My inner voice isn’t always kind. It berates me when I’m cross with my kids, mocks me with my to-do list at 4 a.m., and vividly replays thoughtless remarks I’ve made. But the first time I heard one of my kids say “I’m stupid” about themselves, I felt wrenched. These words, spoken by a frustrated 5-year-old, reminded me that no matter how much I try to fill them up with confidence, I cannot control the voice inside my children’s heads. I can, however, try to find ways to help them — and me — reset.
Neuroscientist Ethan Kross says our internal voice is a better predictor of happiness than what we’re actually doing. “Chatter can consume our attention,” Kross tells me, “leaving very little space to focus on other things.” He’s written an entire book on the subject: Chatter: The Voice in Our Heads, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It. For adolescents, who are wired for inward focus and social comparison, chatter has mental health implications.
If kids and teens find themselves troubled by their inner voice, Kross wants them to know “that’s totally normal” and “there are tools you can use to manage how you engage with that voice.” According to Kross’s research, any strategy that allows you to “zoom out” and broaden your perspective can help. “[Chatter] zooms us in on the problem,” Kross says. “We engage in a tunnel vision way of thinking.”
One of his favorite tools is something he calls “distanced self-talk.” Try speaking to yourself in the second or third person, including using your name, which will fire up your instincts to be more supportive. Usually, we reserve “you” for describing other people, Kross explains. When we use it on ourselves, we turn on the “mental machinery for thinking about others.” This helps us view a situation more objectively. So, for example, if I snap at my son after school, I might say to myself, “Deborah, take a deep breath. He’s overtired and so are you. Why don’t you feed him a snack and take a breather?”
Kross also recommends mental time travel or, as he describes it, his “2 a.m. chatter strategy” for when he wakes up, his mind racing. “I ask myself: How am I going to feel about this tomorrow morning or next week or next month?” Imagining how you might feel about a situation in the future lets you zoom out and remember that no situation or emotion lasts forever. “It highlights the instability of what we’re going through, which gives us hope,” Kross says. “And hope is a powerful antidote for chatter.”
Negative self-talk can color how we see ourselves and interact with the world. Dr. Robert Waldinger, a Harvard psychiatrist and coauthor of The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, says that ending this habit requires a healing that “can come from both inside and outside.” From the inside, concretely remind yourself of your strengths and essential goodness. From the outside, notice how caring friends and family treat you. “Do they treat you like your harsh critical voice treats you? Almost certainly not. In fact, they like you, and they think you’re fine.”
His advice reminded me of a workshop I taught to middle schoolers about self-compassion. I asked them, “Imagine you got back a quiz, and you failed it. What do you say to yourself?” Their responses were merciless: 50 varieties of “I’m stupid.” Next, I asked what they would say if a friend told them they’d failed a quiz. For their friends, these middle schoolers had nothing but kindness. They were instinctively more compassionate to peers than they were to themselves.
In social worker Natalie Bunner’s pediatric mental health practice, she often works with kids who struggle with negative self-talk. Children are prone to all-or-nothing thinking, she says, and in moments of struggle, “They are constantly assessing their capacity and can easily confuse their abilities with their identity.” Directly challenging this perspective may actually reinforce the critical voice. “So instead of, ‘No, love, you’re not dumb!’” Bunner suggests providing context by asking kids if they feel frustrated with themselves over whatever difficult task they’re in the middle of. This approach can help kids “disconnect how they’re feeling from their sense of self.” Then, she adds, let them know you “sometimes feel frustrated over hard tasks, too,” so they understand it’s universal.
Grace Marino, a Massachusetts native and freshman at The Catholic University of America, has also struggled with a critical inner voice. In middle and high school, this was often triggered by FOMO: fear of missing out. “I would see other people hanging out without me on social media — groups of people laughing and having a good time — and I would start to think I don’t have friends or My friends don’t like me.”
Scrolling through the images fueled her self-doubt. “I would look at seemingly perfect people with comments below like ‘body goals’ or ‘no flaws.’” When her posts didn’t get the same attention, it was easy to feel “less than.”
As she’s gotten older, Marino has found strategies that help when the chatter gets loud. “The first thing I do is wrap my arms around myself and give myself a hug — because when my friends are going through this, I physically comfort them. And then I do positive self-talk, like, ‘Grace, you are doing your best. You are a hard worker.’ Or I give my mom a call.” Self-compassion, distanced self-talk, and connecting with loved ones: These tools work.
Marino would offer this advice to her younger self, “Be gentle with yourself when you make mistakes. Every mistake I have gone through has pushed me to become who I am supposed to be.” That’s advice I’m happy to share with my own kids.
Deborah Farmer Kris is an education journalist, founder of Parenthood365, and author of the All the Time picture-book series. Send comments to email@example.com.