Yes I Can! Coaching Your Child to Counter Self-Defeating Thinking

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Encourage your child in new ways to neutralize confrontation and doubt.

During a recent basketball season I coached a very capable 13-year old basketball player named John. He had a good natural shot, worked hard and could rebound quite well. But for all his obvious basketball skills, he also carried with him a painful, distorted view of himself as a player.

If he missed a shot, lost the ball or made a foul he would berate and chastise himself. When he would come out of the game he would hang his head and complain about how bad he had done.

Out of self-interest (the whining was hard to handle) and hating to see anyone live with such amazing distortion, I began a conscious effort to counter his perceptions. If he told me how bad he was doing, I would take him aside and give him evidence of how he was one of the best players on the team.

If he berated himself for missing a shot, I reminded him that Michael Jordan routinely missed half of his shots. If he yelled at himself for losing the ball, I would remind him that losing the ball sometimes is part of basketball.

John didn’t change his life in one basketball season, but he did, ever so slowly, begin to gain some healthier perceptions of himself. The self-berating began to disappear (if for no other reason than he didn’t want to hear me anymore), and the smiles began to peek through when his eyes would catch mine after a good play.

This experience reminded me once again that a great deal of our children’s everyday resilience and happiness is dependent on how they perceive themselves and how they explain to themselves the events of life — whether they have optimistic or pessimistic explanatory styles.

As Dr. Martin Seligman, renowned specialist in the study of optimism, points out, optimism isn’t so much positive thinking as the power of “non-negative” thinking, or the ability to counter the self-defeating words or images that sometimes come to us.

Research suggests that children learn a fair amount of their explanatory styles from their primary caregivers: the explanatory styles caregivers model, how the children are criticized and how caregivers help them to gain perspective when things go bad. Here are four ways we can help our children develop the ability to counter self-defeating thinking:

1. Verbally model “non-negative” ways to look at unpleasant events.

If we deal with unpleasant life events with the type of language that says “it’s going to last forever,” “it’s going to ruin everything,” “it’s all my (your) fault,” “it’s hopeless” and so forth, we’re passing pessimism on to our children.

On the other hand, if we respond to unpleasant events with phrases like, “it’s not so bad,” “we’ll get over it,” “everyone makes mistakes,” “let’s sit down and figure out a solution” and “this is a normal part of life,” we’re giving our children attitudinal gifts that can contribute to their long-term resilience and happiness.

2. Reduce criticism.

For the sake of our children’s self-regard, we need to reduce our criticism and increase our compliments. When we do need to legitimately correct our children, it’s better to simply tell them what we want (“I want you to …,” “Please don’t …, “Stop doing …”), than to use guilt-laden questions, labels or insults (“How could you do that?” “What’s your problem?” “You should know better”).

On those occasions when we do need to be firm and forceful, better to tell them what we want with a few sharp words and follow through on some consequences, than to go on and on with guilt-inducing nagging and no follow through on consequences.

3. Teach them some simple tools to deal with self-defeating thoughts.

We can also consciously teach our children a few tools to use on their own when they need to deal with helpless, pessimistic thinking. It’s especially helpful to sit down and role play some examples with them. Here are a few tools to consider:

The But Twist

The But Twist is an internal verbal technique that kids can use to respond to helpless “I can’t” thoughts like: “It’s too hard,” “I don’t feel like it,” “I just can’t do it” or “I feel lazy.” Instead of letting such helpless thoughts win the day, the child adds a “but” at the end of such thoughts and provides a reason for taking the desired action anyway.

For example, if a child has a chore to do and a thought comes to him like, “I just don’t feel like it,” the But Twist response might be “But the sooner I do it, the quicker it’ll be over” or “But it won’t kill me.” If overwhelming whininess has taken over their thoughts, we can also help them with a tough love version of the But Twist by giving them choices.

We can tell them “You can either mow the lawn, or mow the lawn and also weed the garden.” This provides them with a ready-made But Twist: “I don’t want to mow the lawn, but it’s better than also having to weed the garden.”


Solution Time

Sometimes helpless, pessimistic thoughts are triggered by real-life problems. Solution Time is a time-out from helplessness and a time-in to creative problem solving, which can done whenever children are unwilling or unable to deal with a problem. The basic steps to Solution Time are to sit down together and

  1. figure out what really needs to be accomplished
  2. generate solution options
  3. weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each option
  4. select an option and implement it.

Thought Chop

Thought Chops are phrases that children can use to provide a counter punch to unreasonable, exaggerated, negative thoughts that bring them unhappiness.

Teaching our children Thought Chops can help them to build up internal phrasing they can use when unpleasant events occur. Internal Thought Chops like “These things happen,” “Some people like you and some don’t,” “I just had a bad day” or “I’ll try better next time” can allow children to build up the resilience they need to deal with life’s setbacks.

4. Help them gain some perspective by listening and talking things through.

As adults we find that family, friends or counselors can help give us perspective when we go through hard times, and we can play this same role for our children. Often, children simply need our undivided listening and empathy when they are going through bad times. Sometimes they also need help in countering their self-defeating beliefs and thinking.

Kids can latch onto unhealthy, harsh core beliefs about themselves (“I’m stupid”) or the world (“the world is mean”). We can uncover such beliefs by gently probing children with simple questions when they experience hard times.

Some of my favorite questions in uncovering self-defeating beliefs and thinking habits are “What’s the worst that could happen if that were true?” or “What would it mean if that were true?” I keep asking these questions until I get to the core beliefs behind the child’s thoughts and feelings. Once I get to these beliefs I can give the child evidence, examples, logic and new Thought Chops to help them gain perspective. My favorite question in challenging self-defeating beliefs is “Who made that rule?”

As parents we have a wonderful opportunity to help our children develop beliefs and thinking habits that can help them to be happy and beneficial adults. Next to love, this is the most important legacy we can give them.

Scott Cooper is the father of three children and author of Sticks and Stones: 7 Ways Your Child Can Deal With Teasing and Conflict (Times Books).

I Give Up!

All children, at some point, want to give up when things become difficult. Giving up can become a problem when the child refuses to do things for fear of failure.

Why Kids Give Up

  • An overemphasis on performance instead of effort. If a child thinks that winning, being the best or getting A’s is all it’s about, then he will feel ashamed if he is not able to deliver.
  • Negative thoughts. If a child gives up quickly or refuses to try something, he may expect failure.

How to Help

  • Don’t leave. Leaving doesn’t promote learning. When a child quits an activity due to fear, he will not learn to succeed at that activity.
  • Examine expectations. Make sure you do not expect more than your child can realistically deliver.
  • Emphasize effort and perseverance instead of performance.
  • Ask why. Gently examine the “failed” experience with your child to see why the desired outcome did not occur. Identify together the reasons and see if they are within or outside of his control. Help him realize he is not powerless and can work to create a more positive experience next time.
  • Help generate positive thoughts. If your child approaches a task believing he will fail, failure is usually right behind. To combat this, help him develop a set of thoughts that will promote a positive attitude and perserverance.
  • Practice. If your child has not developed his skills at something, of course it is intimidating to be involved in the activity with skilled peers. Practice in a safe setting, where he can develop skills at his own pace.

From The Parent Survival Guide (Zondervan Publishing House) by Dr. Todd Cartmell.

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