“I can’t believe I missed that goal. I suck at hockey.”

“I’m so fat. Nobody will ever like me.”

“I’m going to bomb my algebra test… and probably the whole semester.”

If you\’re the parent of a teenager, chances are, you hear more than your fair share of negative self-talk. All teens (and let’s face it: adults, too!) are moody, cranky, and self-critical sometimes. But while some negative self-talk is normal, studies show that if taken too far, it leads to higher levels of stress, depression, and anxiety in adolescents. It also affects their academic performance, social well-being, and long-term self-esteem.

Since negative self-talk can be a sign of more serious depression or anxiety, parents should pay attention. But for most teens, know that negative self-talk is a habit that can be changed. Parents can teach teens to become more aware of their self-talk and transform self-criticism into self-confidence. Here are our favorite tips for turning teens’ negative self-talk around:

Notice. Don’t judge. As they go about their daily lives, teens can learn to pay attention to how their inner voice interprets their experiences. The key is to just observe at first, without judging themselves or their thoughts. According to psychologist Mary Alvord, “the idea is not to squelch the negative thought. Research has found that attempted ‘thought stopping’ can actually make the idea stickier. Rather, you want your child to face the thought, thoroughly examine it and replace it with a more realistic and helpful perspective.”

Examine negative self-talk. Taking some time to self-reflect gives teens valuable information about what’s going on in their minds and emotions. Sometimes negative self-talk reveals an actual problem. Maybe they’re dealing with test anxiety, feeling insecure about a friendship, or struggling with a transition. If you hear your teen repeat the same self-talk several times, mention it: “I noticed you’ve been really hard on yourself lately when you’re talking about try-outs. Want to talk about it?” When teens understand the feelings underneath their self-talk, they are empowered to be proactive and find a real-world solution, like asking someone they trust for support.

Reframe negative self-talk. Once they understand where their negative self-talk is coming from, teens can use the following steps to reframe it:

  • Evaluate the evidence. Ask: What are the actual facts? What evidence do I have that my negative thought is true? Is there evidence that it is untrue? How does the evidence stack up?
  • Seek alternate explanations and perspectives. Ask: Is there another explanation for this situation? Would someone else look at this situation in a different way? Is there another way I could look at this situation?
  • Practice self-compassion: Ask: What would I say to a good friend in this situation? What would a good friend say to me? How would I think about this situation if I had my own best interests at heart?
  • Create an affirmation: Flip the negative self-talk into a positive affirmation by stating the opposite. “This is too hard for me” becomes “ I like challenges,” and “I really screwed up” becomes “I choose to learn from my mistakes and not let them limit me.” When teens are trapped in negativity, affirmations help them reprogram their thinking with a positive outlook.

Visualize their ideal outcome. When they’re focused on everything that could go wrong, ask your teen to imagine the best thing that could happen instead. Teach them to picture their ideal outcome and then feel the good feelings that wash over them. The combination of positive mental imagery and emotional engagement builds self-confidence and edges out negative thinking.

Practice goal-oriented thinking. Self-talk can help teens reach their goals or it can hold them back. Goal-oriented thinking means listening to self-talk and asking, “Is this way of thinking helping me achieve my goals?” If not, teens can reframe it to aim in the direction they want to go in. Having a big goal is motivating, and upgrading their self-talk is one of the steps teens can take to get closer to achieving it.

Turning negative self-talk around helps teens feel more confident, motivated, and optimistic. It helps them handle everyday stress in a more constructive way and supports mental and emotional well-being. By practicing these steps, teens learn that they have the power to shape their reality from the inside out, one positive thought at a time. 

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