Children have their loveys and, sometimes, imaginary friends, but there is also another companion that follows them around. This secret companion has a multifaceted role in our child’s development.
We are talking about the Inner Voice.
Have you ever noticed how there is an ongoing conversation in our mind? A sort of internal dialogue that either sounds friendly (like, “Yeah, I got this!”) or critical (as in, “I can’t believe how stupid I was! What was I thinking!”).
Sometimes we get so annoyed by that voice, we wish we could shut it off. If we have the right strategies, we succeed in doing that, and can even turn this voice into our cheerleader and biggest supporter. That’s all good and great, but did you know that:
Our children have an Inner Voice of their own.
As you can already tell, the Inner Voice is a powerful mental mechanism. At the same time, the child’s sense of self and their understanding of their own mind is nothing like that of an adult.
Since it is still developing, the younger the children the less likely they are to clearly separate between their own thoughts and the echos of words they heard other people say to them in the recent past.
In fact, this is how language acquisition happens, which later translates into development of formal thinking. It isn’t until children begin to develop what is known as metacognition — the ability to think about thinking — that they are able to sort out the differences between their own thoughts and the words of others.
The Inner Voice develops before the child’s outwardly expression. While the Inner Voice is a critical part of thought and language development in the early years, it does not replace it. Therefore with proper guidance, we can help the child identify this voice and help it find its own place in our mind.
The role of the Inner Voice not only ties to later thought development, but also to emotional regulation, and self-esteem.
In the meantime, the Inner Voice serves as a frame of reference for our children that guides their behavior and thinking. This frame of reference is the way the child talks to herself to navigate the world around her. This is especially true at those times when we, their parents, are not around to re-affirm or attest to some rule or choice of action. At times like these, the child echoes phrases heard from us, as affirmations to the way she can (or, “should”) act and feel.
This voice can soothe, guide, and encourage, or it can blame, criticize, and belittle. Everything depends on how we talk to our children on a daily basis. It is great if it is supportive, as it almost serves the role of the “guardian angel” — the kind of alter ego the child is not yet aware of.
But if it is not… Well, we may have a problem…
Unlike us, children do not yet know how to shut off the Inner Voice.
Since this is the only frame of reference they have, they rely on it for direction in actions and thinking. Also, since this mechanism has such an important developmental role in the construction of cognition, it wouldn’t be beneficial to get rid of it anyway. However, knowing how the Inner Voice gets formed, helps us improve its quality.
The child is highly influenced by parents. After all, these are the first people that the child is dependent on and is learning from. Therefore everything we do and say has an enormous impact on the child’s perception of the world and the ways they form their sense of identity. How to treat oneself, how to respond to challenging situations, and so on.
The way we talk, the tone, the choice of words — all of that — becomes a model of the kind of language the child will use to address himself and, later, others around him. When we talk to our children, let’s remember to talk the way we want them to talk to themselves. Let’s also remember the kind of work our words are doing. These words lay the foundation for later self-esteem and resilience.
As parents, we have the opportunity to strengthen the positive message of our child’s Inner Voice.
We talk to our children all the time! Each time is an opportunity.
Empowered with this knowledge, we can pay particular attention to the way we talk to our children, so that we shape that voice more intentionally. When we teach them how to do something, we can chose neutral and positive words. These words reaffirm the children’s ability to learn, to practice, to master, and to enjoy the task they are learning.
When we teach them what not to do, we have to make sure we deliver a message that is free of negative emotion. Moreover, it has to be informative and point out the preferred alternatives and better choices the child can make. For example, we can say “Pulling the cat’s tail hurts the cat. We can gently touch like this.”
When the words are directed at the child, they can have long-term and long-lasting negative effects on their self-esteem. Instead, we should choose words that highlight the child’s behavior and the natural consequences it leads to. For example, there is an enormous difference between “What a bad boy!” and “Oh look! When we run inside the house, we knock things over and they brake.”
As children get older, they become more aware of their Inner Voice.
They can learn to differentiate between different forms of thinking. They can tell their own thinking apart from the lines of various dialogues, words from books and movie characters, etc. This is a great time to teach our children to identify self-produced speech and use the Inner Voice to their benefit.
If you are curious, how to help your child turn this voice into a true companion, don’t miss this article. In it, I talk about strategies you need to teach your child mastery over the Inner Voice. Who knows, maybe you’ll find it useful for yourself too!