Anxious children and teens tend to see the world as a more hostile place than other kids do. They also tend to view themselves in a more negative light, plagued by worry, self-doubt, and fear of criticism. Research shows that practicing positive self-talk — encouraging words we speak to ourselves, silently — can help rewire the brain to think more positively and improve self-esteem. One study showed that positive self-talk practiced over the course of a school year had the potential to change perspectives, attitudes, and reactions in regard to self, to others and to circumstances for children as young as first grade.
If your child struggles with anxiety-related issues, here are some tips to help them integrate more positivity into their life, with positive self-talk examples to get them started.
Tip #1: Learn to Identify Thoughts
Before your child can learn how to integrate positive self-talk into their life, they must first become aware of the types of thoughts that can arise under a variety of circumstances. When your child is feeling anxious, ask probing questions to help them match words with their feelings. Negative self-talk for your child might include phrases like “I will fail the test” or “Nobody likes me.” Help them find positive alternatives to these phrases, with examples such as “I am prepared for the test” or “I am friendly and likable,” so they can see how a negative (unhelpful) phrase can be turned into a positive (helpful) one. Other examples of positive self-talk for anxious kids might include:
● I did my best.
● Everybody gets scared.
● I have learned new things before, so I can do it again.
● Fear is only a feeling.
● Mistakes help me learn and grow.
● Every day is a fresh start.
● I am enough.
Tip #2: Explain How Thoughts Affect Feelings
Now that your child understands the difference between positive and negative thoughts, show them how thinking a negative thought can make them feel a certain way (instead of how feeling a certain way can provoke a negative thought). As an example, ask what they might feel if they thought that a ride at a theme park looked fun. They might answer that they would feel happy going on the ride. Now ask how they would feel if they thought the ride was dangerous or might make them sick. They might answer that they would feel scared going on the ride.
Tip #3: Make a List of Positive Statements
As your child develops a better understanding of positive thoughts and why they can make them feel better, encourage them to make a list. As they record them, they may think of new ones, and the practice of writing them down will help them to remember these thoughts. Encourage them to keep the list handy, to refer to when they feel anxious or worried.
Tip #4: Offer Genuine Compliments
As parents, we may try to overcompensate for our children and shower them with praise, even when they haven’t done anything exceptional. But if your child starts to pick up on the fact that your praise is less than fully genuine, they may just end up feeling pitied. Resist the urge to give superficial or broad praise and opt for specific compliments instead. If your child was nervous about performing in a school play but went on stage anyway, only to stumble through their lines or say nothing at all, praise their bravery rather than their Tony Award-winning performance. This will help them to see the value of their courage as something to be proud of, even if they feel ashamed about what happened during the play.
Tip #5: Use Mindfulness
Practicing mindfulness techniques such as meditation and yoga can help your child or teen become more aware of their thoughts, and quiet their mind by tuning in to the present moment. This will help calm and relax them, a good starting point for identifying thoughts instead of being engulfed by them. The aim here is not to repress your child’s thoughts and feelings but to create distance from them. Practicing mindfulness will strengthen your child’s relationship to positive self-talk, which might then boost self-esteem and improve their quality of life.
Erica Garza is an author and essayist from Los Angeles. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and a certificate in Narrative Therapy. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health, and VICE.