How to Teach Your Kids about Positive Self-Talk

How they can motivate themselves when the going gets tough.

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on August 13, 2013
4 min read

Kids face new experiences all the time. Making changes, like trying something new or starting healthy habits, can test even the most seasoned grown-ups. So how do you teach kids to motivate themselves in the face of a challenge?

That's where the power of positive self-talk comes in. Whether you’re trying to get your child to try a new sport so they can be more physically active or remind yourself that you can make healthy food choices, positive self-talk can give your family the motivation you need to succeed.

It can build your family’s confidence that you can indeed make healthy changes. If you teach your kids about positive-self talk and how to do it, it can give them the ability to change feelings of “I can’t” to “Yes, I can.”

Positive self-talk is a way people can encourage themselves. Tell your kids that lots of professional athletes use it to keep themselves motivated, confident, and focused on their goals and what they want to achieve. It helps them succeed. For example:

  • NFL quarterback Tom Brady has been known to say: “Try the best you can.”
  • Beach volleyball Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings says: “Breathe, believe, battle.”

You kids may feel better to learn that everyone has doubts – and even pro athletes have setbacks. Positive self-talk can help them keep going. World-class skier Lindsey Vonn says: “When you fall down, just get up again.”

Let kids know that using positive-self talk takes practice. Just like they need to run and play to make their muscles and heart stronger, practicing positive self-talk helps their minds get stronger so they can make healthy choices.

“It’s very important that your child sees that they always have a way to influence the outcome of things with their own effort, and how they look at things,” says parenting expert Laura Markham, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.

One of the best times is when something seems too hard or makes them nervous. When doubt creeps in, teach them they can do something about it.

The first step is to recognize negative thoughts. Maybe your son wants to play soccer and you think playing a great way to encourage a life-long love of being physically active. But recently he’s been having a hard time and you’ve heard him say, “I always mess up when I try to pass. Nobody’s going to want to play with me. I won’t make the team this year. Why try?”

As an outsider you may be able to see that’s pretty extreme and not likely to happen. You want to teach him to recognize when he’s saying and thinking negative things so he can find motivation to keep going.

However, sometimes recognizing negativity can be tricky, especially if it’s something that you or your kids do out of habit.

Negative thoughts tend to be sweeping, all-or-nothing statements that jump to conclusions. There are certain words that are flags for negative self-talk.

Listen for “I can’t,” “I never” or “I always.”

  • "I can’t score any goals!"
  • "I never have fun because I don't play well!"
  • "I always look bad. I'm the slowest one!"

When your kids say things like this, stop and talk to them. Then you can help them find more positive thoughts to think and say instead.

When you hear them say something negative, take a three-step approach: Find out what's wrong, reassure them, and help them choose a positive statement to say instead.

First, ask why they said what they did. You may learn they are focused on something they “messed up.” Or maybe another child said something mean, like “You’re slow.”

Reassure them that you love them. Then:

  • If another child said something mean, try putting that in context. Say, “They must have had a bad day or feel bad about themselves.”
  • If they feel that they “messed up,” remind them that they’ll have another chance to try again and that there are plenty of things they do well.

Next, ask them to say something positive about themselves. They can repeat those positive and encouraging things to themselves anytime they are about to try something new or difficult. These positive statements can become confidence-builders. For example, “I’m strong and a good teammate.”

He could say this each time he is about to step onto the soccer field or when he feels himself getting nervous.

You can also teach kids to put a positive spin on things if they don't succeed.

Instead of: “I messed up that pass, I am terrible.”

Have them try reframing it like: “That pass didn’t work out like I wanted. I’ll practice passes and try again next game.”

“You’re teaching your child that while you can’t always control what happens to you, you can control the way you see it, and that changes what happens next for the better,” says Markham.