Inside: Children naturally develop more self-judgment with age. In our society’s hyper-focus on achievement, negative self-talk can lead to anxiety and depression. Help your child develop a healthy attributional style that will help them face challenges.
Between the ages of 6 to 8 children develop the ability to self-monitor and start comparing their abilities to their peers (source).
With this new cognitive ability comes self-judgment and self-doubt. Even the child who had the sunniest personality in preschool may start to show dips in self-esteem as they see themselves in a different light and become more self-critical.
The egocentric confidence of the early years is replaced with a new, more critical inner-voice. This can be especially problematic in our society with its hyper-focus on achievement.
As a parent, it can be heart-wrenching when our child says negative things about themselves and is too hard on themselves. How are you supposed to respond when your child says negative statements like these?
I’m the worst ever.
I hate this.
I’m terrible at ________.
This is the worst day ever!
I’m the worst kid in the world!
How do we help our kids learn to overcome instead of overblowing or worse, undermining their own self-esteem?
5 Tips to Go From Negative Self-Talk to A Healthy Attributional Style
1. Empathize With Their Struggle: Don’t Dismiss Their Feelings
We all have bad days and whether our kids realize it or not it’s pretty normal for them to feel this way — especially with their newfound ability to compare themselves to others.
This quote from Rebecca Eanes always comes into my head when I feel annoyed with my son’s bad day or bad moments:
“So often, children are punished for being human. They are not allowed to have grumpy moods, bad days, disrespectful tones, or bad attitudes. Yet, we adults have them all the time. None of us are perfect. We must stop holding our children to a higher standard of perfection than we can attain ourselves.”
We are quick to say — “No you are not” when our child says, “I’m stupid!” We don’t like to hear our kids say things like that about themselves, so we dismiss them. That can also dismiss their very real feelings.
Instead, be curious. Ask your child why they feel that way. You can say something like:
- “I believe that you have some feelings about this math homework right now and something feels hard to you. Why do you say that you are stupid?”
Acknowledge their pain, their hurt, their stress, and their struggle. And then normalize it.
2. Normalize “Bad Days” and Self-Doubt
A child’s ability to understand another person’s perspective is still developing — they have newfound self-comparison abilities, but they still have a certain amount of ego-centrism due to simply not having enough experiences yet.
Often children think they are the only one to feel nervous about the first day of school, the only one who thinks the math homework is hard, and the only one who stubbed their toe and split the milk.
Have you ever told your child about a time you had a hard time and they look at you with big eyes and disbelief?
Help your child broaden their perspective to realize that they are not the only ones to feel this way, that other kids and even adults have discouraging thoughts from time to time.
Normalizing the fact that everyone experiences doubt from time to time can stem the snowball effect of negative thinking.
Be careful that by normalizing you aren’t being dismissive of their feelings. Sharing a story of a time you felt something similar will let them know that they’re not alone and their feelings are valid.
3. Model Optimistic Thinking and Growth Mindset
How we explain events or actions is called attributional style in psychology. People have a tendency to have an optimistic or pessimistic attributional style.
- The tendency to explain challenges or difficult things as internal/personal (I do not have a talent for sports), pervasive (I am bad at all sports), and permanent (I always lose games) is related to a pessimistic attributional style.
- In contrast, the tendency to explain challenges or difficult things as external (that was a really hard soccer game), specific (I’m disappointed I missed one goal at today’s game), and temporary (I’ll do better at the next game) is related to an optimistic explanatory style.
People with an optimistic mindset are more resilient and are more likely to rise to a challenge because they believe that they have the power to learn, grow, and change — a growth mindset.
Notice that I am not advocating a sunny-optimistic viewpoint no matter what– rather, it’s healthy to help children adopt a realistic optimistic outlook.
Growth Mindset Phrases For Parents
- You can’t do that yet. Someday you will (temporary).
- You missed one goal. But you also passed the ball to a teammate and he scored (specific).
- You made a mistake. You are a kind person. You will remember next time (external).
- You can change that choice. Let’s have a do-over (temporary).
- It was disappointing to miss that one goal. Sometimes we have disappointing moments and that can feel hard. Everyone feels disappointed in themselves sometimes (specific, temporary, external).
