How awesome would it be if your child could become brave and confident by simply repeating “I am brave and confident”. But that’s not quite the way it works. Positive affirmations don’t work with kids, at least not in the way they work with adults.
A child who feels unworthy will not find his worth by repeating “I am worthy, I am worthy, I am worthy”, over and over again, and that makes perfect sense. Emile Coué, the founding father of the self-affirmation theory, was the first to point out that if your child’s deeply held beliefs are not in line with the declared affirmations, self-affirmations will fail.
Despite the doubts on the real effectiveness of positive self-affirmations, several studies have succeeded in linking these affirmations with increased creativity, self-compassion, confidence, problem-solving skills, wellbeing and even enhanced pro-social behaviors.
Unrealistic affirmations do not work, but this does not mean that you shouldn’t use self-affirmations with your kid. It simply means that you must tread carefully to adopt a positive affirmations strategy that works with kids. Here are three strategies that can help you use positive affirmations with your child in a way that actually works.
Help your child banish negative self-talk
Negative automatic thoughts such as “I’m no good”, “I’m worthless”, or “I’m a loser” are quite common among kids. These thoughts, which are often sparked by feelings of anxiety, frustration or fear, affect how your child sees herself.
Helping your child banish these thoughts is pivotal if you are to succeed in using self-affirmations. This means helping your child “feel good” and “see herself as lucky”. There are two easy ways to achieve this.
First, help your child adopt an attitude of gratitude. Practicing gratitude will change your child’s life. Every day, at a specific moment, ask each member of the family to say one thing for which they are grateful. Help your child see all the things for which she could be grateful.
Second, help your child develop a growth mindset. Carol Dweck, the founder of the growth mindset theory, has shown that a child with a growth mindset feels more able to tackle challenges. An easy way to foster the development of your child’s growth mindset is by focusing on her efforts rather than on her behavior, and helping her see situations as changeable:
- Next time I will try…
- I enjoy doing challenging stuff/challenging stuff works my brain
- Next time I will succeed
- I’ll try again
- The last time I succeeded in … so I know I can succeed in…
Make your child see himself as a successful person
Your child will not think of himself as a success by being told he is successful. He begins to see himself as a success when he sets and achieves goals. According to Martin Seligman, the founder of positive psychology, shielding your child from obstacles prevents him from developing his self-esteem. He suggests that instead of softening life’s blows, you should teach your child how to respond to those obstacles.
Lady Bird Johnson once said that “children are apt to live up to what you believe of them.” A child whose lack of effort is excused will learn that insufficient effort is enough, just like a child from whom better performance is expected will perform better, so long as the expectations are in line with what he is actually capable of.
Concretely, this means setting reasonable expectations that enable your child to succeed, then raising those expectations when he repeatedly succeeds. But this is not a question of academic tasks alone; it can also refer to the expectations you have at home, such as the household chores you expect your kid to do alone and succeed in.
Teach your child to adopt an attitude in line with the behavior you want
The reason why most attempts at using positive self-affirmations with kids fail is because those affirmation are not specific, realistic and explanatory. Young kids’ minds are yet to fully grasp what concepts such as “bravery”, “courage”, and “confidence” mean. What they need is to be taught what behaviors and attitudes are in line with those concepts.
Part of a well-known Chinese proverb says: “Be careful of your actions, because your actions become your habits.” This is an important lesson for your kid: her actions will have a direct impact on her behavior. Instead of focusing on positive affirmations, focus on the actions that lead to specific behavior. What does bravery look like? What do brave people do? What would your child need to do to act and feel brave? Working on one affirmation at a time will always get you better results.
The most important thing to remember is that when your child knows that there are people to whom she means the world, she will feel good about herself.