The Way You Talk to Your Kids and Yourself Matters

Changing the way you talk to yourself changes everything. Here are steps we can take to teach our children to avoid falling into the trap of self-defeating inner criticism.
05/29/2015 12:02 pm ET Updated May 29, 2016

I'm such an idiot! I can't believe I locked the keys in the car. What am I going to do now? How am I going to get home? I can't even call my husband because my phone's in the car and my purse!! I'm totally stuck. I have no idea what to do. I am hopeless!

I'd like to say that this is a purely fictional situation. That I have never locked my keys, purse and phone in the car, and that, moreover, I would not address myself in such a negative way. But, unfortunately, I cannot.

Firstly, I have found myself in this exact situation. It ended up taking three hours, including two long cab rides to put it right, but that's a story for another time. :)

Let's face it; we all make mistakes. We all end up in situations that highlight just how human we are. Mistakes like this will happen over and over again throughout our lives, and there is basically nothing we can do to avoid them.

We can, however, avoid the negative ways we often react to these situations. And that's what I'd like to focus on today. Changing the way you talk to yourself changes everything. Here are steps we can take to teach our children to avoid falling into the trap of self-defeating inner criticism.

Self-Talk is Perfectly Normal

We all talk to ourselves, carrying on an inner monologue that scientists and psychologists refer to as "self-talk" or "private talk" or "inner talk."

When we are young, much of this takes place out loud. It guides the way that we play and the way that we learn. If you listen to a toddler play, you will hear words being sounded out and repeated, tasks being described in minute detail and cute phrases of encouragement or admonition, obviously learned from adults.

According to Charles Fernyhough, a psychologist from Britain, "putting our thoughts into words gives them a more tangible form, which makes them easier to use."

Lev Vygotsky, a famous Russian psychologist, concludedᅡᅠthat self-talk is not just used as a tool for learning, but is in fact a social act. By engaging in self-talk, children internalize and reformulate the teachings of their elders, modifying, while also carrying on, societal beliefs and knowledge.

It's pretty heavy stuff, really. Self-talk has deep, profound and lasting effects on each of us, as we internalize this monologue and grow and change into adults.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

It is probably not tooᅡᅠsurprising to hear that a child's style of self-talk is largely influenced by the adults who teach and care for them.

Laura Berk, a child psychologist at the University of Southern Illinois, and her team have been analyzing self-talk for decades and have come to see this connection very clearly.

Children whose teachers and caregivers teach them, directly or not, to use calm, pragmatic, logical language when learning mastery over a task, will go on to use that language on their own, when teaching themselves new skills.

They tend to be optimistic and logical when they run up against a problem that challenges them. They are trained to bolster their own confidence and work their way through difficulties, one step at a time.

Conversely, if a child's teacher or caregiver is stormy, angry, negative and impatient, there is nothing that the child can do but use the same type of self-defeating self-talk when they are learning on their own. That is all they know.

They will end up frustrated by anything requiring extra effort, and likely not master nearly as many tasks as their well-taught counterparts will.

My Imaginary Friend

Berk's studies also found that the more self-talk children use during make-believe play, the more likely they are to effectively use their inner monologues as adults.

She discovered that "children who talk to imaginary friends engage in more self-talk as adults, and that makes them more self-controlled."

The time that children spend mapping out and animating their imaginary friends and scenarios creates in them a proportionately strengthened ability to distance themselves, psychologically, from their everyday lives. According to Berk, it is precisely this distance which gives them the psychic "space" they need to control their emotions and impulses.

"George is Getting Upset!"

Although not exactly what we hope for our children's future, the Seinfeld character George Costanza's famous example of self-talk holds a clue to what makes or breaks the success of our inner monologues.

Psychologist Ethan Kross, working at the University of Michigan's Emotion and Self-Control Laboratory, has found that by using one's first name when addressing oneself, social anxiety can be greatly reduced before, during and after a stressful event.

Kross has discovered, through experimentation, that people who use the personal pronouns I, me and my when talking to themselves are much more likely to fail and fall apart in stressful situations than people who address themselves by name.

It comes down to distance, once again. We are far more likely to be harsh with ourselves than with others. We are also far more likely to help others succeed than to help ourselves.

The less personal of an inner monologue that we encourage our children to have, the greater their chances of success. We need to get them saying, "Sam, you can do it! You'll figure it out, Sam." rather than "I can't do it. I don't know how."

Step 1: Let Your Child Know They Have an Inner Monologue

The first, most important step in teaching our children how to address themselves, is teaching them that they have an inner monologue in the first place.

It may seem self-evident, but most children will not be consciously aware of the fact that they are talking to themselves, particularly once it is internalized. Encourage them to be aware of what they are saying to themselves by setting up scenarios that actively turn that inner monologue back outside their heads.

One way that I like to do this involves assigning two roles to every child in a play or imaginary scenario, and forcing their characters to interact with each other. Although the personas are make-believe, it brings "talking to yourself" out into the open and can spur some interesting conversations.

At the very least, it creates a dialogue between you and your child that can make them aware of the existence of their self-talk.

Step 2: Teach Your Child How To Use It Constructively

Once they are aware of their inner monologue, you can start to teach your child how to have constructive conversations with herself.

Of course, the most important thing you can do is practice what you preach, reacting calmly and logically to situations, not freaking out and crumbling into a puddle of self-reproach and presumed failure. But this is harder than it sounds, and that shouldn't mean that your child is doomed to follow the same, difficult path through life.

You can set your child up for success by teaching her to break down large challenges into their component parts. Encourage her to talk herself through each part of the task as though she were talking to a stranger or a grandparent -- anyone she is unlikely to disrespect.

Give your child the confidence-boosting habit of referring to herself by name -- which, after all, is really a lot more fun than saying "I." Ask her to catch herself whenever she is getting frustrated and think about how she is addressing herself.

Over time, she will become more used to this and eventually, it will be a part of who she is. Perhaps, when she is older, out on her own and locks her keys, phone and purse in the car, sge will have the presence of mind to calmly analyze the situation, saying, Renee, you've locked yourself out of the car. How are you going to get yourself out of this? You don't have your phone, or your money, what do you need the most right now?

Perhaps she'll even remember that she has a friend who lives two streets over and could so easily have given her a ride and let her use their phone!

This article was originally published at PscyhCentral

Join Renee and learn to how toᅡᅠboost your child'sᅡᅠresilience and coping skills at www.gozen.com.