When bad things happen, children feel sad, angry or worried. But what they tell themselves about what happened makes a big difference.
When self-talk contributes to a child’s anxiety
At the core of anxiety is the child’s fear of what is going to happen in the future, compounded by the accompanying self-talk.
- My parents will get a divorce. (I won’t have a real family anymore.)
- There’s going to be a shooting at my school. (The world is a scary place to live. More bad things happen than good things.)
- I have to give a report in front of the whole class. (I can’t do it. It’s too hard for me.)
- My best friend will move away. (If I lose my best friend, I’ll never have another best friend again!)
When self-talk contributes to a child’s depression
Depression is about the past. At the core of depression is the loss of something dear, with the accompanying messages the child gives himself.
- Someone in my family became addicted to alcohol or drugs. (If I’m very good–or careful or funny–I can keep them from drinking too much.)
- My mother lost her job. (This is the worst thing that could have happened, and it is terrible and awful.)
- Kids at school made fun of me. (No one cares about me. It’s all my fault.)
- Someone I love died. (Life will never be good again. I’m incapable of keeping the relationships I really want.)
4 actions we can take toward unsticking their self-talk
Action #1 – Any time the child appears to be overly anxious or depressed, ask the child to tell you what he is thinking about or telling himself. Listen for self-talk lies in their response. Check with the child to see if you understood clearly. Acknowledge the child’s response, BUT……
Action #2 — Give them new phrases to use. Help the child reject the faulty conclusions they’ve drawn. As soon as you hear them repeating the misbeliefs, stop and help the child argue against them. Hand them phrases to use. Say to the child:
- “Tell yourself, ‘It’s not true that I can’t do anything right'” or
- “Tell yourself, ‘Stop! I’m not going to tell myself this lie anymore!'”
Action #3 – This is perhaps the hardest part, but we cannot help children get rid of the lies in their self-talk until they replace the lies with the truth. Again, give them the words to use, maybe something like this:
- Lie: I’m too fat (short, ugly). Truth: Bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Mine is my own and I will make it the best it can be by caring for it properly.
- Lie: I’ll never fit in at this new school. Truth: It’s hard to say good-bye to my old school and friends, but I will make new friends and have good times here, too.
- Lie: I’ll just die if my mom starts dating again. Truth: It’s okay to feel sad and worried, but it’s not okay to get stuck there.
Action #4 – What says CELEBRATION! to the child? Stop and do it with her she when she succeeds in establishing positive self-talk:
- “The truth is everyone has things they are good at and things that are hard for them. Reading is hard for me, so I will just have to work harder at reading. Plus, it’s true that it always okay to ask for help when I need it, so if I need extra help, I’ll ask my teacher or parents”.
- ”With the help of the people who love me (and God’s help) I can get through anything.”
(I learned these actions from Linda Sibley.)