My son had a friend he often brought home with him after school while he was a teen. Let’s call him Scott. Anyway, I adored this kid. He had a super sweet demeanor – calling me, Mrs. Berg, long after I told him he could simply call me Monica. It was ingrained in him to always speak respectfully to adults. This made me smile. He also picked up after himself, clearing his own dishes, even washing a single glass after use. (Parents take note: If you want other parents to adore your kid and invite them back over, teach them to wash their own dishes!)
With the exception of one small flaw, I wouldn’t change a thing about him. That small flaw? Lashon hara. Now, if you read my post last week, you’re probably scratching your head and wondering how such a sweet kid could engage in gossip. Scott never gossiped. I don’t think it was in his nature to say a single negative thing about someone else. However, he often spoke negatively about himself.
When my son mentioned trying out for the basketball team, Scott interjected that he could never make the team, because he was too clumsy. When I asked if he was taking anyone to prom, he replied that no one would want to go with him, because he couldn’t dance. And so on. Kabbalists teach that lashon hara includes negative self-talk (along with gossip and words spoken in anger). The thing was, it was disarming, because he often said things with humor. His self-deprecation would make his friends laugh, seeming less like negative speech and more… well, funny.
Though Scott’s penchant for highlighting his downfalls was common, those around him often overlooked it as simply his personality. This tendency is not unusual in teens. In fact, most adults completely overlook it, assuming kids will grow out of it. Yet, speaking negatively about one’s self is far from innocuous; over time it can be damaging to a child’s mental health and wellbeing.
Researchers have found that exposure to negative words, whether spoken or written, causes our bodies to release stress-producing hormones. The chemical impact of this response on our brains can result in anxiety and depression. In addition, these stress-producing hormones can interfere with the frontal lobe – the area of the brain connected to rational behavior and decision making.
This is no surprise to most of us. We know how damaging verbal abuse can be, especially when directed toward children. Perhaps, the most shocking result of this research is that the effect is the same whether negative words are directed outward, or towards ourselves. Meaning, lashon hara is just as detrimental for your emotional health, no matter how you use it.
Those of us who strive for spiritual transformation aim to share kindness with others. We encourage our friends and families, we tell them we love them, and offer support when they hit obstacles or tragedy in their lives. On the flip side, we sometimes don’t offer ourselves nearly as much kindness. It can feel self-indulgent. It’s not. It’s self-love. Directing positivity toward ourselves is vital; indeed, compassion for all begins with ourselves.
Negative self-talk can easily become a habit, and habits are difficult to break. Since kids are still discovering who they are and how they interact with the world outside their families, a pattern of negative self-talk risks wiring neural pathways in the brain to continue this behavior, thus impacting who they are as adults.
Positive self-image is an issue for most kids at some point in their adolescence. It’s natural for them to go through low periods. They fail an exam, don’t make tryouts, or experience their first heartbreak. As a parent it’s devastating to watch our children wade through disappointment. Our job is to be there for them, encourage, and support them. According to psychologist, Mary K. Alvord, Ph.D., “Parents can play a huge role in helping their children to develop a critical life skill: the ability to take notice of their thoughts, to step back and view the bigger picture, and to decide how to act based on that more realistic perspective.” By helping them sort through their emotions, we can better spot negative self-talk when it starts, and help them avoid a downward spiral of negativity.
Alvord says, “For parents, the idea is not to squelch the negative thought. Research has found that attempted ‘thought stopping’ can actually make the idea stickier. Rather, you want your child to face the thought, thoroughly examine it and replace it with a more realistic and helpful perspective.” For example, if your child laments that they won’t get into a good university because of a failed exam, you might ask questions to help them begin to think more logically. Discuss with them how much of the class grade depends on that test, or how they are doing in other classes. You can also point out that universities take many factors into consideration. Directing their attention away from irrational self-blame and any tendency to catastrophize will help prevent them from unleashing negative words on themselves.
My favorite tool to help my kids veer away from negative thoughts is asking them what advice they would give to a friend in the same situation. I like to use a specific friend. (This works for grown-ups, too.) We are far more compassionate and positive with our loved ones than we are with ourselves. Listen to what they say. These words will inevitably be more helpful and positive than the words they direct on themselves. Let this become a “replacement thought” to break the pattern of negativity.
My husband, Michael Berg, has said, “The prerequisite for any other spiritual work we do – whether it is restricting from negative actions or doing positive actions – is to first and foremost refrain from negative, evil speech. Because if we engage in lashon hara, we put a shell around our soul, and then all the Light we draw as a result of our spiritual work cannot even enter; it cannot assist and support us in our correction.” Using positive words with yourself, as well as with others is foundational to our spiritual growth. It’s up to us to help our children learn how to speak to themselves, so they can share that positivity with the world.