Related: Help Your Child Develop Cognitive Hardiness: 5 Tips for Encouraging Intrinsic Motivation
4. Counterbalance the Brain’s Negativity
It is actually quite normal for humans to look for negative explanations for things that happen to them.
This is because our brains are designed to protect us and focus on our survival. Our brains instinctively pay attention to things that make us feel stressed or upset — anything that could be a possible threat.
Being aware of this tendency to focus on the bad can help us teach our children optimistic explanatory styles of thinking and counterbalance the brain’s negativity bias.
This goes for us as parents too, we tend to focus on what our children are not doing well instead of seeing their strengths. This is negativity bias at play!
Good behavior passes by unnoticed, but bad behavior disrupts our life and our brain hones in on it.
This is why things like mindful parenting even exist… so we can switch from automatically reacting to our kids (to our life!) and be more mindful and conscious in how we respond.
Related: Mindful Parenting: The Magic Formula for a More Meaningful Life with Kids
How to Help Your Child Cultivate a Realistic Positive Outlook:
- Help your child notice the good things in daily life and notice how your kids can do this for you as well — our kids often notice little things we adults are quick to brush past — a flower, a sunset, a butterfly.
- Reinforce and notice your child’s strengths and passions.
- Use positive parenting techniques to respond instead of reacting to your kids.
- Start a Kindness jar and catch your child being kind. Place a marble in a jar each time you notice their kindness.
- Start a daily Positive Affirmation and Gratitude practice with your child to help replace negative thoughts with positive self-talk that is focused on helping your child discover who they are and what they really care about.
Related: 40 Science-Based Positive Affirmations to Help Kids Build Inner Strength and Buffer Stress
5. Be Genuine and Specific When Your Praise
Telling your child — “You are so smart!” backfires because encourages a personal and permanent attributional style — a pessimistic attributional style.
When your child does face a challenge and the math homework doesn’t come easy they will think they are not smart at math and that is something they can’t change. Instead, they will have the tendency to think, “I’m stupid!”
Instead, be very specific when you praise — something like “Wow, I like how many colors you used in that painting” is very different than, “You are a great artist!”
Read more: Help Your Child Develop Cognitive Hardiness: 5 Tips for Encouraging Intrinsic Motivation
Acknowledge your child’s effort. Praise them for the hard work they have done and ask them what the next steps are.
This growth mindset type of praise is the kind that builds self-esteem.
The one exception to this rule is telling your child they are good and kind — because they are and they will believe you. Telling your child that they are kind, good, true, brave, and strong will enhance those qualities in her and help her internalize those qualities.
Research shows that praising children in a “fixed” way on prosocial behaviors, for example, saying things like — “You are a good friend,”“You are kind,” and “You are are a good helper” helps to strengthen those behaviors in children.
When we tell our children that they are GOOD and at the same time teach them how to change their behavior, we are giving them the gift of an optimistic frame of mind: attributing good things as personal and permanent and negative things as temporary and impersonal.
Negative self-talk is part of life and partly due to how our brain works. Teaching kids how to handle their feelings of failure and defeat will teach them to overcome and persevere.
Books on Explanatory Style, Resilience, and Optimism
- The Optimistic Child is the original book by the father of positive psychology himself, Martin Seligman. This book goes through many examples and how to change your child’s explanatory style.
- The Yes Brain is a modern take on encouraging realistic optimism in kids. The authors draw from positive psychology, resiliency, growth mindset, and brain studies to provide parents with tools to help foster these life skills in their kids, “The primary focus, when our kids are struggling, should not be on getting rid of bad behavior…but on figuring out what we want to add — the skills to handle things better next time.”
- Now Say This is a more encompassing parenting book with a 3-step guide for effectively communicating with your child. I like the focus on optimism and resilience in the book, for example, the first premise is “your child is capable and built for good.”
- Organized by season, The Family Gratitude Project has activities to help ourselves and our kids appreciate the little things in life. From nature walks to dream catchers, I love the focus on thankfulness and mindfulness in this little gem of a book.
The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong ResilienceThe Yes Brain: How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your ChildNow Say This: The Right Words to Solve Every Parenting DilemmaThe Family Gratitude Project: Raise a Thankful Child with 52 Fun Activities and Crafts for Every Season
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