Fighting Negative Self Talk
The majority of today’s teenagers are struggling with negative self-talk. Negative self-talk is an inner dialogue you have in your own mind that puts yourself down, focuses on weaknesses and minimizes strengths, limits your confidence, or blocks your ability to reach your potential.
We all have an inner critic, which can sometimes be helpful in motivating us to improve, but it can go too far. 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. 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. When it comes to our abilities and talents, the occasional bout of self-doubt is common, but adolescents are very judgmental and tend to be harsh in their comments. 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 silence their negative self-talk:
Determine Whether a Thought is True
Teach your teen to examine whether their 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. Here are some 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 not as bad as we thought.
- Look for the facts. 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 balanced, objective look at the truth.
Talk Back to Your Inner Critic
Encourage your teen to “sass” or talk back to their inner critic as a way to remove its power. Simply telling your inner critic that you don’t want to hear what it has to say begins to give you a sense of choice in the matter. When you hear the inner critic start to speak, tell it to go away.
Ask What a Good 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 figure this out.” Help them to recall past times when they have been successful or overcome a challenge.
Create a Positive Filter
Because of the way our brain works, we all have an automatic selective filtering system that will look for evidence in our environment that matches up with whatever we believe to be true about ourselves. We will then disregard other evidence to the contrary without even realizing it. If you are always saying to yourself “I am an idiot,” you might actually do a lot of smart things, but you will still focus in on the small mistakes you make. You will fixate on those things because they match up with what you say to yourself.
To break this automatic tendency, you have to first make the deliberate effort to say something different to yourself and then actively search for evidence that the new statement is true. When you hear your critic saying “I am an idiot,” talk back and tell the critic that isn’t true. Then replace the statement with something you know is true, such as, “Sometimes I do smart things,” and come up with as many examples as you can to support this new statement. Your filter will begin looking for evidence to support the more positive idea.
Identify Strengths and Successes
Every individual has strengths, talents, interests, and successes that are unique to them. Ask your teen to identify what theirs are! Whether they are a math whiz or an artistic guru, remind your teen that they have a unique perspective backed by unique experiences and unique gifts. Their strengths and accomplishments will look different from anyone else’s, and that’s a good thing! When you name your own strengths, you can tame your inner critic.
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.
Use it for Positive Purposes
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 actually help you make better decisions. You can use it as a guide to make good choices in your life or motivate you to make positive changes.
It is hard to think rationally when you have someone in your own head bullying you! Help your teen recognize that their inner critic 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.