener, and didn’t like her curly hair.  

The Mom’s first instinct was to lift up her daughter.  To tell her the exact opposite, that those thoughts weren’t true.  As parents, we work on giving our children thoughts that we want them to believe about themselves. And yes, what we say starts to become our child’s inner narrative so it’s important to give them good thoughts to think about themselves.

We want to be conscious of how we talk to our troubled kids so we don’t make them ashamed or think those thoughts are “wrong”.  If we create shame around these thoughts, our kids will stop sharing these thoughts with us, which is what we want to avoid.  We want them to keep talking to us so we can help them learn how to handle that voice in their head.  

This is KEY, because when we teach our children how to manage their own self-talk and manage their mind we give them tools that will directly impact their self-confidence and levels of success for the rest of their lives.

The first step in teaching your child how to handle negative self-talk is counter-intuitive - because it’s going to go against every instinct that you have.  Nothing has gone wrong and  negative thoughts are normal.  

Listen, we all have an inner bully or a mean voice in our head.  As a coach, one of the things that I do is help people learn how to work with their inner bully, and I can tell you that almost everyone thinks that their inner bully is meaner than everybody else’s.  I had a parent once tell me that her teenage son didn’t know that everyone had a mean voice in their head, he thought he was the only one and that something was wrong with him.  

Can you imagine what it might have meant to us if we were taught as children about the voice in our head, that it’s completely normal and nothing has gone wrong?  Here’s a thought: let’s help our child to stop judging or being ashamed of their thoughts.  Everyone has negative thoughts, they’re completely normal. Where we get into trouble is when we start believing them.  We resist them and try to just push them away, but what we resist persists and can actually grow stronger. 

So, how do you start teaching your kids that negative thoughts will come up and they can just let them go?  You start talking to them about their brain.  If they’re older you can use the brain itself, and if they’re little use an analogy of an animal.  I like to use a monkey, as in the “monkey mind”. 

The idea is that everyone has a monkey in their head.  The monkey thinks it needs to help things be better for us, but it usually does this by showing us what we’re doing wrong and what other people do or have that seem better.  Let’s get curious and figure out what the monkey is telling us and decide if it’s helpful or not?  If it’s not helpful we can just let it go and chalk it up to the silly monkey.

In the case where my client’s daughter was thinking that she wasn’t a good listener, I would start by noticing what the monkey was telling her.  Let’s just notice that your monkey is telling you that you’re not a good listener, that silly monkey! From here we’re free to get curious and ask questions.  You can go in a couple of different directions depending on your child:

  • Okay - tell me about all the times that you think you weren't a good listener.  Then, tell me about all the times where you were a good listener.  You can also give them examples of all of the times that they listened that they're not remembering. You want them to realize that their brain is offering them a statement that isn't true across the board.  i.e. there are times that they are a good listener.
  • You can also just ask them if they believe their monkey, or if it's true?  And let them know that you don’t believe their monkey.

I recommend getting curious and asking them questions.  The idea is that you want them to come to their own conclusion that the thought is not necessarily true.  It may have a grain of truth, and you may want to acknowledge that but in a way that is non-judgmental so they understand that it’s completely normal.  For example, good listening means that you listen well most of the time.

The key to all of this is that as the parent, you’re not judging their thoughts as “wrong”.  Our kids hear our thoughts, not necessarily what we say.  When we judge the thought as wrong, our children get the message that their thinking is wrong.  This can lead to even more shame.  They will have negative thoughts, so we want to help them learn how to become a watcher of their thoughts and not believe every thought their brain offers up to them.

This is one of the strategies that I work on with parents when I’m coaching as part of my Mindful Parenting Toolbox.  I believe that learning these concepts as kids can change the trajectory of their lives, and by helping parents learn how to teach their kids these concepts we can build a new emotionally healthy and happy generation from the ground up.  If you want to learn how to teach your kids these concepts, I can help.  Go to melpeirce.com/consult to book a free call and discover how a parent coach can help you!

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