Credit: Pixabay

The power of self-talk: How kids learn to become their own worst critic

Childhood is when your inner voice develops into your best friend – or worst enemy. Life coach Charlotte Hinksman shares the lessons she’s learned about positive communication, and how it has changed the way she talks to her child.

My two-year-old has been doing something rather unpleasant lately: she’s started telling people off. It’s mostly me and her daddy, but sometimes other children. She’s joking, but to be on the receiving end of a telling off from her isn’t nice.

It goes like this: “Blahblahblahblahblah [indiscernible dialogue in a shouty indignant voice, for about 30-60 seconds] blahblahblah Okay? OKAAAAAAAAY?!” I really wish you could hear that last drawn out and aggressive “OKAAAAY?!” at the end. It’s really quite something.

Sure, she is a fiery wee pup, but she’s also mostly a sweet girl who charms people wherever she goes. She has a tiny, angelic face and she really does have a curl right in the middle of her forehead. She has a mop of blonde hair that looks like it’s been highlighted. She’s very cute, and does and says very caring things. She asks “You OK mummy?” while giving me a little pat on the back. It is a somewhat curious juxtaposition with this new taste for telling off.

I decided she must have picked it up from someone. But who? She spends most of her time with me and I know I don’t shout like that. I certainly don’t use that horrible inflection at the end of my sentences. Who the hell could she have picked it up from?

Then, in the car park of Pak n Save, she did that thing that I’ve asked her not to do a thousand times. That thing where she lets go of my hand and runs off. It scares the shit out of me for obvious reasons. Coupled with my fear is also my anger: she knows better than this. Our subsequent conversation went something like this:

Me: Hey, you know not to run off in car parks. That really scared mummy!

Her: [eyes looking somewhere above the top of my head]

Me: You know you must hold my hand when we’re near cars!

Her: [eyes looking off to the right as she starts humming a little tune to herself.]

Me: What do I say about cars? You must hold my hand, okay?  OKAAAAAAY?!

Ugh. So that’s where she’s been getting it from. That’s one harsh penny dropping right there.

Credit: Pixabay

I don’t know about you, but I find hearing my own shitty communication mirrored right back at me through my angelic two year-old’s mouth particularly hard to swallow. I feel not just ashamed but also incredulous at how oblivious I was to it. I literally spent two weeks trying to work out who she’d modelled her behaviour from and I had ruled myself out almost instantly. I’m a conscious parent for God’s sake! I care about this stuff! I read parenting advice on communication! WTF?

The other particularly horrible thing is that I’ve had a successful career as a life coach for the last 12 years; I get paid to help people be happy. And there’s one major thing that makes all the difference to how happy someone is and it’s not about earning the highest income. It is our inner dialogue.

If you’re a human being with a cerebral cortex (which you are if you’re reading this) then you’ve developed the ability to talk to yourself, in your primary language, inside your own head.

You weren’t born with this ability. When you become a toddler, you start learning how to speak a language. You might start with ‘mama’ and ‘dada’ and then slowly progress to saying things like ‘duck’ and ‘fly’. Soon enough, you’re talking in full-blown sentences. As you keep growing and developing, those sounds that you make out of your mouth will begin to be made inside your own head, where only you will hear it.

This inner dialogue eventually develops into your Inner Critic. You know, that little voice that beats you up, and says really unhelpful things to you like: Who do you think you are applying for that job? You suck at your job.  You’re a crap parent. You’re a lazy parent. You really screwed up today. It’s your fault your partner left you. I can’t believe you buggered that up again – idiot. Don’t be silly, why would they like you?

In summary, there are two main categories of feedback being played inside your head: Who do you think you are? And: You’re not good enough. If you pay attention to your Inner Critic for a while you will see this for yourself.

You can see how treating yourself this way has an erosive impact on your wellbeing and happiness and holds you back. Our aim in coaching is to transform the Inner Critic to Inner Coach. The Inner Coach is far from Pollyanna positive. We don’t want you going around giving yourself high-fives for making a sandwich, or looking in the mirror saying, “yeah, you shouted at your child – AWESOME!’ We want you to have a reasonable voice in there, a logical one, a kind one. You want to help yourself manage your life, make good decisions, and recover from adversity, be resilient. You want to learn from your mistakes and encourage yourself to grow. You want a reasonable, logical, truth-telling voice that helps you learn. You want to say: ‘Charlotte, that wasn’t your best parenting moment. I know you can make improvements.Why don’t we do it this other way tomorrow…?’

The question that everybody asks is why? Why does it evolve to become your inner critic, rather than your inner coach? Why does it evolve to be negative and not positive?

From my own experience and my work with clients, I subscribe mostly to theory that we model language from those around us and unfortunately some of those people weren’t or aren’t always kind. We learn to talk to ourselves in the same way we are talked to and around.

This last point means that we all do what my daughter did: we talk the way we got talked to. Our brains can’t help it – we have to learn language by modelling as there is no other way to do it. That same language eventually gets used to communicate to ourselves inside our head.

This means that way you talk to and around your children will become their inner dialogue.

It doesn’t sound like the best news, does it? What are we supposed to do as parents, be conscious of every sentence that comes out of our mouths? Tie ourselves up in knots worrying that every little word we say is going to get sucked into our child’s brains and ultimately screw them up? Aren’t we adding yet another item to the list of things to feel guilty about? Isn’t it bad enough that we don’t have time to make organic hummus, now we have to take this on as well? Nice one, Charlotte.

Look, I’m the last person who wants to give fodder to the Shitty Guilt Fairy who we all know follows us around from the minute we give birth to the minute we draw our last breath. So although this may seem like bad news, there’s some really good news I’d like to leave you with:

Feeling bad or beating yourself up about all the times you’ve talked to your child in a less than positive manner is your Inner Critic. Realise then that this works both ways: just as your child’s inner critic wasn’t created by them, your inner critic wasn’t created by you either. You inherited it from your caregivers/big brothers/teachers/bullies. And they inherited it from their caregivers/big brothers/teachers/bullies. And so on up the generations we go.

There’s freedom to be found in realising that the Inner Critic isn’t actually yours.

Credit: Pixabay

Our Inner Critic development doesn’t always mean that our parents were critical of us. It can be the case that they were simply critical of themselves.

Being aware of all of this means that you can break the cycle! And not just for yourself, but for your child too. This can stop with you! It’s like a two-way street to happiness and wellbeing: whatever kind of internal dialogue you hope your child will have, YOU have to develop that for yourself too. Both on the outside and the inside.  Whatever messages you want them to understand about themselves, you have to demonstrate these messages about yourself.

Being careful about how to communicate to and around your child is hard work. It’s the speedy recovery from our ‘mistakes’ that makes all the difference. How will we go about righting a wrong? Now that’s something worth modelling to a child.

You know what else my daughter has started doing lately? Apologising. She now does it completely of her own volition, without any prompting. She says “Mummy I sorry….. you OK?” and I like to think she’s modelled this from me, at least in part. From all those times I’ve said to her earnestly and seriously: “Mummy lost her temper and she shouted at you, and it upset you. That wasn’t very nice or very kind, and I’m sorry. I’m really sorry.  Okay?”

Charlotte Hinksman is a mum of one, a wife, a coach, a writer and a friend. You can find more at www.charlottehinksman.com.

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