By Linda Stade
One of the biggest fears parents and teachers have, is that our kids will be bullied. We worry that the cruelty of peers will break them. We worry that the messages they receive will scar them.
Nobody likes you.
You made a fool of yourself.
You look hideous.
You’re so stupid.
You are so embarrassing.
Everyone can see you’re a loser.
Nobody will ever love you.
You don’t belong.
The problem is… the most powerful bully probably isn’t in their science class or playing in their basketball team. The worst bully is often in their own head.
The bully who has the most power is our child’s inner critic. That is especially the case in adolescence. However, this doesn’t have to be the case, we can teach our kids ways to pull their inner critic into line.
Why do we have an inner critic?
We all understand what an inner critic is because we all have one. In evolutionary terms, it was useful in keeping us on our toes and aware of threats in the environment. This was especially important when we were sharing the planet with sabre-tooth tigers and our safe place was a cave. The inner critic kept us focused and aware of our vulnerabilities.
These days, the inner critic is far more focused on our relationships and our performance at school or work. It has also become very vocal about superficial appearances.
The upside of our inner critic is that it can help us improve and become better people. It also stops us becoming awful egomaniacs, which matters. However, if it is too harsh it triggers our fight, flight or freeze mechanisms.
This bit is super important!
The most important thing to know about our inner critic is that it is not reliable. Vigilant… yes, but not always reliable.
Just because you think it, doesn’t make it true!
Thoughts are not facts. Most adults find this difficult to accept, so it is little wonder our kids struggle with it. However, it is one of the most powerful pieces of knowledge we can give a child.
The problem with believing thoughts are facts is that it impacts our behaviour. If we can’t stop, reflect, and assess our thoughts, we automatically react as though everything we think is true. Often, that isn’t helpful.
Take for example, if a child thinks they are bad at maths, they are likely to stop trying in maths. If they think they can’t make friends, they won’t. If they think you love their sibling more, they may act resentfully or try overly hard to please.
This is a ‘you problem’ too
Ask yourself, how do you react when your inner critic has a go at you? Kristina Morgan is a clinical psychologist at Lourdes Hill College. She says that the way we respond to our own inner critic has a big impact on the way our kids will manage theirs. Our modelling is crucial.
Kristina asks, “What do you do when the voice in your head says you are bad at something? When a random person is rude to you, or doesn’t react the way you expect them to, do you sometimes make it about your inadequacies?”
Of course you do…. You’re human.
Kristina says the trick is to be aware of what you are modelling. She encourages you to take a deep breath and realise:
You’re doing the best you can. And if you’re not, do better! Start there, not in feeling bad about some random, useless thought.
Know it’s not always about you. It wasn’t when you were eleven, or twenty-one, or when you’re forty or sixty-one…. The world does not revolve around you, and other people barely notice what you do at all.
Keep your self-esteem, behaviour, and goals on track. Focus on those things rather than the voice in your head.
You can’t squash a thought
Fun fact…. You can’t squash a thought. When someone tells you not to think about purple elephants, you can only think about purple elephants. Trying to get rid of a thought makes it grow.
Popular psychology encourages us to ‘think positive’. That is almost impossible, especially when your thoughts are attached to uncomfortable emotions. When you try and it doesn’t work, you know what your inner critic will say? “Loser, you can’t even think positive!”
Instead, the trick is to breathe and give yourself space. Give yourself time to see the situation when you are feeling less emotional. Look at the thought, be inquisitive about it and assess it. Is it useful? Often, you’ll realise you don’t need to do anything at all. You don’t need to react. It was just an unhelpful thought.
Kristina’s Inner Critic Formula
As an adult, you probably recognise the inner critic is completely normal and part of your human-ness. However, your kids will need some support, and you are the perfect coach.
Kristina says these six steps will help.
Be calm and start with the assumption that your child is going to be fine. When you panic and catastrophise, you send the message that you don’t think they are up to challenges. You are passing your child the shovel that will bury them.
Ask your child to identify the horrible, uncomfortable thought. It might be, I’m fat, stupid, friendless, dumb, hopeless at science, or I can’t do the thing… whatever the thing may be.
Ask them to accept that even if the horrible, uncomfortable thought is real, the world will not end. (E.g., Mum will still love me, this one friend will like me, I am good at sport even if I’m not good at maths)
Brainstorm what you can do to improve the worst possible thing. (E.g., Go to homework club, be the person who says hello, go for a walk with the dog to feel better, talk to dad when stressed)
Instead of allowing your child to get sucked further into negative thoughts, help them do one thing to improve the situation. It doesn’t matter how small the step. This will help get them out of the ‘negative-thought hole’ they are digging.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Your child’s inner critic will never go away, but they will get better at understanding it and living with it.
In writing this, I am painfully aware that the process will not work for all kids. Neurodiversity, learning differences, and mental health issues mean there is no fix that is right for every child. It is a parent’s huge bank of relational knowledge and access to specialised services that will help create an empowering approach in those cases.
If you aren’t sure whether your child’s inner critic is ‘normal’, ask yourself, is it obsessive? Does it impede their functioning and daily life? If it does, partner with the school psychologist. You can also approach your child’s GP for a referral to external psychologists and services.
If you breathe, you have an inner critic. It is important you and your children acknowledge that fact. However, the no bullying rule that applies in your house and in your child’s school, must also apply in their heads. Let them know, their brain is a bully-free zone.