How to Help Your Negative Thinker

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Some kids are super hard on themselves.

For many years, I worked with a little girl who struggled to silence her inner critic. She constantly looked for approval and praise from her teachers, me or her parents. It wasn’t just that she needed praise – she wasn’t a kid raised on “you’re the best at everything!” – she just couldn’t stop looking for flaws.

One day she brought me a poem she had written in her free time. It was quite beautiful and far more sophisticated than you would expect from a nine-year-old. The imagery practically jumped off the page. “Do you think it’s good?” Loaded question. Her words hung in the air for a moment while I read the poem a second time. I knew that I had to choose my words carefully. Was it good? Yes, definitely. Would that response help this child move forward? No. “I love how you describe the sunset. I can picture it in my mind. What’s your favorite part?” She looked at me with curiosity for a while. The silence spoke volumes. “I never really thought about that,” she said, meeting my gaze at last.

What’s the deal with negative self-talk?

Negative self-talk is fairly common among young children, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that a child is pessimistic by nature or needs help from a therapist. Sometimes it stems from perfectionism. Sometimes it’s a result of stress or pressure. Some kids get stuck in black and white thinking – one small failure seems like a huge failure (ex: I bombed that spelling test so I must be a terrible speller.) Sometimes it’s even a cry for more 1:1 time with mom or dad.

No one is positive all of the time. Even the greatest optimists among us have hard days once in a while. When kids get stuck in a negative loop, however, it can impact them in many ways. It’s difficult to learn, for instance, when the inner critic tells you that you’re terrible at math, spelling or something else. It’s hard to have fun on the playing field when your inner critic tells you that you ruined the whole game by letting that goal in. It’s even hard to enjoy time with friends when that pesky inner critic makes you feel like you don’t have much to offer the friendship.

What can parents do to help?

The truth is that you can’t change this behavior for your kid. Responding to negative self-talk with an overly optimistic outlook might actually fuel the negativity. Getting out of the negative loop takes time and practice. But you can support and encourage your child along the way.

Watch your words.

Do you ever catch yourself saying something like, “wow, I really stink at that game!” or “why can’t I catch a break this week?” Kids are the masters of picking up on what we say when we think they aren’t paying attention. Sure, we give great speeches about the power of positive thinking, including stories of our own childhoods, but those sometimes fall flat. What kids look for is how we respond in the moment. They watch us when the chips are down so that they might learn how to cope with the hard stuff.

Think about the words you use when your kids are around. If we criticize ourselves or our children out loud, our kids will internalize it and repeat it.

Stop overcorrecting.

Kids endure a lot of negative input when they’re young. Most of it is meant to help – it comes from a good place. Parents want to keep them safe from harm or help them solve problems. Parents want to raise kind, respectful and responsible kids, and that involves establishing healthy boundaries and providing input on behavior.

But sometimes it comes from the need of the parent. Not long ago, I sat in a first grade classroom and watched as the kids presented projects they made for homework. It was easy to see which were made by the kids and which were made by the parents. Parents want their kids to succeed – they also feel pressure to perform in some way – and this results in the parent take-over. Overcorrecting the homework can quickly snowball into doing for the child and completely taking over.

When parents don’t let their kids try (and don’t let the homework go back to school with mistakes), kids feel like they aren’t good enough. It’s a tough burden to bear when you’re young, and it does result in negative self-talk.

Listen and empathize.

When kids do come to you full of negative thoughts, the best thing you can do is listen and empathize. Countering every negative statement only adds to the pressure to be better or perfect in the moment of upset. Giving your child the space to vent and conveying understanding shows your child that you get it – life is hard, we all make mistakes and sometimes it feels like we can’t do anything right.

Offer honesty.

After your child vents her emotions and gets the negative thoughts out, take some time to brainstorm together. Give honest feedback. Instead of countering “I failed my spelling test and I’m a terrible speller” with “you’re a great speller! It was just a bad test!” try talking about ways to practice spelling that might be more fun and engaging.

Countering negative black and white thinking with positive black and white thinking isn’t a solution. Helping your child think about what went wrong or what has her down and coming up with a list of solutions empowers her to try a new tactic the next time. It also reminds her that she has the power to make changes.

Create a positive word wall.

Sit with your child and think about some positive phrases that might be inspiring – almost like a list of mantras to tap into when the going gets tough. Put them on a poster, decorate it and hang it on the wall. In times of struggle, the words will be there to lift her up. When kids are surrounded by positive thoughts, they internalize them.

Correct missteps.

We all have bad moments. We all say things we wish we could unsay and we all make mistakes. Instead of pretending those bad moments didn’t happen, talk about them. Correct the mistakes and apologize for your own words and behaviors.

Parents have a tendency to try to hide the bad moments from the kids, but showing our kids that we struggle at times actually helps them gain perspective. Ask them to help you brainstorm solutions to your hard moments! Kids might feel like they’re the only ones who need help, but very often they have the answers to our problems, too.

For more great strategies to empower kids to work through stress, anxiety and negativity, grab your copy of THE HAPPY KID HANDBOOK!

 

 

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About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and the forthcoming "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)