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

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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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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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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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