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Empowering Teens Through Positive Self-Talk: A Guide for Parents and Youth Serving Professionals

Self-talk is the ongoing internal narrative that exists within our minds, and impacts how we see ourselves and the world around us. Negative self-talk can derail physical, mental, and emotional health – especially in adolescence. This article shares research around the impact of self-talk on youth, and provides examples of how adults can help young people can incorporate more positive self-talk into their life. 

What is Self-Talk?

Self-talk is our inner voice or internal chatter. It is the silent or vocalized dialogue we have with ourselves. 

Our inner voice combines conscious thoughts with unconscious beliefs and biases we hold about ourselves, and creates a running script. 

This chatter can range from being supportive, inspiring, and cheerful to negative, self-defeating, or outright mean. This dialogue, when positive, can be very helpful – it can decrease fear and bolster confidence. When it’s negative, it can be defeating, judgmental, or even harmful. 

Those internal beliefs and biases, whether positive or negative, influence emotion and behavior

What Science Says About Self-Talk:

Self-talk has been scientifically proven to improve cognitive performance, attention, and emotional regulation. Positive self-talk can influence positive psychological states. Negative self-talk can decrease emotional wellbeing.  Focusing on negative thoughts may lead to decreased motivation and feelings of helplessness. It negatively impacts one’s ability to recognize and seize opportunities for growth. 

Studies show that negative self-talk is related to increasing levels of affective distress in youth. Adolescents who experienced anxiety and depression had the highest levels of negative self-talk.

However, young people who have self-respect may be more confident than those who experience self-criticism. A 2019 study revealed that when students speak self-affirming statements before delivering a presentation, they experienced less performance anxiety than students who did not. 

Mayo Clinic experts say shifting negative thoughts to positive ones may lead to better physical and psychological well-being, lower levels of distress and depression, and improved coping skills during times of hardship. 

Five Ways Adults Can Help Adolescents Improve Their Self-Talk: 

1. Notice the voice.

  • Awareness is the gateway to change. Once the young person becomes aware of their internal chatter, they can tinker with it to benefit their wellbeing.

2. Catch the critic and interrogate it. 

  • When you notice an adolescent being self-critical, encourage them to interrupt the thought. Mayo Clinic gives a rule for self-talk: Don’t say anything to yourself that you wouldn’t say to anyone else. 
    • Help them understand that thoughts are not facts. The way they think and feel about themselves may not be accurate or grounded in reality. 
    • Fact-check the thoughts: What is actually true? What are the facts of the situation? What is grounded in reality?  The majority of negative self-talk is exaggeration. When they fact check the negativity, they mute its power. 

3. Label the feeling out loud.

  • Thoughts create emotions. Instead of focusing on the thought, ask the young person to identify how the thought is making them feel. 
  • Examples: 
  • “I can’t” – I am feeling insecure or unconfident. 
  • “It’s too hard” – I am feeling frustrated. 
  • “I’ll never be able to” – I am feeling defeated. 
  • “I always mess up” – I am feeling shame. 
  • “No one likes me” – I am feeling unlovable.

4. Shift the narrative.

  • If the young person struggles to shift from negative, have them try shifting to neutral first.
  • Adolescents can shift thoughts by changing the intensity of their language.
    • “I can’t do this” – This is challenging.
    • “I hate” – I don’t like, I don’t prefer. 
    • “I can’t” – I am struggling to.
  • Replace the negative thought with something neutral or positive.
    1. “It’s too complicated” – I’ll try it from another angle. 
    2. “I won’t get in” – I’ll take a chance and see where I land.
    3. “I’m can’t get better at this” – I am going to try again. 
    4. “I could never do that” – I am brave enough to take a chance and try something new.
    5. “I always fail or mess up” – I can learn from my mistakes.

5. Celebrate the wins with them. 

  • Affirm the young person’s strengths and celebrate their success, no matter how big or small.
  • Encourage the young person to treat themselves like they treat their best friend. Remind them that they deserve the kindness they give so freely to others.

Want to learn more about supporting these positive shifts in teens? Check out our accredited youth well-being and resilience coach training programs. 

Author: Cameron O’Brien, ACC

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