By Allison Wedell Schumacher
Believe it or not, one of my proudest parenting moments happened in the middle of the night when I was lying in bed. My daughter, who was about four years old at the time, had gotten out of bed to use the bathroom, but instead of using the one right next to her room, she padded down the hall and through our bedroom to use ours (no idea why). The problem with that bathroom is that it has no windows, which makes it hard to find the light switch at night—particularly if said light switch is over your head. My daughter would often get frustrated and wake one of us up to help her turn on the light. But instead, on this particular night, I heard a little voice saying over and over, “I can do it. I can do it.” And sure enough, she did. I smiled to myself and rolled over to go back to sleep.
What my daughter was doing is something she had learned in her social-emotional skills program at school (and yes, from her dad and me, too) called positive self-talk. She basically convinced her own brain that she was capable of doing a task that she had yet to be successful at, and it worked. And although there’s plenty of research on how positive self-talk—also called affirmations or positive thinking—can help us with everything from professional sports to relationships, the research really only confirms what common sense has told us all along: We’re only as good as we think we are.
So how can you make positive self-talk work for your child? First, identify the problem. Is it that test coming up? A soccer game? Working up the courage to ask the teacher for help? The more specific, the better.
Next, make sure the self-talk focuses on what your child can actually control. “My teacher will give me an A” isn’t practical because your child can’t control how his teacher gives out grades. But he can control how hard he works and how well he prepares for a task, so “I’ll do my very best on the test” is a better choice.
The next step is to practice, and that’s where the word “talk” really comes into play. In order to help your child get into the habit of focusing her mind on these positive messages, have her say them out loud. It doesn’t have to be loud or boisterous—she can just mutter them under her breath if she wants—but encourage her to speak her affirmations whenever possible rather than just thinking them. It might help your child relax if you say them with her the first few times. If your child can read, consider putting the phrase on a sticky note where she’ll see it at least a couple of times a day—the bathroom mirror or her bedside table, for example.
Hopefully after a few days, positive self-talk will become a regular habit, and you and your child will start seeing the fruits of your labor. Whether it’s making a hole-in-one on the mini golf course or just flipping a simple bathroom light switch, you’ll find that positive self-talk helps immensely and has many more practical applications.
Allison Wedell Schumacher is a freelance writer, editor, and mom whose diverse work focuses on child abuse prevention, bullying prevention, social-emotional learning, fitness, and theater/acting. She is the author of Shaking Hands with Shakespeare: A Teenager’s Guide to Reading and Performing the Bard (Simon and Schuster, 2004), and her work has been featured here and at babycenter.com, MomsRising.org, and Committee for Children. You can find her on LinkedIn.
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