How to Teach Kids to Engage in Positive Self-Talk

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When faced with uncertainty or challenges in life, it is not uncommon for kids to experience strong feelings, have doubts, and even engage in negative self-talk. In fact, it is a relatively common phenomenon for kids to have negative thoughts about themselves especially if they are being bullied, struggling academically, or having trouble making friends. Facing challenges is hard for kids and sometimes the default is to assume there is something wrong with them.

But parents can help kids cope with these negative thoughts and feelings by teaching them how to engage in positive self-talk. While it is still important to recognize negative thoughts and feelings and not attempt to erase them, they also can learn how to reframe their thinking and focus on their strengths or the lessons they have learned from the challenges.

If teaching your child to engage in positive self-talk is something you want to explore, we take you through what you need to know including how you can empower your kids with this powerful tool so that they can face life's challenges with resilience and self-confidence.

What Is Positive Self-Talk?

At its core, positive self-talk is a coping mechanism that empowers kids to reframe their thinking, nurtures resilience, and builds self-esteem. As an essential part of social-emotional learning, positive self-talk is about so much more than fostering a positive attitude. Overall, the goal of positive self-talk is to train the brain to recognize strengths, opportunities for improvement or growth, and reasons to try again.

Gina McDowell, LPCC-S

Positive self-talk can look different for each child.

— Gina McDowell, LPCC-S

"Positive self-talk can look different for each child," says Gina McDowell, LPCC-S, a behavioral health clinical education supervisor at Nationwide Children's. "For instance, they identify their strengths, the things they do well, traits they can be proud of, and aspects of their personality that they like. When they can talk highly of themselves or identify those positive things, we describe it as self-confidence."

When parents teach their kids self-talk from an early age, they are not only empowering their kids but also building their resiliency as well. Kids learn that they do not have to let setbacks and challenges derail their goals or dreams. They also begin to understand that what they have to offer the world is a positive—that they are unique with a set of strengths that they can draw on in hard times.

Benefits of Positive Self-Talk

All kids, especially tweens and teens, are prone to self-doubt. They have a lot of negative messages and thoughts wearing them down and chipping away at their self-esteem. For instance, it is not uncommon for kids to think—and say—negative things about themselves like "I am such a loser," or "I am no good at math."

These examples of negative self-talk are harmful to your child's confidence and resiliency. In fact, if these things are said often enough, your child may begin to believe them. But, if you encourage your child to be more positive in their views of themselves and to engage in positive self-talk you can help them become more positive, self-confident, more resilient, and more willing to face challenges head on.

"The confidence we have plays a huge role in our mental wellbeing," McDowell says. "It can absolutely help children get through challenging times—times of disappointment—when the effort they put in didn't end with the most positive result or the outcome wasn't exactly what they would have expected or wanted."

How Kids Benefit

According to McDowell, positive self-talk can provide a number of benefits. For instance, it:

  • Builds resiliency
  • Develops a positive outlook on life
  • Helps kids identify their strengths
  • Instills self-confidence
  • Pushes kids to seek out things they are good at
  • Allows kids to recognize areas of improvement
  • Empowers kids to face challenges and take risks
  • Provides kids with courage to go after dreams and set goals

Research has shown that positive self-talk also can help children improve problem-solving and decision-making under stress. In addition to increasing self-compassion and cultivating pro-social behavior, Kristin Rinehart, LISW-S, director of behavioral health at Muskingum Valley Health Centers, says that positive self-talk has a significant impact on confidence building.

"Positive self-talk can also be used for routine task completion and for preparation for situations that create anticipatory anxiety and worry," Rinehart says. "It also can lead to courage and confirmation that whatever is happening can be accomplished whether it be with comfort or discomfort...knowing that whatever it is, it is possible."

In fact, a recent study found that the use of positive self-talk had a positive impact on math performance in kids with low levels of self-confidence in their math abilities. The study, which was conducted by a group of researchers from four different universities, focused on 212 children approximately 10 years old.

The students were divided into three groups. The first group engaged in "effort self-talk" and focused on how their effort would impact their performance on the test—"I will try my best." The second group was assigned to "ability self-talk" where they focused on statements like "I am good at this." And the third group did not receive any self-talk coaching.

