Empathic Parenting Counseling and Coaching

Supporting you in raising resilient, compassionate kids

Ask a Therapist: Preschooler Negative Self-Talk

Q: How do I respond to a 4yo saying “stop using your serious voice” and “everybody hates me” when given a limit, usually when he is a little too rough. I asked why he says that people hate him and he was able to verbalize it’s because he “messed up.” Usually if I try to engage him in conversation about it in the moment he repeats it over and over. I tried to talk about learning from mistakes and how I make mistakes, but maybe I am missing something.
A: This is another one I can relate to rather strongly. As my son’s preschool teacher explains it, my son, “is very attuned to tone of voice.” He usually notices I’m frustrated before I do, and there’s simply no hiding my feelings with this child.

He went through a phase of replying to my redirections by wailing, “that makes you think you don’t love me!” His go-to response is now, “You’re making it seem as if I don’t matter.” Ouch. 

​Here are some ideas for you:

Connect before you correct

Our children will be more receptive to our redirection if we first take the time to connect to them.  I love this strategy from Drs. Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson in No Drama Discipline, “However we decide to specifically respond when our children misbehave, there’s one thing we have to do: we must remain emotionally connected with them, even when – and perhaps especially when – we discipline….through connection, we can soothe their internal storm, help them calm down, and assist them in making better decisions.”

There are times when we have to act fast for safety reason. In those moments, we might not be able to connect first. However, as much as possible, it helps when we can get down on our children’s level, get their attention with a light touch, and correct their behavior when we have their full attention in a tone that doesn’t sound confrontational. It also helps to acknowledge that our children have the best of intentions and give them the benefit of the doubt, “I see how excited you are to see your friend, but he’s asking you to stop hugging him now.”

Sometimes the tone has to come out

We have a serious voice for a reason. Certainly we shouldn’t yell at our kids for making a mistake, but if my son is dashing toward a busy street, you can bet my serious voice will come out. And because I don’t use it often, it will stop him in his tracks.

Wait to talk it out

If you do need to use a serious voice, wait to talk about safety until your child has calmed down again. When he’s dysregulated emotionally, he’s operating purely from his amygdala, the part of the brain that’s responsible for the fight/flight response. He can’t hear reason, and he needs help to re-engage his prefrontal cortex which will allow him to control his impulses and solve problems. If possible, give him a hug and help him regulate himself before addressing the safety issue.

Sometimes we’ll use a voice that’s not fitting to the situation, and then it’s important to apologize. We all screw up and yell or scold. We’re entirely human. Then it’s even more important to connect and then apologize. It can also be helpful to engage our little ones in a discussion about how we can both get our needs met – our need for them to listen when we set a safety limit, and their need for a tone that doesn’t feel unsafe.

Model making mistakes

I don’t mean drop the lasagna on the floor on purpose to make a point. But the next time you mess something up, make your internal thought process external, “Oops, I got the time wrong and we’re an hour early. I feel frustrated with myself, but I also know that mistakes happen.” This, in addition to recognizing the frequent mistakes we make with our children, normalizes the fact that we all mess up and models positive, appropriate self-talk when we just don’t get it right.

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