Try as we might, we cannot protect our children from the ups and downs of life. Sometimes, things will go well and be successful; other times, things will go awry. And while we want to stop our children from experiencing pain for them to feel happy, unfortunately, that isn’t realistic. But we can encourage our kids to be resilient and help them learn how to bounce back from challenges and adversity. A key strategy for this is developing positive self-talk.
It’s not always easy to see the positives in life, especially for our kids who are still learning. This can often lead them to assume something is wrong with them or that they are flawed, bad, or incapable. So, having a positive attitude can help them solve problems and navigate tricky situations or challenges. Teaching our kids to reframe their thoughts and have a positive attitude or to develop positive self-talk will serve them well throughout their lives.
What Is Positive Self-Talk?
Most of us have some internal dialogue; it represents our inner voice or how we talk to ourselves. This dialogue reflects what we expect from the world and ourselves, what we think we deserve, or how others will treat us.1 Self-talk can combine conscious thoughts or ideas and unconscious things like beliefs, morals, and biases. It helps our brain process, interpret, and understand things around us, and the tone of the voice (positive or negative) can affect how we respond to these things.
Positive self-talk examples might include, “I can do this, I am capable, and I can manage this.” These messages can be incredibly powerful in reassuring, motivating, or boosting our confidence.2 This is because thoughts like this turn our focus on the positives within us, or we look for solutions or ways to tackle challenges.
How Do You Recognize Negative Self-Talk?
The flip side is negative self-talk. Instead of our inner voice being an internal cheerleader, it focuses on the bad aspects of ourselves or a situation. Or that voice looks at things critically instead of motivating, reassuring, or solution-focused. Looking at problems and challenges through a negative lens can impact our emotions and well-being negatively; it can make us stressed, worried, or sad and affect our self-esteem.2,3 Do you catch your child saying things like “I’ll never be able to do XYZ” or “I can’t, it’s too hard”? Chances are, they are experiencing some negative self-talk. Their inner voice finds it hard to identify the positives or highlight their skills or ability to tackle challenging situations.
Benefits of Positive Self-Talk for Kids
Positive self-talk for kids is critical in developing positive mental health and well-being. A positive internal voice tends to be linked to higher self-esteem and well-being.2 This is because that person sees themselves in a positive light — as capable. When our kids see themselves as capable, their views on a situation change from negative (“I can’t do this”) to positive (“I can do this”). That view taps into motivation, resilience, and confidence, allowing them to keep trying or ensure they are willing to face challenges. It can help with things like having a positive outlook on life, being confident, directing themselves toward things they are good at, problem-solving, setting and working toward goals, and finding areas where they can improve and see a situation as a challenge or positive and not a negative.2,3,4
How Can You Help Your Kids Come Up With Positive Thoughts?
First, we must identify and get our kids to tune into their internal voice. Then, we figure out what it’s telling them — is it a kind, compassionate, motivating voice or a negative voice telling them they can’t do it or aren’t good enough in some way? Once you know what kind of thought they are having, you can help them tackle or counterbalance the idea. It can help to find evidence that the thought isn’t true. For example, if your child says, “I’m no good at sports,” you can help them reframe it and find evidence against that thought. They might find running hard, for instance, but maybe they are great at tennis or golf.
Other ways to help your child come up with positive thoughts and use positive self-talk include the following:
Tackle unrealistic thoughts.
If your child says words like “always” or “never,” they probably have an unrealistic belief. It’s also doubtful that it’s 100% true. Examples could be “I never win” or “I always mess up.” You can help them find times or remember when they have done well or been able to face challenges.
We can help change the tone of our kids’ internal voices by getting them to change what they focus on. Over time, this becomes the new normal, and they learn to look for the positives. One way is getting them to focus on gratitude, and research tells us that a gratitude attitude helps children feel happier, more optimistic, and generally more satisfied in their lives.5 Perhaps you could incorporate a daily gratitude practice into each day — maybe before you leave the house or in the car on the way home — but ask them to share one thing they are grateful for that day. It can start to shift their mindset positively.
Ways To Encourage Positive Self-Talk in Children
Getting your child to shift their mindset to a more positive one may not be easy, but here are four ways you can encourage positive self-talk in your children:
1. Model Positive Behavior
Do you have an inner voice that’s compassionate or negative? How do you manage when things get tough? Be aware of your actions, and ensure that you model what positive self-talk looks like. Your child will learn directly from you and see examples of positive self-talk and how they can harness it to tackle their challenges.
2. List Their Strengths
Do some brainstorming and create a list of things they are good at and enjoy. It’s essential to have children reflect on and acknowledge their strengths. Knowing what they are good at will help them find ways to tackle problems and boost their self-esteem.
3. Help Them Succeed
If your child has a negative internal voice, you could set up an activity you know they will achieve. That way, they have some evidence that they are good at something and capable. They can start identifying real-life examples that can counteract negative thoughts of self-belief.
4. Focus on the Effort, Not the Outcome
If we only focus on outcomes, our children can develop a mindset focused on winning or achievements, and they may feel discouraged if this doesn’t happen. Instead, if we focus on appreciating and acknowledging their efforts, they can see the positives even if they don’t win or must try again.
There are many benefits to improving and developing positive self-talk in our children. However, it does take practice and support from you until it becomes more automatic. It’s also important to recognize that negative thoughts will happen, and we can’t entirely erase them, but we can reframe them as opportunities to learn and grow. If you are encouraging positive self-talk in your child and notice there doesn’t seem to be much of a shift, you might want to consider engaging with a trusted health professional like your family doctor or psychologist to ensure there isn’t something else (like depression or anxiety) influencing their well-being and self-talk.