Let’s talk about building self-compassion, confidence, and healthy self talk all by encouraging eavesdropping. Stick with me.
The way we talk to ourselves is so important. The voice in your head is ever present and should be a priority in children’s development. Having self talk that is characterized by confidence (being certain, knowing your worth) and self-compassion (being kind and understanding when we fail) is a goal that we can achieve by taking lots of small steps.
We talk a lot about how to communicate and respond directly to children and adolescents in my office. What to do when they are upset, when they’re scared, when they’re struggling to cooperate. What tone to use, body language, and even the specific words to say.
But, there’s another time that’s important to think about how we communicate with them too: when you think your children are not listening. I’m not talking about not cooperating here, I’m talking about what they “accidentally” overhear.
It’s no secret that children and adolescents are always listening, especially when you wish they weren’t. So, let’s use this to our advantage. Let them overhear. How you talk about them. How you talk about yourself.
Telling your child that you’re proud of them for working so hard in school is great, and letting them overhear you telling your partner or friend that you’re proud of them is even better. It just hits differently.
Here’s something else they overhear: when parents make mistakes.
There are a few things that work together to create your children’s inner dialogue or self talk. One of them is how you talk to, and about, your child. Another, is how you talk to yourself.
You make a mistake - you burn toast, spill coffee, miss your turn, forget to do something - what do you say to yourself? And, what gets modeled to your child? We’ve all been there and let’s be honest, sometimes we’re not too kind to ourselves. It might sound something like this:
“That was stupid.”
“Ugh, I’m so stupid.”
“I can’t believe I did that. I’m the worst.”
But remember, your children hear this too. And you want to know who else makes mistakes? Your child (and well, everyone).
Children and adolescents are always trying to figure out the world. Always. If you’re stupid for making a mistake, then, are they stupid for making a mistake, too? Of course not, but that does seem like a logical conclusion for a little one (or even a not so little one).
What to try instead?
“I spilled some coffee. I need to clean it up.”
“I forgot to do that. Next time, I need to write it down.”
Go ahead and express frustration (without calling yourself stupid, or something else equally inaccurate or unkind). And then model some self-compassionate coping. Modeling, learning through imitation, is one of the very best teachers. If you know your child gets really upset when they make a mistake, try getting really upset when you make a mistake and then work though it in front of them. Just make sure you’re able to work all the way through it to model the really good stuff at the end (the part where you say “it’s okay to make mistakes, I can clean up the mess.”). Maybe it sounds like this, “Oh no! I spilled the coffee. What a mess. Ugh, such a mess. That’s frustrating. It’s okay. It’s okay to make mistakes, I can clean up the mess.”
When you’re finished, just move on - don’t ask if they heard you (they definitely did), or if that’s something they could try (because you know it is), just move on and play it cool.
You’ve just modeled so many good things (you’re human, it’s okay to make mistakes, normative emotional expression, self-compassion, fixing a mess you’ve made) and the best part is your children probably aren’t aware they’re learning some great things from you.
If you want your child to be able to have healthy self-talk, you need to be able to model it yourself. In addition to raising a child who can have compassion for themselves, isn’t that something that all the parents need, too? A little more self-compassion. Really everyone wins, except for that spilled cup of coffee.