Years ago, French physician Émile Coué caused quite a stir when he claimed to have managed to heal patients simply through the power of affirmations. He asserted that patients to whom he spoke about a medicine’s effectiveness healed faster than those to whom he said nothing. This would later become known as the placebo effect. In one interview, Coué claimed, “Auto-suggestion is nothing more than a method of obtaining this control [of the subconscious mind], by hypnotizing the mind, so that it will act in the way we wish. This, I have found, can be accomplished by repeating over and over again what we wish to convince our subconscious mind is true.”
Coué and his well-known mantra, “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better,” set the stage for what would develop into the theory of auto-suggestion. This theory proposes that our thoughts can lead to positive or negative outcomes. As can be expected, a theory claiming that one can use the subconscious mind to heal came up against much criticism. One of the greatest challenges facing Coué’s theory of auto-suggestion was the absence of scientific proof. Skepticism was rife, and critics have continued to say that uttering positive self-statements “may benefit certain people, but backfire for the very people who ‘need’ them the most.”
But what if Coué had been right? What if positive words really do lead to positive results? Studies conducted years after Coué’s affirmations seem to point in this direction. Several researchers have found that auto-suggestion helps improve problem-solving and creativity under stress. Others have found that it can help increase confidence. Still other researchers have found that auto-suggestion is an effective way to increase self-compassion and prosocial behavior.
The latest study to come to a somewhat similar conclusion was conducted by researchers from Utrecht University, the University of Applied Sciences in Leiden, the University of Amsterdam and the University of Southampton. The researchers wanted to know whether positive self-talk would have a positive impact on the math performance of children with low levels of self-confidence in their math abilities; 212 10-year-old children participated in the study. The children were first asked about their competence beliefs and then they were requested to complete the first half of a standardized math test. They were then divided into three groups. The first group was asked to engage in “effort self-talk” (I will do my very best); the second group in “ability self-talk” (I am very good at this); and the third group in “no self-talk.” Students who engaged in self-talk were asked to quietly repeat the self-talk statements for at least 30 seconds. They were then asked to write down the self-talk phrase and encouraged to repeat it while working on the second part of the test.
The study found that children performed better when they engaged in “effort self-talk” than when they engaged in “ability self-talk” or in no self-talk. The researchers found that engaging in self-talk may help struggling children focus on their effort rather than on their lack of ability.
Findings from this study and other available scientific research suggest that positive self-talk can be a powerful tool to help your child deal with difficult situations. It can help improve academic performance and increase self-confidence and a sense of overall well-being. That said, self-talk can only be effective if it is applied appropriately.
Here are four ways you can start applying positive self-talk today:
1. Focus on realistic affirmations.
If your child does not believe in the affirmations he is saying, those affirmations will not work. Simply saying “I will win the race” will not make your child run faster. Helping your child focus on effort will help him get better results when using positive self-talk. Here are a few examples of affirmations that focus on effort:
- I’ll do my best.
- I’ll try.
- I’ll give it my best shot.
- I’ll learn from my mistakes.
- I’ll get better with time.
2. Be a model.
If your child hears you using positive self-talk, she’s likely to start using positive self-talk, too. Getting in the habit of using sentences such as “I’ll give it another try” is an easy way to get your child accustomed to using positive effort self-talk.
3. Don’t just stop at positive self-talk — find a way to link your child’s words to his actions.
Why do people, with time, get better at doing things? Because they practice, because they learn from their mistakes and because they never give up. Positive self-talk (“I’ll get better with time”) also means doing specific actions to ensure success (“I’ll do exercises for 10 minutes a day”). Your child will do better when he is capable of associating his affirmations to the specific actions that will help those affirmations come true.
4. Do not ignore your child’s personality.
The most powerful affirmations are those that align with your child’s personality. The affirmations that work with one of your children could fail miserably with another. Asking your child to participate in determining effective affirmations can be a solution to adopting effective positive self-talk practices.
The most important thing to remember when using positive self-talk with your child is that for affirmations to work, they have to be consistent with your child’s internal beliefs, so show her that she is special and capable of achieving more than she could ever imagine.