Lilly: MUM! I’m so ugly, no one is going to like me, I’m going to end up a lonely old lady with cats
Me: Lilly you’re gorgeous, you are not going to end up as a lonely old lady with cats
Lilly: I hate my body, I need a nose job, I need lip fillers! There’s so much wrong with me….
Do you see what I did wrong?
Negative self-talk happens when you replay upsetting or cringe-worthy thoughts or events over and over again in your head. According to psychologists: Constant negative self talk can make you more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and low self esteem.
Lilly’s negative self-talk led to all the above and more. There where days, months where she would not care about her appearance. Then there was the extreme where her appearance was all she cared about. When I heard Lilly say things like I’m a disappointment, I’m stupid, I hate my body, No one loves me, I hate myself, I just want to disappear. My first instinct was to shut her down quickly or to emphatically, try to convince her that that’s not true. I reacted in a way that many parents would initially react. But phycologists say that it isn’t the most helpful approach to try and contain your child’s feelings.
So what can we do when our child engages in really negative self-talk? How can we support their needs without feeding into their dysregulation?
Listen and Validate: Never brush off self-talk. Even when what your child is saying is not based on reality. Instead offer a safe place for your child to come with concerns and try to find out what is going on. Me jumping in, invalidated Lilly’s feelings and she closed up. Lilly: ‘You just don’t understand’, ‘I can’t talk to you’.
Offer a Realistic Approach: My first instinct was to jump in and battle Lilly’s self talk with overly optimistic positive thinking. Instead I should have told her that it's OK to feel how she's feeling. I needed to remind her that she wasn’t broken or wrong. This would have encouraged her to come to me with feelings of inadequacy in the future. I should have shown her that I understand the meaning behind her harsh words. I should have sat down with her and just listened.
Put it in context: Help your child identify what specifically upsetted them. What made them make such harsh critical statements about them self. Once I learnt to talk and listen to Lilly, she opened up, she was able to articulate why she was making these statements. 99% of the time it was something that she saw on social media. A beautiful model, friends enjoying their life, friends that were not struggling, confident people that she would never measure up to. It was a challenge trying to convince her that social media is not what it seems. Most people were hiding behind smoke and mirrors showing only 5 secs of their amazing life. No one saw the struggles, the tears, the fears, the heartache, and the hard work.
Model realistic and positive self- talk: Try to stop saying self-critical things about yourself. Do not worry out loud. Don‘t fixate on the mistakes you’ve made. And, let me tell you this is the hardest thing to do! How could I expect Lilly to have a positive image when I was constantly critical about myself. How could I expect Lilly to feel worthy when my self-worth was shattered. How could I expect Lilly to not be affected by social media when it affected me. I was constantly worrying about being a good mother, wife, sister, daughter in-law, daughter, and friend. Being excluded hurt. I was constantly in my head. I am still working on banishing my inner critic and learning how to have productive, positive inner conversations.
Seek Professional Help: I can’t stress this enough. Get a Therapist! A mother only wants the best for her child. But sometimes what we think is best ends up hurting our child more. Think of therapy as a mental and emotional check-up. If you had an infection you would see a doctor. So why hesitate to seek help when your child is hurting inside. Seeing a therapist can help pinpoint what is going on and how it can be treated. Lilly trusted her therapist. She was able to table issues, discuss things that she couldn’t discuss with me. She was able to confront her fears. Her therapist definitely had her back. I still refer to her as ‘Our Angel’.
Self-talk is important in many ways. It’s the script that we use to frame our lives. If we constantly give ourselves negative messages, then we begin to develop automatic thoughts that take us from a particular incident to a negative emotional reaction. Conversely, if we engage in positive self-talk, we begin to view the world in a more positive manner and will ultimately feel better about ourselves. We can’t always control what happens, but we can control how we react to it!