How to Help Your Negative Thinker


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!



The Mental Health Day

She opened my window shades as she did every morning, allowing the light of day to wake me gently from the sleep that restored my tired brain after a long night of studying.  Or, more likely, after a long night of perfectionism.


I opened my tired green eyes just enough to show that I just couldn’t go.  I just needed more time.  I just needed a break.


With labored movements I sat slightly upright, careful not to lose my hold on the fuzzy rose-colored blanket that shielded me from the bitter winter morning.


I looked out the window to see what I already knew would unfold before me:  Snow covered branches hung low while icicles obstructed my view of the front yard.  It had snowed steadily throughout the night.  Enough to keep the squirrels in their nests to escape the frigid weather, but not enough to close the schools for the day.


If I listened closely enough I could hear the faint hum of the snowplows hard at work, clearing the nearby roads and driveways.


Burdened by the fog of hard-earned exhaustion, I stared out the window without uttering a sound.  I just can’t go, I thought to myself.  I just can’t handle one more thing.


I was a perfectionist by nature, consumed by a need to make the grade, make the team, and do everything just exactly so.  What I didn’t know…was how to stop.


Sensing my hesitation, she sat on the side of my bed and stroked my hair, waiting for me to speak.  Our eyes locked for a moment or two as I lay back down, wondering what to do.


I’m tired, Mom.  I’m just so tired.  It’s been a hard week…


Please stop by moonfrye to read more about the importance of the mental health day.

Calm It Down…(Tips for helping your kids relax)

Even on the very best days, the ones where the kids get along beautifully and we get lots of exercise and eat well, I can usually count on things to go awry during the final hour of the day.  Sean recently sent me a text during this hour to get a grocery list.  I hit back, “milk, fruit, and maybe a lobotomy”.  He immediately hit back, “what happened?”  Nothing happened.  It was 6pm.  The bedtime routine starts at 6pm sharp.  If I am even one minute behind schedule, it’s mayhem.  They start playing “chase”.  Sometimes they move on to “hide the toy” (a favorite of Riley’s in particular).  Often they make non-riding toys into riding toys and zoom around the family room, just barely missing countertops and walls.  It always starts with high-pitched laughter and ends with tears.  During the final countdown (as I refer to it in my head) they are tired, silly, and not as inclined to listen.  If I can get them upstairs and send them to their respective rooms to choose their pajamas right at 6pm, we’re good.  If I’m still furiously finishing the dishes and time escapes me, the fast paced games begin!  I can always count on Sean to be home (provided that he’s not on tour) on Sunday nights, and sometimes Saturdays, but the rest of the time it’s a one-woman show around here.  I’m a well-oiled machine when it comes to the bedtime routine, but there are still nights when the kids attempt to run wild or start picking on each other.  These are the nights when I fall back on my training to calm things down a bit.  If there’s one thing I do well, it’s help kids learn to relax.  Sean once came home early to find us engaged in one of our favorite calm down strategies.  He watched in amazement as the tone of the room went from tears to complete calm in less than two minutes.  Kids get tired at the end of the day.  Tired looks different on every child.  Riley tends to cry more when she’s tired, while Liam starts to laugh uncontrollably at every little thing that happens.  When it gets to that point, it can be hard for kids to calm themselves down.  When Riley is really tired and upset she will say, “I’m having trouble calming myself down right now”.  She recognizes that she doesn’t feel calm, but she doesn’t know how to get there.  I’ve found that a few well-timed strategies can really help her (and Liam) settle down when they start to feel out of control.  Below are some tips to help you help your little ones relax:

1. Feelings Chart: I know, I’ve mentioned this before.  I’ll keep it short this time.  Kids cycle through countless emotions during the day.  It’s hard to keep up.  Often times they’re not sure what they are feeling.  When they learn how to identify their feelings they can start to ask for help.  Check for a “Feelings Chart” and use is daily to help your kids attach faces to feelings.  Click the “Strategies in Action!” tab to see a picture of Liam using our chart.

2. Balloon Blowing: This is our favorite family strategy for calming things down a bit.  I came up with it one night when Sean was on tour and the kids were really missing him and struggling.  It worked immediately and continues to work well every time we use it.  When things start to go awry I stop them and ask, “what kind of balloon do you want to make?” This gives them a chance to refocus on something else while they come up with all sorts of complicated designs.  Then we all take a deep breath in as we hold our hands to our mouths (as if blowing up a balloon), and slowly exhale as we blow up our fancy balloons. Liam is so into it that he added the feature of tying a string around it.  Then we look up and watch them float to the ceiling. Clearly the premise of this strategy is teaching them relaxation breathing (using big, slow breaths helps release pent up tension, both emotionally and physically).  With the added visual, the kids are really able to participate and enjoy the process.  **You can download a video of this in the “Strategies in Action!” tab.

