How Your Teen Can Silence Their Inner Critic
If you’ve ever caught yourself saying mean things to yourself, like calling yourself fat, stupid, embarrassing, or a failure, then you know what it’s like to have an inner critic out of control. We can be incredibly judgmental of ourselves, and we can say things to ourselves that we would never say to a friend or acquaintance. Over the years, our inner monologue can either improve our self-esteem and motivate us, or it can deplete our confidence and possibly push us into depression.
With so many social pressures swirling around them, teenagers are particularly susceptible to a damaging inner critic. Adolescents are very judgmental of each other and harsh in their comments. Something that a peer says to a teen can replay in their heads over and over. The things your teen says to themselves can have a positive or negative influence on the way they think and behave.
If you think your teen is hard on themselves, there are ways you can teach your child to improve their inner monologue and, hopefully, their self-esteem. Encourage your teen to use these ideas to tame their inner critic:
Determine Whether a Thought is True
Teach your teen to examine whether her thought is an opinion or a fact. Most of our critical comments about ourselves are opinions, and even worse, many of them are exaggerated or distorted. Help your teen realize that just because you think something, doesn’t make it true. There are three strategies that parents can employ in these situations:
- Give an example. Tell a story about a time when you may have assumed the worst or exaggerated how bad a situation was. Share how your thinking wasn’t helpful. Try to use a story where you found out later that the situation wasn’t nearly as bad as you originally thought.
- Ask questions. When you hear your teen put themselves down, ask questions that can help them recognize evidence to the contrary of their negative comments to develop a more balanced outlook. For example, if your teen says, “I know I’ll never make the soccer team,” ask, “How do you know that?” Then, remind them of any positive evidence that doesn’t support their claim. If their emotions seem out of control, ask them what they are afraid of. Many times when we put our fears into words, we realize they are silly.
- Encourage your teen to journal. Suggest that your teen write down something their inner critic is saying to them, and then objectively look for the evidence, like a lawyer. In one column, they should note anything that proves their inner critic’s thought is correct, and in the other column, they write down any evidence that shows the statement is not true. This exercise usually provides teens with a more balance, objective look at the truth.
- Address the truth. If, in fact, the thought they have IS true (for example, perhaps your son thinks he is fat, and the doctor confirms he is overweight), then help them develop a strategy to change it. Your support can help your child improve their situation and then their self-esteem will climb because they were able to successfully become a healthier/better person.
Ask What a Best Friend Would Say
Some of the things we say to ourselves we would never say to someone else. Your teen would likely not call their friend a “fat slob” for spilling some ketchup on their pants, but they can quickly say harsh things inside their head about themselves. Encourage your teen to make up a rule that if they wouldn’t say something to a friend, then they shouldn’t say it to themselves.
If your teen is feeling bad about a situation and putting themselves down, it can be helpful to ask, “What would you say to a friend who had this problem?” Parents can then suggest that their teen offer those same words of encouragement to themselves.
Develop Positive Self-Talk
Suggest some positive words or phrases that your teen can say to themselves to replace negative thinking, such as, “I’ve had hard times before, and everything has worked out” or “I’m a smart person, so I can do well at school.”
Your teen’s inner critic is often most active when they feel embarrassed or ashamed. But, Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, says that shame only works if we keep it secret. Brown suggests that when a person feels ashamed, they should tell a trusted friend. Many times when you look at the situation with a friend on your side, you can see the humor in your circumstances. Brown says, “Find the courage to do the counterintuitive thing and tell someone what happened—invariably those conversations end with laughter.”
It seems a lot easier to give compliments to others than to accept and to believe the compliments we hear. Teens with an active inner critic will tend to discount or deflect compliments from others. Encourage your teen to learn to simply say “thank you” when they hear a compliment. It might help your teen to write down their strengths so that when they hear something that matches their strong points they will be more likely to believe it.
Use it for Positive Purposes
Your inner critic is there to motivate you, not tear you down. Encourage your teen to use their inner voice in positive ways:
- Give your inner voice positive things to say. Experts recommend that everyone should make a list of their strengths, passions, and what they like about themselves. Sometimes it helps to consider how your friends and family would describe you. Your teen may groan about making such a list, but encourage them to go through the effort and once they have the list to read it often.
- Recognize when your inner critic is working for you. Your inner critic is really designed to alert you when you are off track. If you train your inner voice to avoid unhelpful name-calling, then it can help you make better decisions life. You can use it as a guide to make sure you make good choices in your life.
It is hard to think rationally when you are feeling intense anger, sadness, or fear. Help your teen recognize that their strong emotions might be skewing their perspective. Ultimately, by teaching your teen to challenge their negative thoughts and focus on the positive, their negative inner critic will be forced to quiet down.