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Self-talk is powerful because having conversations with ourselves—even silently—links thought, language, and action. Self-talk is really like a delay switch to action allowing us to think things through.

Children are great teachers for showing us how language can guide actions. In fact, several studies have shown that children who talk out loud as they give themselves instructions during the performance of a task have a greater chance for success at that task. They also have more self-control over their behaviors during the process of problem solving. By talking to themselves, children are offered the pause needed for reflection.

When children learn how to reflect, they can in turn learn how to weigh different courses of action and their consequences. By knowing how to reflect, they are better able to make the best decision. Self-talk allows for reflection to take place. As children learn to rein in impulses, they can refer back in time, consult similar experiences, put together new combinations of possible behaviors, and then think ahead to the probable consequences. Internal conversations can help memory and goals work together with emotions to determine a chosen behavior.

Interference with the ability to have a constructive, helpful internal conversation comes from two primary sources. The first is impulsivity. If a child has no real sense of time and his or her responses are uninhibited, then constant talk about what is happening at the moment is to no avail because the secondary processing needed to ignore the immediate stimulation and plan ahead is missing. So, this kind of interference can mean a child will have behavior problems and uncontrollable anger. An impulsive child will need help learning to slow down and listen to himself or herself. Slowing down offers time for reflection.

The second interference with self-talk is an impairment in the ability to use language easily and accurately enough to create a delay between stimulus and action. If a child does not have words for a strong feeling, such as anger, it will be more difficult for him or her to create a delay that would allow time to think objectively, consider another perspective, and foresee the consequences of different actions. Helping children learn words for their feelings and allowing them to express their feelings is a first step.

Thought, language, and action are intertwined. Help your child use language as a delay switch while he or she learns self-regulation.