Taming the Negative Self-Talk Monster

Sep 07, 2021

Do you hear your child put themselves down or talk negatively to themselves?  This is a concern that I hear from parents often, and it came up in a recent parent coaching session where the Mom was noticing that her son was extremely critical of himself.  She is concerned and wondering if there is anything that she can do to help.  The answer is yes, there are things you can do to intentionally teach your kids about self-talk.

As parents, when we hear our kids put themselves down our first instinct is to counter them and tell them it’s not true and that they shouldn’t think these things.  Unfortunately, that can backfire because judgment and shame turns off the learning centers of the brain and that can cause our kids to shut down so they don’t even hear what we say.

Let’s start with what is going on in the brain — our brains tend to look at one situation and make it an absolute truth across the board, or make one “failure” mean something about us.  So if the picture your son was trying to draw did not come out like he wanted, his brain might tell him he’s a horrible artist. Or if your daughter missed a serve or a shot on goal one time, her brain might tell her she’s awful or a jerk.

A mom of a teen in a volleyball camp shared with me that her daughter’s camp had a really interesting exercise where they asked the teens what they thought when they missed a serve.  It was heartbreaking to hear how many of them had thoughts that they were a total clutz, stupid, or worse just because they had missed the shot.  Their brains were telling them absolutely awful things.

What can we do as parents to help our kids with self-talk?  

The first thing that you can do is to check in with yourself to intentionally keep them open and receptive.  Again, your first instinct will be to tell them the thought isn’t true, and not to think that thought, but when you do that they may feel judged or ashamed and you’ll take the chance that they will shut down.  After that, anything you say will go out the window. Start by refraining from telling them they shouldn’t be thinking negative thoughts. 

Instead, get curious.  The second step is to find out what their brain is telling them by asking them questions.  If they say they’re awful - you can ask, “What makes you think that?”  They might respond that their picture looks awful.  Remember that their brain believes the picture is awful.  So you could just respond “Okay, so what can you do now?” Your son whose picture didn’t turn out the way he wanted may decide that he’s going to try again, or your daughter may decide to practice more.  At that point you may be able to gently ask about times that have been successful in the past so their brain has past proof that their negative talk might be inaccurate.

The key is to get them focused on what comes next.  What can they DO when things don’t turn out like they wanted, and how can they support themselves in the process?  

The third thing you can do is to walk the talk!  You can intentionally talk out loud so your kids hear what you say to yourself.  Talk to yourself the way that you want them to talk to themselves.  This means watching for the times that you beat yourself up, and catching yourself when you might have said “Ugh, I hate it when I do that”.  Consider replacing that thought with “That’s okay, I’m sure I’ll do it better next time and I’m just going to try again”.

Our kids pay more attention to what we do than what we say.  We are consistently teaching our kids lessons unconsciously by how we act and how we handle things in our everyday lives.  So ideally we want to become more intentional in what we do and the lessons that we convey in the process.

I hope you found this helpful, and if you’d like to become more intentional about teaching your children how to handle their emotions check out my FREE 3 part video training series on 3 Steps to Stop the Worry.  Learn how to help your worried and anxious kids, and teach them the skills to handle these feelings for life so they can avoid turning to food or other things to find a quick fix for their feelings so they can feel better!  Go to for more info. 


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