Understanding children’s internal dialogue

Some children may have learnt to respond in a defensive way as a coping mechanism to manage the feelings of anxiety and fear that situations evoke in them. The child may present as feeling the opposite of this, for example, not scared and not bothered, but he may have learnt to do this as a way of not feeling pain. ‘If I pretend I don’t care then I can’t be hurt or feel pain.’ For this child the silent pain of feeling unwanted or unloved can result in them feeling isolated, confused, frightened and alone. They may feel that everything that happens is their fault and have an internal dialogue that asks ‘Am I a bad person? Am I unlovable? Why do I get it wrong all the time? ‘Why can’t I do anything right?’ When children have this internal belief system and are convinced that they do not deserve anything good, they may go to extreme lengths to prove it.

The combination of their feelings of low self-worth along with a negative internal dialogue not surprisingly may result in challenging and disruptive behaviour as the child tries to bury their feelings and silence their internal voice. They may also actively try to sabotage situations to recreate the feelings and experiences that are familiar to them. Children who have a negative internal dialogue may believe that adults do not like them when they reprimand them. These children may find it difficult to hold on to positive thoughts about themselves as they do not have an internal view of themselves as a good person. School staff can play an essential role in helping to rewrite their internal scripts in to a positive dialogue. For example, ‘If Mrs. Hawkins thinks I’m a kind person maybe I am.’ It is crucial that we focus on the positives for these children, no matter how hard this may be to implement and sustain.

When children show us behaviour that can be challenging and difficult to manage it can be hard to consider that behind the behaviour may be feelings of fear and terror. Children like this may be easily misunderstood in our schools and it can be a complex task to try and understand the possible feelings behind the behaviour. It can be difficult to imagine a child may be feeling fragile and vulnerable when their behaviour appears to be showing us the opposite of this. It can be a challenge for adults to look beyond the child’s behaviour and see the pain underneath. If a child is demonstrating difficult and unmanageable behaviour, they may be showing us that they are having difficult and unmanageable feelings and that they need help with them.

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