During this difficult time, it is uncertain what next year looks like, or what tomorrow might bring. When presented with such uncertainty, it is natural for people to feel big feelings, particularly anxiety. In the midst of the global pandemic, we are seeing kids and teens express more concerns around mental health, particular things like negative thoughts, a decrease in self-esteem, and more self-doubt than ever before. Concerns are bubbling up about uncertain back to school schedules, interrupted social schedules, and the loss of traditions and routines. Despite the uncertainty and negative thinking, we know that kids and young adults are resilient. We know they can persevere through challenges and that those challenges make them stronger and more powerful when the next obstacle is thrown their way.
One tool that aids in building resilience is positive self-talk. Positive self-talk is a coping skill that helps to elevate positive thinking and develop self-esteem. It is an essential tool in social-emotional learning, and it has been shown to increase positivity and help people to gain more self-confidence. Teaching children the power of positive self-talk early is a great way to build resilience for any challenge and can help in building confidence. When using positive self-talk, we are training the brain, through repetition, to frame situations in terms of existing strengths and advantages, opportunities for improvement, and reasons for hope.
An example of a child engaging in negative self-talk may be when a child says, “I am just so stupid!” or “I can’t do this!”. The child, at this moment, is expressing frustration, anxiety, and self-doubt. When using positive self-talk, we encourage kids to flip that thought. We teach kids that while it is okay to have a negative thought and to have negative things happen, we can move forward in a way that is positive and productive. To do this, it is helpful to teach kids positive-self talk statements or positive affirmations. These include statements like “I can do this!” or “I believe in myself!”. These positive statements allow the brain to take a pause in the current flood of negative emotions and thoughts, and attempt to switch gears to a more positive thought space.
Along with positive affirmation, a growth mindset is another effective strategy for shifting from using negative-self talk to positive self-talk. A growth mindset focuses not on just shifting negative thoughts to positive thoughts, it helps put the child or teen in a position of being a learner and providing space to see improvement. For example, if a child were to say “I am not good at writing!”, a great way to shift thinking and use a growth mindset phrase is to say things like, “I am not good at writing, yet!” or “I am new at this and it is okay to make mistakes.” This simple reframe helps to create a positive attitude and overtime build self-esteem.
Teaching kids and teens positive affirmations can feel silly and unnatural at first. Cheering yourself on may seem strange, particularly when presenting this to teens or young adults. A great way to keep this fun and to increase buy-in is to joke and laugh a little about being a cheerleader for yourself. Learning a new coping skill is difficult and should feel awkward at first. This means that the brain is working hard to learn something new and increasing its problem-solving skills.
Practice is the most important and the best way to instill positive self-talk and affirmations for kids into everyday life. Learning coping skills is like learning how to ride a bike or play an instrument, it requires hard work and consistency.
In order to remember to use positive-self talk regularly, it can be helpful to have a visual reminder of some sort. This can be in the form of a growth mindset poster that states things like, “I can do hard things!” or “I am a problem solver” over a workspace or commonly viewed place in the house. It can also be more subtle, in the form of small cards that can be put in a child’s pocket, lunch box, or in their desk (feel free to use our printable positive self-talk cards here). A way to make this process even more meaningful and helpful can be for kids and teens to write or draw their positive-self talk phrases and affirmations themselves. This helps to boost creativity and encourages children to develop insights l into what works best for them.
Along with visuals, modeling is a key component to developing positive thinking skills to manage big feelings. In a moment of increased anxiety, frustration, or self-doubt, showing a child what they can do through modeling a positive self-talk statement can be a great way to increase understanding and use of coping skills. For example, sharing with a child, “I am really anxious about a big presentation I have at work tomorrow. I know I can do it. I am prepared and a strong leader.” can be a great way to model positive self-talk in the moment. This allows the child or teen to see positive self-talk used in a real-life scenario and to continue to practice in the same manner when they are presented with a challenging situation in the future.
Whatever the next few weeks or months bring, equipping children and young adults with skills like positive self-talk and growth mindset are ways to ensure resilience and growth for any obstacle that comes their way.