5 Ways to Help Children Silence Negative Self-Talk – Shrinking The ‘Critical Critter’

5 Ways to Help Children Silence Negative Self-Talk - Shrinking The 'Critical Critter'

Somewhere, inside us all, hides the CRITICAL CRITTER – a rather scary, hairy and un-fairylike creature. The Critical Critter is fed on a diet of negative self-talk and unkind, unsupportive words from others. Each time we chew on harsh and unjustified criticism, it’s like giving the critter another burger to munch on. 

And then, one day, we notice that the Critter has grown – and started throwing it’s weight around. In fact, the Big C is bossing everyone in the brain house; bullying them, even. You see, the Critter is making frequent visits upstairs to tell the thinking characters that they’re wasting their time. 

Not content with that, this dastardly doubter is also lurking downstairs and telling Fearsome Fred that he’s right to panic and flip the lid, because it’s all going to go wrong. And when it does, insists the Critter, Fearless Fred will be to blame because he’s useless. We. Are. Useless.

The Critter in Action

What else does the Critter do? Well, on sports day – aged 7 – our internal critic sits on the sidelines and bursts into fits of self-incriminating giggles when we trip over in the running race. 

Aged 16, it hides under the exam desk and repeatedly whispers ‘Hey thicko – you’re gonna fail at this!’ When it’s time to leave education and think about a career, the Critter starts a chorus of ‘You’ll never do it; you’re not going to make it; you’ll never amount to anything.’

In short, the CRITICAL CRITTER makes us feel rubbish about ourselves. It makes us give up when things get tough. It makes us feel sad and miserable. But we can fight back…

5 ways to shrink the Critter

If your Critter has grown bigger, scarier and hairier recently, it’s time to put it on a crash diet – here’s how:

1.  Give your Critter a name.

This may sound a bit daft, but separating your inner critic from yourself is a great way to give you the space you need to notice what it’s saying, quieten it down and tame it. Call it anything you want – just make it memorable.

2.  Take the Friends and Family Test. 

Whenever you notice your Critter speaking negatively, ask yourself: “Would I speak like this to my best friend or closest family member?” If the answer is “no”, then don’t allow it to speak to you that way – be your own best friend.

3.  Answer back.

You may have been told as a child that it’s rude to answer back – but this isn’t the case with Critters. You need to boss them about, just as they’ve been bossing you, to make them shrink. So when you hear Critter chanting ‘This’ll never work, you’ve always been useless at this’, answer back. Use these sentences and your Critter will be eating broccoli for a week!

•  “That’s enough out of you Critter – I’m doing my best.”

•  “I can’t hear you Critter, I’m too busy being amazing over here.”

•  “Maybe it didn’t work this time Critter, but I’m giving it another go.”

4.  Call for Back Up.

If the Critter is firing out harsh words when you’re working hard to try and master something or reach a goal, prove it wrong (and keep it quiet) by trying again. Maybe you’re doing a Couch to 5K running programme, trying your hand at knitting, or learning how to boil an egg – whatever it is, seek the advice and support of people who have done it before. If you surround yourself with those who say “You can” then it’ll be harder for your Critter to keep yelling at you to give up. And soon, it will stop shouting ‘You can’t’ and sit quietly in a corner chomping on an apple. 

5.  Strengthen yourself 

Being under attack from the Critter is tough and, for some people, can feel relentless. It can make us question ourselves, our parenting skills, our ability to do our job… everything; even whether we should get out of bed. To cope with this relentless criticism, it’s important that we find things about ourselves that we like. Each day, make time to notice the things – no matter how small they are – that went well BECAUSE OF YOU. And don’t be surprised if your Critter laughs with contempt at your first try at a list. Use the tips above to wipe the smile off its face – and put one back on your own.

[irp posts=”12520″ name=”5 Simple Ways to Build Resilience and Well-Being in Children (by Dr Hazel Harrison)”]


About the Author: Dr Hazel Harrison

hazel-1Dr Hazel Harrison works as a clinical psychologist in the United Kingdom. She founded ThinkAvellana to bring psychology out of the clinic and into everyday life. Her website is www.thinkavellana.com and you can also follow her on Twitter at @thinkavellana and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thinkavellana.

3 Comments

Catherine

This article is awesome. Thank you. I’m going to read it to my 5-year-old and 10- year-old…And maybe read it to myself again. We seem to be having a lot of trouble with our Critters lately.

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AMB

Really appreciated this and it’s come at a time when my six year old is often laden with self-doubt and tears because of a lack of confidence and occasional snipy comments from a ‘friend’. But armed with this help, she won’t be able to hear those comments, because she’ll be too busy being amazing to notice!

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Jonas Daniel

Such an inspirational post. Especially for the parents, sometimes parents are not aware that their children are suffering from negative self-talk. By your informative blog, they will come to know about various things that are very important for the parents to know about their children. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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Anxiety has a way of demanding ALL of the attention. It shifts the focus to what feels scary, or too big, or impossible, or what needs to be avoided, or what feels bad, or what our kiddos can’t do. As the grown ups who love them, we know they are capable of greatness, even if that greatness is made up of lots of tiny steps, (as great things tend to be).
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
⠀⠀
Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
.
But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.

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