The kids in the groups with positive self-talk repeated their statements for at least 30 seconds and then wrote down their phrase and repeated it while taking the test. What the researchers found was that those who engaged in effort self-talk ("I will try my best") performed the best on the math test. They concluded that helping struggling students focus on their effort rather than their lack of ability may help them perform better on difficult tests and projects.

How to Empower Your Kids

Teaching your kids how to engage in positive self-talk, might feel a little awkward at first. But, this is completely normal.

After all, you and your child are learning a new coping skill and it is challenging for their brain (and yours) to reframe thoughts. With practice and consistency, though, you both will master this vital skill.

Create Awareness

Positive self-talk begins with an awareness or recognition of negative thoughts and messages kids are saying to themselves. Many kids are unaware their negative self-talk and the influence it has on their lives.

Help them recognize when they are thinking or saying negative things about themselves, says Rinehart. You also should help them recognize what positive self-talk looks like as well, she says.

"Utilize role models, movies, and books to help them recognize how they can use positive words to encourage positive self-talk," she says. "Remind them that learning to use positive self-talk takes practice and some days are easier than others."

Engage in Conversations

Having regular conversations with your child not only about positive self-talk but also about how they are feeling or how things went at school, can help positive self talk become a habit or a daily practice, says McDowell.

"It is very easy to think about what went wrong throughout the day," says McDowell. "Positive self-talk gets them to also recognize what went well or what they did well."

What's more, these conversations help establish important bonds between you and your kids. You can share goals and dreams and support one another. This is especially important when things do not go as planned.

"[Talking regularly] gives them a safe space where they know they can come to you when they are not feeling well or confident," says McDowell.

Normalize Recognizing Strengths

Many times kids think that it is bragging or not being humble to recognize their strengths or identify what they are good at. But knowing where they excel (and where they need more work) is a life skill that will be used throughout their life.

"Ask your child what they like most about themselves," suggest McDowell. "Maybe they are kind, smart, or a great artist—normalize the fact that they can recognize their own strengths."

Initially, you may need to help them identify their strengths or to find something they are good at. They may not be able to see these things right away. You also can direct them toward activities that align with their interests.

"Mastering a skill is a huge confidence booster for kids," McDowell adds.

Focus on Effort

It is much more beneficial to focus on your child's effort in situations than anything else. Refrain from making comments about the end result. For instance, instead of focusing on their grade in math, comment on how hard they studied and how much work they put in.

"Praise your child's effort not the end result," says McDowell. "Not everything turns out they way we had planned. Whether it is a sporting event or a project at school, the important thing is that they worked hard and did not give up. Have them focus on their effort and that it is OK that things didn't turn out the way that they wanted."

Model Positive Self-Talk

Part of the challenge with positive self-talk is stopping for a minute and taking a look at the way we are communicating in front of our children. Kids learn a great deal by watching and observing their parents. So, when you are faced with a challenging or frustrating situation model positive self-talk in your own life.

"Parents should understand that we can use this skill too," says McDowell. "Positive self-talk is really a resilience booster. Both positive self-talk and confidence play a huge role in mental wellbeing."

You also can model for them how to engage in positive self-talk by brainstorming with them different ways of approaching a challenging situation. For instance, if they have to write a paper and they feel like their writing skills are not what they should be, encourage them to focus on their effort by repeating to themselves "I will do my best." Or, you could remind them that they may not be a good writer currently but with hard work and practice, they will get better.

A Word From Verywell

The benefits of positive self-talk are numerous, but it takes practice. Kids are bombarded every day with negative messages—messages that are easy to latch on to and internalize. But with consistent practice, encouragement, and direction from you, positive self-talk can become second nature—a lens for your kids to use when facing a challenging situation or a difficult task.

If you find that, despite your best efforts, your child continues to be plagued by negative thoughts and feelings, there could be something else going on. Reach out to a healthcare provider or a mental health professional. They can evaluate your child and let you know if there is a mental health issue they are dealing with such as depression or anxiety.

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  1. Thomaes S, Tjaarda IC, Brummelman E, Sedikides C. Effort self-talk benefits the mathematics performance of children with negative competence beliefs. Child Dev. 2020 Nov;91(6):2211-2220. doi:10.1111/cdev.13347 PMID:31845326

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