Our thoughts are powerful. How we think about and talk to ourselves can either help or hurt us. In difficult times, we want to talk to ourselves like we are our own cheer squad! If we say things like, “I can’t do this” or “why is this happening to me?”, we are likely to believe that there’s nothing we can do. When this happens, we might get more upset and give up. Instead, we can use helper words to cheer ourselves on and help ourselves feel like we can figure it out, or ask someone for help. This is a big part of being able to bounce back from difficulties and be more resilient.
We can help our children learn positive self-talk from a young age, and it’s a skill they can use throughout their lives.
Start by talking to your child about why it might be important to try new (and often hard) things. Try talking about ideas like:
- “Did you know that learning and trying new things grows your brain? Can you think of ways to help your brain grow?”
- “Do successful people only do easy things they know they can do without barely trying? Or do successful people try difficult things because they know that the best way to grow their brain is to try things that are hard, and learn from mistakes to get better next time?”
- “What could happen if we don’t try new things or things that are challenging? Would we stop learning new things and getting better at things?” (Maybe use an example from your child’s life: what would happen if she didn’t practice soccer, basketball, music, art, or math, would she get better? Probably not.)
Next, talk to your child about how the words that we say to ourselves when we do things that are new or hard can make a big difference. When we talk to ourselves in ways that are not helpful, we are more likely to give up and feel frustrated and bad. But when we talk to ourselves like our own cheer squad, it will actually help us to keep trying when things are hard. And when things don’t go our way, we can learn from our mistakes or ask for help. Try talking about:
- “What is the worst that could happen if we try things we aren’t very good at? Maybe we won’t be able to do the new thing at first. How would this feel?”
- “Has this ever happened to you? Can you remember what you say in your head when things are hard or you make a mistake?” (It is ok if your child cannot remember!!)
- “If we heard someone saying things like, “you can’t do this” or “you are bad at this and should give up” or “you should feel bad about this and stop trying” do you think we would keep trying this new thing? Probably not! Sometimes, this is exactly what we tell ourselves in our heads when we are frustrated or we feel like we are not getting it right.”
- “When we talk to ourselves like this, do you think we will keep trying harder, or try again, or ask for help? No way. But if we talk to ourselves with helper words, we can actually help ourselves to keep trying, or find another way, or ask for help. And when we do that, guess what? We will keep getting better, and learning new things, and we will help our brains get stronger and happier!”
Talk about some helper words your child can use when he is feeling frustrated or like giving up. We can use the way we talk in our head to remind ourselves that we can do something, or that we might not be able to yet, but we can get better. Here are some ideas for helper words, but feel free to come up with your own!
- I just haven’t learned/practiced enough YET. I will keep trying even when it’s hard.
- I am flexible and I can handle this.
- When I feel frustrated I breathe deep and find another way.
- I’ll keep trying. I will feel good when I’m done.
- Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I can try again or ask for help.
- I am a stick to it kid. Even when things are hard, I stick to it and get better.
- Mistakes don’t get me down. Success is trying hard things and learning from mistakes.
- Making mistakes is not the worst thing. The worst thing is never trying!
One easy and helpful way for children to learn new skills is for adults to demonstrate the skill and encourage them to participate in problem solving. Try using a stuffed animal to put on a play or show for your kid. Make up a story about the stuffed animal getting frustrated, or failing at something new, and saying not helpful things to itself.***
Talk to your child about whether he noticed what the stuffed animal said when things were hard, and how it made the animal feel. Did it keep trying, or ask for help, or did it feel bad and give up? Ask your child to help the stuffed animal by suggesting some helper words to use.
Then put on the play again and show what happens when the stuffed animal uses helper words to keep trying, learn from its mistake, or ask for help. When we can help kids practice new skills through helping others, they are more likely to use skills for themselves.
(***It’s helpful to use situations you think your child has experienced, or may experience in the near future, that call for using positive self-talk. It is fine to use situations you know your child struggles with, however this is not meant to embarrass or shame her, and it is not necessary to directly relate the stuffed animal’s experience to your child’s; children are good at generalizing other’s experiences to their own.)
Using helpful self-talk when life gives you challenges is a skill most of us can probably work on using more often. Don’t forget that modeling skills for your children is a powerful teaching tool! We would love to hear your ideas for helper words if you come up with your own.
Inspired by http://lynnenamka.com/resilience.pdf definition of Helper Words.
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