Updated: Aug 4
I know, I know - I can’t stand the “just think positive” messaging we receive day in and day out either. Based on my experience as a therapist and a regular human, it just doesn’t work. If we are not feeling good, denying our reality can make things worse, and the same is true for the children in our life. In fact, we all benefit when our true feelings are validated instead of ignored.
Validating uncomfortable feelings may seem counter-intuitive as an adult who feels an instinctual pull to protect children from negativity (myself included). But, in my experience, acknowledging negative emotions beats denial every day of the week.
However, when thinking about positive affirmations it helps to remember they are much more than just telling someone to “think positive.” Affirmations are a step-by-step reprogramming of the automatic negative thoughts in our brain and can create neural pathways towards lasting emotional resilience.
Affirmations are short, encouraging sentences we choose to recite, that shore up confidence within ourselves. We can pick specific, meaningful words that resonate as personal truth. Affirmations are not about denying experiences, but finding statements that feel true in our heart and mind, and then implementing the thought consistently.
When an affirmation works, we gather real-life examples our brain can use as evidence that success IS possible, which changes the way we think. In my work with children, I find that this tool can work magic at home and in school! When we challenge our thoughts with evidence that a positive result is possible, it can stop negative thinking in its tracks.
The research is clear that affirmations are a useful tool for improving emotional well-being and self-empowerment. Many athletes, including the great Michael Jordan, are famously known for using affirmations and visualization to stay at the top of their profession for many years. Jordan is a testament to the incredible but straightforward power of using our thoughts and mental imagery to achieve success.
If you are raising or working with children, I encourage you to try my affirmation experiment below and see if it works for you. The best part about an experiment is you get to investigate the results. It may not work for everyone, but there’s a good chance it will work for many of us!
THE AFFIRMATION EXPERIMENT
The first step is picking an affirmation that resonates with you and the child.
My favorites are “I can do this” and “I will persist,” but it can be any positive, supportive statement.
Next, create an opportunity or notice an occasion when the child is becoming frustrated with her inability to complete the task.
A simple example is playing a game of toss together. Make the game of toss hard enough that you are BOTH unable to catch the toss every time, but not so challenging that the child becomes angry or quits.
When the child displays mild frustration or disappointment, tell her you have an affirmation experiment for her brain. (You can share the story about Michael Jordan to increase buy-in.)
Next, model how to use an affirmation by saying out loud, “I can do this!” in a confident, assertive voice each time before YOU try to catch the ball. (You can pair this with visualization for a greater impact by imagining yourself catching the ball.)
It is likely your success rate at catching the ball will improve - creating a powerful learning opportunity the child will be fascinated to try!
Let her have a turn at using an affirmation and visualization to improve her results. You can even keep score and see if the average success rate improves. Take turns saying the affirmation and then not saying it to see what happens.
Note: Conduct the experiment when both of you are in a receptive and calm state. If the child is throwing a tantrum, refusing to play, or is visibly angry, wait for another opportunity.
Likewise, if you are feeling frustrated, take a break and get centered before attempting this activity or wait until a later time. Our children’s brains are not receptive to learning when in a state of over-arousal, and you will not be an effective teacher if you are angry or frustrated. Practice this experiment when you are all inside your “windows of tolerance.”
If this still seems like just positive thinking to you, it might help to think of affirmations like weight lifting exercise. Affirmations are not only positive thinking but are like doing reps in the gym for our brainpower! The more “reps” we complete, the stronger we become.
Practicing your affirmations during times of mild frustration will deepen the child’s neural pathways for perseverance. It can give them a WIN they desperately need right now and improve self-confidence. When times get tough, you can model this behavior by using an affirmation out loud. You can also gently remind them of the experiment by whispering, “I can do this!”
Give it a shot and let me know if it works! Feel free to share if it fails too. I want to hear all about it. Failing means you tried something new, and at the very least, you’ve learned what doesn’t work, which is useful information to have.
For more emotional enrichment activities, please look up the Facebook group, Emotiminds, and join today!