Cheryl Bradshaw was teaching a group of high-school students how to dissect a frog when something happened that changed her life forever. A female student suddenly collapsed, began convulsing and lost consciousness. Paramedics were called, and the student was rushed to the hospital. As it turns out, the teen had tried to end her life by overdosing on medications.
That student survived, but through conversations Bradshaw had with her other students afterwards, she sensed that more than a few were also contemplating suicide. The event forced her to reevaluate the impact she could have on teens. “I started to want to work with the core of what happens with these young people,” she says. Today, Bradshaw is a psychotherapist in Waterdown, Ont., specializing in youth counseling and teen self-esteem.
Her recently published book, How To Like Yourself, makes a compelling argument: that as hard as high school is, the biggest threat to a teen’s self-esteem is not what happens to them, but their inner self-critic: that unrelenting, negative inner voice that can cause you second-guess your self-worth. But is the development of a negative self-critic inevitable? If your kids are still little, can you help them avoid this? We spoke to Bradshaw to find out.
Why are you so focused specifically on kids’ inner critics? As a society, we teach kids how to work with others, achieve, study, be polite. But we don’t teach them about their relationship with themselves—the person they spend 100 percent of the time with. A lot of kids with an inner critic end up rising above, but I find it strange to be leaving it up to chance—to not be teaching this skill explicitly.
When does a kid’s inner self-critic show up? It can show up as young as grade 2 or 3, but there’s no exact science right now. Sometimes there’s a trigger—for some, it gets adopted from external circumstances, like bullying or an abusive relationship. These events can get internalized. Other times, it’s the subtle, sneaking inner critic, which can come from media or even from where you live—for example, if you live in a culture or a community that’s a highly judgmental environment. It can come from parents; kids can internalize, for example, if their mom is highly competitive, judgmental or critical. But even in healthy, caring environments, where the parents are really awesome, the self-critic can still develop, and sometimes it’s not one clear reason why.
What does a negative self-critic sound like? What might our little kids be saying to themselves? It can sound like an overly harsh parent or coach: non-forgiving, non-understanding, no room for mistakes or being OK with not being perfect. The self-critic uses words like “always” and “never” rather than “sometimes” or “often.” There’s a lot of labeling, like “I’m no good.” If you hear this from your child, it’s something to pay attention to.
So if I hear my kid saying this kind of stuff, what do I do? Even if you don’t hear it, what’s key is having a conversation with your kids about this. Kids can seem happy on the outside and you wouldn’t know to ask. It’s like having the sex talk. Even if you don’t think there’s a problem, you can and should parent and coach on this. Take a proactive approach. There’s no age that’s too young to talk about this—a kid just needs to be old enough to cognitively reflect. In other words, if they’re old enough to be asked, “How did that feel?” then they are old enough.
What would that conversation look like? Let’s say your child had a fight with their friend. You might ask, “After the fight, when you were by yourself, what were you thinking to yourself about yourself?” This question helps to see if they are even aware of the fact that they are talking to themselves, about themselves, inside their heads. A lot of kids don’t realize that is happening. You could also ask, “When you are alone, what are the types of things you’re thinking about? What does it sound like?”
What if they are thinking very negative thoughts? The more you can ask, “Why?” rather than being too directional, the better. So if, for example, your kid says, “I feel like I’m not good,” you’d ask, “Why is that?” He might say, “My friends always get mad at me.” And that’s when you look for those words like “always” and “never.” You’re looking for cognitive distortions—thought traps. You want to teach your kid what these are, that they happen to all of us when we get into a low mood, and that it’s easy to fall into the trap but it doesn’t mean it’s true. You’re teaching your kids to differentiate between feelings and reality. A good reply to “My friends always get mad at me,” might be, “Can you think of a time when that wasn’t true?”
What about those little kids who seem super confident and laid back? This isn’t an issue for them, is it? Have the conversations anyway and help them lay down the language. Even if they are happy, you can still say, “You seem really happy. What are you saying to yourself inside your head right now?”
Could poor self-esteem and a negative inner voice be prevented if you have these talks with your kid frequently? I don’t know, because I’ve never seen a young kid raised with these techniques at this point. I would hope yes—that it can be at least an ongoing conversation, so you’ll have a radar for it and prevent it. It’s one of my hopes for the book—that it will revolutionize how we emotionally parent the next generation.