How To Build Your Child an Emotional Bulletproof Vest

By Devin C. Hughes

October 2, 2014   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

Today’s children are riddled with shots that chip away at their self-esteem and self-worth. From bullying—whether overt or passive (i.e. being left out of games or groups)—to learning disabilities to familial dysfunction to peer pressure, they are constantly under fire.

Positive self-talk is a crucial, effective strategy they can use to combat any time of discomfort.

When I was a child, someone—we never learned who—set my father’s car on fire. It burned to a crisp in the middle of the night, and without insurance, we had no other method of transportation but his bicycle.

In the frigid Maryland winter, I sat on the handlebars while Dad held me and pedaled hard to his work at the A&P (grocery store). The trip was three or four miles long and freezing cold, but he pumped us up and down hills with gusto.

Instead of focusing on the stress of the situation, he concentrated on what he could teach me.

“You can either find a way or an excuse,” he said. “We find a way. We survive.”
I nodded as the wind whipped my face.
“What’s your last name?” he asked.
“What’s that? I didn’t hear you.”
“Hughes!” I exclaimed.
“That’s right—Hughes. Your name is Hughes, and we get it done.”

Every day on the bike was another pep talk, another bolstering of my self-esteem.

“People fall,” he said over the wind and traffic. “People get hurt, but you’ve got to get up. Tough times don’t last,” he added. “Tough people do.”

By keeping a positive attitude, my father transferred his coping strategies to me—particularly, the power of self-talk: reasoning, soothing affirmations to help keep calm within realistic perspective.

The phrase he repeated to me most often was, “I am, I can, I will. I am, I can, I will.” Any time I doubted my ability or lacked confidence, I repeated those words to myself: “I am, I can, I will. I am somebody, I can do it, and I will do it.”

Through almost unconscious repetition, I learned to cope and move forward in times of trouble. Self-talk became my emotional bulletproof vest.

By definition, self-talk can be private thoughts or external speech, and whether it is positive or negative guides a child’s emotional and behavioral responses to discomfort.

If self-talk is negative, reflecting back the criticism they feel from others, a child will automatically impose self-limitations that may take years to overcome.

On the contrary, if the self-talk is positive, they create a piece of armor they can rely on for defense; whether it’s an athletic event or a test, speaking in front of the room or seeking help from a tutor, making new friends or defending oneself against bullying, self-talk is extremely powerful.

When I was eight, I started to struggle with reading and writing. Before I was diagnosed with dyslexia, I was pulled into a group of five kids with serious learning disabilities.

A special aide came to work with us twice a day, calling us from our seats to the back of the room, where an accordion wall slid over to reveal a small side area.

The walk felt like a slow death march. Everyone could read the scarlet letters tattooed across the slow learners’ foreheads.

“Devin’s with the short bus kids,” one of my classmates snickered. The laughter and comments made me feel exposed and hurt, because there was a part of me that almost believed them. After all, I was in the special education group, so the kids were peeling the scab off a very real vulnerability.

That is why bullying is so damaging—it keys into deeply personal, truly embarrassing parts of a child’s psyche and seems to validate them. When a child utilizes self-talk as a response, he can shed the victim role and feel empowered instead.

In my case, rather than give in to the insecurity or tear my classmates down in return, I sat alone and breathed deeply. I could hear my father’s voice in my head: “People just don’t understand greatness,” he told me. “They don’t know what it looks like. You’ve just got to push through this.”

I am, I can, I will, I thought fiercely. These people just don’t understand me. I will get through this. It was important to own that I was going through a difficult time, but believe I would get through it. Those positive affirmations helped deflect some of the bullets being fired at me.

In order for children—or anyone, for that matter—to connect with others, they have to first be comfortable who they see in the mirror.
Teach your child or student that “thoughts are things,” and that changing their thoughts can change their lives.

Remind them that what they say to themselves is what they will begin to believe, and that what they believe, they are more likely to achieve. Most kids don’t want easy—just possible!


● Encourage your child or student to develop “trigger words”—a positive mantra they connect with and can repeat anytime they need to self-soothe. Trigger words should make the child feel empowered and may come from a favorite song or movie, as well as what parents and teachers instill in them. My trigger words came from my father: “I am, I can, I will.” Even as an adult, I turn to this reassuring phrase anytime I feel self-doubt, fear, or insecurity.

● Help your child or student learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. In other words, teach them coping strategies for discomfort by placing them in situations where they must develop a skill they currently do not have. As a child, I thought the arts were unmanly—so my father made me play the bassoon. My confidence increased once I mastered the instrument, and I could refer to that experience in other times of discomfort.

Devin C. Hughes

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