“I can’t do it!”
“Sure you can, honey; you’re great at this.”
“I’m so dumb.”
“No, you’re not. You’re one of the smartest kids in your class, your teacher even told me so.”
Have you ever wondered, “Why does my child think this? Where did they get that from? Why are they giving up so quickly?”
Kids are not born with those beliefs. In fact, the opposite is true. Have you ever watched a baby learn to walk? It's really hard. First, the baby needs to pull themselves up. Then they need to learn how to balance on two feet. They fall again and again and again but you'll never see them give up. They always get back up until, eventually, they learn to walk.
Babies learn new things by observing the world around them. They are purely emotional beings. That means that every time someone smiles at them or claps for them, they feel good. That good feeling propels them forward. Children come into this world naturally wired to succeed, even if the task at hand is challenging.
As a child matures, so does their ability to reason. However, there is one thing that does not change. Children continue to learn through observation, but, unlike a baby who learns through just observation and feeling, children learn through observation, thought, and feeling.
It goes without saying that a child who grows up in a critical home will develop both a negative outlook and bad feelings. But what about children who are constantly supported? How do they develop a negative view of themselves? Why is it that when faced with challenging situation they give up so easily, or become emotionally deregulated?
Children model what they see and hear. They develop perceptions about themselves and their capabilities. It is those perceptions that shapes a child's reality.
There is no greater role model than a parent. Most parents are invested in supporting their children, but they may not be as invested in supporting themselves. Parents who struggle with negative feelings and beliefs about themselves unintentionally impart powerful messages to their children.
A parent who is puts themselves down is in effect modeling how a child should relate to their own selves in a much more powerful way then all the positive statements the parent says to the child. If the child sees a parent being overly critical of themselves, that child will learn to be overly self-critical as well. A parent who worries, even if they hide what they are worrying about, is sending the message to their child that there is what to fear. These messages will then get generalized to how your child relates to themselves and the world.
We invest everything in our children, so much so, that we forget to invest in ourselves. Just like a parent traveling with a child on an airplane must put the oxygen mask on their face first and then their child's if the cabin pressure were to drop, a parent needs to make sure that they are emotionally okay so that they can properly care for those around them.
Examine the way you think.
How do you perceive yourself and your abilities?
Are you critical of yourself?
Do you often hold yourself to incredibly high standards, only to fall short of meeting your own expectations?
Do you worry a lot?
Do you give up when something seems impossible?
Do you use negative language to describe your experiences?
Focus on ways to change the negative perceptions that you have. If you challenge your overly critical and self-defeating thoughts, your child will begin to do the same. When your child sees you developing a positive, optimistic view of yourself and the world your child will follow suit. The earlier you start, the greater the chance of preventing your children from developing a negative perception of themselves and their world.
How can a parent help their child? Set a good example. Highlight difficult tasks, overwhelming situations, and mistakes and be sure to model positive, self-motivating thinking.
You can say something like "There is so much to do, I'll just take it one step at a time and do the best I can." or " This is really challenging, but if I keep trying I'll get it." Then show them how it's done. You may fail, and a different course of action may be warranted. That's okay. What's most important is that your child witnessed a can-do attitude.
If you find it too difficult to identify and challenge self-defeating mindsets and negative feelings, then outside intervention may be warranted. Parents are far quicker to put their children in therapy then themselves, but that is oftentimes a much less effective approach. A child may need therapy to help them with strong negative emotions or disruptive behavior, but by getting help for yourself, you may be able to drastically cut back on how much help your child needs. Plus, you will be much better equipped to help your child successfully navigate their emotional struggles.
Your child may have to fall and get up again and again—but, with a positive mindset modeled for them, they won’t give up. They won't believe themselves to be incapable or worse a failure. They will persist until they eventually succeed.
With a negative mindset, a baby would see everyone else walking around and the narrative would be, "If everyone else can do it and I keep falling there must be something wrong with me. I'll never be able to walk." That baby would give up and never learn to walk. A person with a positive perspective would say, "If everyone else can do it so can I."
Fortunately, babies naturally have a positive perspective. Look at how much they learn and accomplish in the first two years of life!
With curiosity, joy, and pride in every baby step, they keep trying until they get it.
Rachel Rosenholtz, LCSW-R is a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice located in Cedarhurst, NY. Rachel treats adults, adolescents, children, families and provides parent coaching. She can be reached at 347-673-1953 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit investintherapy.com to learn more.