Once upon a time, when I was a kid, I had a close friend who wasn’t into school. She did everything possible to avoid school work, in particular, reading and maths. She used the words ‘dumb’ and ‘thick’, ‘can’t do’ and ‘never will be able to’. It always seemed her words matched her output. Around the age of 10, I thought I might have discovered where some of this came from when I heard her mother say (in front of her), ‘Oh, Jessie’s just like me, we can’t do maths’. My 10 year old self parked this away as a curious and frustrating thing to hear from a mother. I was angry for my friend, who stood passively to the side and said nothing. As far as she was concerned, this was the truth. Her self-talk around learning had started way before this moment in her life.
Fast forward a couple of decades. I am a school teacher, a youth mentor, a life coach and a business owner with a passion for working with teen girls and young women in order to restore their confidence, find empowerment and self-love. I also have helped many children reprogramme their mindsets in order to achieve in the classroom. And a large part of all of my work with kids is their self-talk; something as parents and caregivers we can help them learn to do healthily rather than destructively throughout their formative years.
We are all familiar with the concept of ‘self-talk’; the often unchecked voice that chatters away in our heads. Also familiar, no doubt, is the knowledge that negative self-talk can wreak havoc on our sense of self and self-esteem. Sometimes, we verbalise these thoughts about ourselves and our perceived abilities. If your child is seeing or hearing you putting yourself down, this effectively promotes the idea that it is acceptable to do this to themselves. You are your child’s key role model in the world, and speaking negatively about yourself automatically gives them permission to do the same.
Have you ever caught your child saying she/he is incapable of something, talking her or himself out of a new opportunity, or perhaps dropping the occasional derogatory comment about her/his body or appearance? For most of us, this can be a mixture of heartbreaking and frustrating, especially when we can see the disappointment or even disgust that often accompanies such comments. Of course, this isn’t always a mirror image of how a parent speaks or behaves, and there can be many reasons behind such behaviour, but it is worth checking your relationship with verbalising self-talk around your child.
When the two combine
A super-charged way in which verbalising our negative self-talk can inadvertently have an impact on our children is when we look to excuse or cushion the blow of their disappointment by bringing our own experiences into the mix. This is like my story from the beginning of this post. In telling our children that it’s ok because they have picked up our (perceived) inadequacies or ineptitudes, we are squashing a growth mindset and signalling there is no need for them to keep trying. This behaviour from a parent often comes from a place of love: trying to empathise, soothe and let the child know that things will work out fine ‘even though you can’t do’ maths / writing / sport. However, this can completely disempower a child and give them permission not to try. This is the essence of a fixed mindset, which can trap us into believing there is nothing we can do to improve our situations or beliefs. This applies beyond learning, to beliefs about our bodies, friendships, relationships and even activities that we might enjoy or want to try.
What you can do
As a side note, I have noticed this behaviour seems more prevalent with women and their daughters; perhaps because, as a general rule, women are quicker to self-deprecate than men, or perhaps because there is a culture of apologising when we aren’t seen to be perfect. Either way, it’s worth exploring to see if your self-talk could be affecting your child in ways you might not have registered. Some ideas to help:
- Learn about growth and fixed mindsets, and adopt statements that can help your child move through challenges.
- Identify your own limiting beliefs around your abilities, preferences, and perceived shortcomings and make a conscious effort not to search for and label your child with them, especially in front of them.
- When you hear your child speaking negatively about themselves (or you about yourself!), instead of telling them off or arguing with them, have a conversation around this belief. Byron Katie’s ‘The Work’ is an excellent tool to debunk the myth of ‘truth’ around such statements and empowers the child to explore their thoughts from a more balanced space.
- A fun book around positive self-talk is Melissa Ambrossini’s ‘Mastering Your Mean Girl’. This could be an excellent read for you as an adult, especially if you have an older teen daughter that might be keen to read it with you (not so suitable for our younger kids).
- If you discover that you may have been limiting your child through your own limiting self-talk and beliefs, have a conversation with them. Be vulnerable. Discuss why you feel this way about yourself, and talk about how you are willing to reprogramme and take a risk to grow. Invite your child to reflect on their own thoughts and see how you can both work together using fun and humour to grow from the experience.
Bec Coldicutt is a multi-passionate teacher, youth mentor and certified life coach based in Auckland, New Zealand. She works internationally with teen girls and young women in order to help them find empowerment, self-confidence and a meaningful sense of self-love through her mentoring and coaching services and workshops. Her online home is Rebel Starseeds, where you can find out more, check out her writing and recommendations, and get in touch to work with her one-on-one.