3. Coloring Feelings: Another way to help kids learn to identify feelings is to attach a color to each feeling.  You should let your kids choose, but often red = angry, blue = sad, yellow = happy, green = calm, etc.  This is a strategy to practice at various times, not just when they’re completely frustrated.  Take some time in a calm moment to help them choose the colors to attach to their feelings.  Give them a blank piece of white paper and ask them to color how they feel today.  You will probably get a lot of yellow pages if you only do this during calm moments, but if your child is having a hard day it might help them to release those feelings a little by coloring some blue, black, brown, etc.

4. Color Breathing: This is another variation of relaxation breathing.  Once your child has learned to associate colors with feelings you can help them use those colors in times of frustration.  Cue your child to slowly take in a long yellow breath and release the red while they exhale.  Prompt them to fill their bodies with yellow air in order to get the red, angry air out.

5. Cognitive Restructuring: I know these are big words for little kids, but it’s actually fairly simple.  Often something as small as a picture not coming out as planned can send a little one into a tailspin.  Riley spends quite a bit of time mapping out her “projects” before she gets to work, and she gets upset if Liam accidentally causes her to make a mark that she didn’t intend to make.  When you strip away the psychological explanation, the basic principle of cognitive restructuring is replacing a negative thought with a positive (recall Jack Handy from SNL).  When Riley starts to get upset and yell, “it’s ruined”, I will sometimes cue her by saying, “who always loves your art work?”  “Mommy and Daddy always love my art work.”  She doesn’t always say it enthusiastically, but it does sink in.  Similarly, when she gets frustrated because she can’t accomplish something quickly and starts to yell, “I just can’t do it” I will remind her to flip it and say “I can do it if I calm down and try again”.  This strategy is not always appropriate and can be hard to grasp.  Sometimes little ones just have bad days and need their parents to help out.  But it can help with small frustrations.

6. Relaxing Story Walk: Riley and I end every day with what we now call a “relaxing story walk”.  This is a variation of guided imagery, which works very well with young kids.  Each night as she settles into bed I ask her to pick a location for our walk.  We start the story by taking two deep breaths as I say, “tonight Mommy and Riley are walking to…”  We stop for deep breaths regularly along the way.  We often go through a garden, rainforest, or to the beach, although we’ve been as far as China, through Candyland, and to Daddy’s studio.  We stop to smell flowers, collect pretty shells and stones, and eat a snack.  She keeps her eyes closed during the story and gets to describe the colors she sees and objects she collects along the way.  **Note:  As Sean learned the hard way, the adult has to remain in charge of the story!  If you give them too many opportunities, they will get excited and take over the story.

7. Squeeze Ball and Stretching: Preschoolers love to learn about how their bodies work.  Many adults have trouble recognizing the physical symptoms of frustration and thus miss the cues to slow down or use a different strategy.  We can teach preschoolers the physical signs of stress and frustration by teaching them about their muscles.  A squeeze ball (which you can find at Target) can be used to teach kids to tighten and relax their arm and hand muscles.  When we are under stress, we often tighten our muscles but forget to relax them.  Using a squeeze ball helps them practice this and shows them how it feels to release the stress in their muscles.  Stretching out our legs can also help relieve stress stored up in our leg muscles, and teaching them to gently stretch their necks from side to side can relieve pressure in that area.  There’s a lot to be said for yoga, and many kids love to do it.  Look into classes or grab a mommy and me yoga DVD and start stretching!

8. Books: “My Many Colored Days” by Dr. Seuss is a great book for helping kids attach colors to feelings.  “Ready, Set, Relax” by Jeffry Allen, M.Ed. and Roger Klein, Psy.D is a great tool for teaching progressive muscle relaxation and guided imagery.  It is intended for elementary aged kids, but I have used it with teens and also with younger kids by shortening some of the scripts.  Teaching your kids how to use their muscles to relax their bodies is invaluable.


Helping kids learn to calm themselves down is a process.  Some days they will head off to their rooms to look at books and play with toys and calm themselves down independently, while other days they might need extra hugs and kisses.  Be patient and try to introduce them to a few new strategies to help them learn to help themselves.

How do you help your kids relax?