Here’s a previous blog written by Dr. Caroline Harvey that has been updated and remains relevant today.
Ever notice that small voice inside your head? The one that might give you a pep talk in challenging situations – You got this! Or the one that might cause you to further doubt yourself when feeling insecure – What is wrong with you?
While having positive or negative self-talk is just part of being human, often the self-talk that children develop comes from the patterns in which their parents and other loved ones speak to them. So it’s critical that we remain mindful of how we are interacting with our kids in terms of the words we use, the tone we express, and the messages that we convey to ensure that they consistently feel loved, respected, and well supported by parents regardless of the situation. With that said, no one is perfect! We all make mistakes. We all lose our cool. The key is how we recover from such situations and how we address them with our kids.
So let’s talk a bit about negative talk. The human brain processes positive and negative information differently. Without getting into the science of it, negative information and unpleasant emotions tend to have more of an impact than positive ones. Think about it. We generally notice undesirable behavior and bad events in the world more than the positive. We similarly tend to call more attention to our children’s misbehavior and fail to notice when they are engaging in expected or appropriate behavior. As a result, children may hear more criticism from parents rather than positive feedback, which can affect their self-esteem and that inner voice. Below are some tips in how we can we switch this paradigm.
- Catch your child being good. Parents often feel the need to walk on eggshells when the kids are finally getting along or behaving, but then jump in and intervene once misbehavior emerges. Instead, provide positive feedback when you notice appropriate behavior. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, but a simple acknowledgement of the positive: I appreciate seeing the two of you work together; Great keeping calm even though you didn’t get your way; Thank you for asking so nicely.
- Be specific with your praise. Unlabeled praise (Nice work, Excellent, I like that) is fine, but it may not be clear to your child what it is that you are noticing. Instead, tell your child exactly what they’re doing that you like: Nice work putting your toys away; Excellent helping your brother; I like that you started your homework right after your snack. Similarly, if something is challenging for your child, try to notice their efforts rather than whether they did something correctly. So, if they are learning something new in math, but got the wrong answer: I love seeing how hard you worked on your homework. I got a different answer for this one. Try again.
- Praise your child 5 times for every 1 criticism. While avoiding negative talk and criticism of your child altogether is a great goal, it may be unrealistic. Aiming for a 5:1 ratio of praise to criticism is more attainable and backed by research in creating happy, healthy environments.
- Have 5-10 minutes of one-on-one, quality time with your child every day. As the world re-opens after the COVID-19 related shutdowns, down time with the family may become increasingly difficult with after school activities, appointments, and get togethers. We get it! Life can be hectic and that is not necessarily a bad thing. To maintain or bolster the warmth in your relationship with your child, all you need is 5 to 10 minutes of one-on-one time with them. For younger kids 7 years of age and younger, this could be designated time to play a preferred activity with them (e.g., building with blocks or other construction toys, coloring, engaging in imaginative play). For older kids and teens 7+ years of age, this could be lighthearted conversation on a topic they enjoy or a designated time to engage in a preferred activity with them (e.g., baking, arts and crafts, video games).
- Be mindful of your nonverbal communication and practice self-care. This includes your tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. Why? Because even if you’re providing the most beautiful praise, certain nonverbals may suggest that you are being sarcastic or inauthentic. Or worse, combining criticism with a negative tone of voice, disapproving or angry facial expression, and/or tense body language just brings more negative energy to the interaction, having an even more negative impact on your child’s self-esteem and inner voice. So, practice and model your own self-care to stay cool, calm, and collected in even the most trying circumstances. Some simple coping skills include:
- taking three slow, deep breaths
- tensing and releasing tight muscles in your body (e.g., shoulders, hands, face) to relax
- momentarily stepping away from stressful situation for a glass of water and a moment alone
- Model how to acknowledge and apologize for your own misbehavior. Lose your cool? It happens to all of us. If we want children to learn to take responsibility for their own misbehavior, we need to demonstrate that ourselves. Remember, children learn about the world and how people interact by observing and imitating their parents’ behavior. So, when you cross the line, wait until things cool down and have a calm conversation acknowledging your big feelings and apologizing for any missteps: I was really angry last night. And while it’s ok to be mad, it’s not ok to be disrespectful. I shouldn’t have said the things I said to you last night. I am sorry and I will try to use my words more carefully next time. I love you.