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Communication Strategies Continued

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Encourage Positive Self-Talk

A final communication strategy that parents can use to promote children's self-esteem involves helping them become aware of their self-talk. Self-talk (sometimes referred to as "Automatic Thoughts") refers to the private thoughts people are continually having about themselves, others and the world. These thoughts are often judgmental in nature, having to do with people's decisions about what they like and don't like; want and don't want. People have varying levels of awareness of their self-talk, but most everyone does it. Some people maintain a silent internal dialog, while others end up speaking these thoughts out loud. Because self-talk often contains a lot of information about people's thoughts about their own worth, it is generally a good indicator of someone's current level of self-esteem.

Self-talk has motivational power; which is to say, people who tell themselves that they can accomplish difficult tasks if they set their mind to it are likely to stick at those tasks and over time to master them. People who tell themselves they are helpless to solve a problem are less likely to end up doing so. Many parents have read the classic story, "The Little Engine That Could" (by Watty Piper). In this story, a little train engine talks himself up and over a big and challenging hill by repeating, "I think I can, I think I can, I think I can". The train's journey over the hill is not an easy one, but he sticks with the effort because he believes he can do it. When he finally succeeds in the end, the little engine then confirms his (now proven) believe by repeating, "I thought I could, I thought I could". This simple story illustrates the powerful motivating force of self-talk.

Parents can help their children to grow their self-esteem by helping them to become more aware of their self-talk, and to challenge instances of self-talk that are negative or self-defeating. For instance, if parents consistently hear children saying things to themselves along the lines of, "I'm not good at this school stuff," "I'm dumb,", " I'm bad at ..." or "I knew I couldn't…," they can point out that this is happening, and then help the children to evaluate whether or not those statements are really true. Caregivers may ask children why they are saying these things about themselves and then help them think about situations or experiences that disprove those beliefs.

For instance, a child who says to herself, "I'm dumb" after getting a poor grade in math class can be reminded of situations where she has gotten better grades in other classes. It is not the case she is generally "dumb", but rather that math is challenging for her at the moment. This may lead the child to refine her statement to something like, "I'm dumb at math". While still negative, this is an improvement over her initial formulation. As proves helpful, parents and child can continue to worth through the accuracy of the child's self-talk until it better reflects the reality of the situation. There are many reasons why the child may have gotten a poor grade apart from her being "dumb". Is the child studying effectively? Are there any stressful circumstances that may be interfering with the child's comprehension? Are there learning disabilities present which may make it more difficult for the child to learn? Numerous other factors need to be considered and ruled out or corrected for by the child before it is legitimate for her to reasonably conclude that "I am dumb".

Our insight into the power of noticing and correcting inaccurate self-talk is largely drawn from a psychotherapy technique known as cognitive restructuring which comes from the Cognitive Behavioral psychotherapy tradition. More information on cognitive restructuring may be found here. Beyond teaching children to correct instances of negative self-talk, parents can also teach children to repeat positive self-statements to themselves so as to better help them cope with and endure necessary but stressful situations. Children might stay to themselves, "I've been through hard stuff before; I can get through this", "I know that my parents are proud of me", or even, "I think I can". Positive self-talk like this, even if somewhat forced, can help children find the motivation to get through otherwise painful situations (like the need to study for a test) that they might otherwise simply avoid.

Parents' own self-talk is also important to consider, as children will be watching and learning from what parents say about themselves. For instance, if mom is baking a cake, accidentally spills flour and then yells out, "What an idiot I am!" she is modeling negative self-talk for her children. To the extent that mom is able to think about what she is doing, she may recognize her accident as an opportunity to model more positive self-talk such as, "Oh well, I'll just clean it up and we won't worry about it. We'd never get to eat homemade cake if I let worry over making mistakes stop me from baking".

This latter example of mom's self-talk teaches children that it is okay to make mistakes; that they are normal and correctable, and just expected to happen from time to time while on route to success.