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Mind S.E.T.®: The Science Behind S.E.T.

Self-Talk is based on Cognitive Behavior Theory (CBT), which suggests that our thoughts, emotions, body sensations and behavior are all connected. Self-talk is a form of CBT--our thoughts, those words in our head that we use to describe what is happening, drive our feelings, and then drive our behavior. Thousands of research trials have demonstrated that CBT leads to improvement in functioning and quality of life. That's why it is the first step, the "S" in the S.E.T. of Mind S.E.T.

Here's how Self-Talk works: If we describe the world in terms of doom, defeat and despair, we are very likely to end up feeling anxious and depressed. If, on the other hand, we can describe our world in sunny, uplifting, optimistic terms, then anxiety and depression can be held at bay. Sounds simple, right? Well, it’s a little more difficult than that. Old thinking habits are hard to change.

We think in words, and most of us divide the words we use to talk to ourselves into two basic groups. We can label these groups as positive Self-Talk and negative Self-Talk. Positive Self-Talk keeps our stress down, keeps depression and anxiety away, and helps us keep our heads clear so we can make careful decisions. Negative Self-Talk, on the other hand, increases our stress and drives anxiety and depression. Remember doom, defeat and despair? Negative self-talk.

Most of us learned to use negative Self-Talk and it becomes our default way of thinking out of habit.

Assume that the parent has just told her child to hurry because they’re running late. But hurry is not part of the child’s vocabulary, so she just takes her time with her socks and shoes, pausing to sing a song that she learned in preschool, which is then followed by just staring off in space.

By now, the parent's Self-Talk (thinking) tells her that this situation is caused by the child's trying to ruin her day (See Attribution Theory below) and is potentially catastrophic, a disaster in the making. She may be saying to herself, “We’ll never get there on time. Everybody there will think I’m not a good parent. My daughter is always dawdling and making us late. I can’t stand this!”

Given this Self-Talk, mom is feeling stressed, anxious, maybe even depressed? And above all, she’s feeling angry! Really, really mad!

Negative Self-Talk are these kinds of words we say to ourselves that exaggerate the situation: never, everybody, always, and can’t stand it. So how do we turn negative Self-Talk to positive Self-Talk? Use logic! Logically, the word never, which means not ever, no time in the past or future, is not true. In the example above, this child might have gotten ready in time before and may after this event.

In the same way, the word always means for all the past and future, or forever. Not true either. And can’t stand it! Does that mean the mom will die if this dawdling continues? The truth is, she stood it before, and she can stand it again. Exaggeration works to drive anger, anxiety and depression.    

Positive Self-Talk helps us experience positive emotions. “My daughter dawdles, but it’s not the end of the world. If we’re late, it is what it is, and I don’t care what others think. I’m doing the best I can. And I can manage being late, because I have before and probably will be again. I should ask our pediatrician if my daughter’s behavior is normal and if there’s something I can do about it.”     

Given this positive Self-Talk, the mom now might feel a little annoyed, but not overwhelmed, and she is far less likely to yell, threaten, or punish her daughter out of frustration.

Bottom line: Parents can teach their children how to use positive Self-Talk by saying logical words as a model of positive Self-Talk. Talking aloud while resolving difficult events will not only keep a parent focused on what she is doing but also shows her child how positive self-talk works.

Empathy is based on Attribution Theory, and is the second step, the "E" in the S.E.T. of Mind S.E.T. Empathy is essential in our Self-Talk, as noted above, as we seek language to explain what we are seeing and select appropriate words that avoid exaggeration and demands control. It is easy to "put ourselves in others' shoes", if our Self-Talk is not about blaming others' or being unable to understand another person's experience. Empathy can open us up to new learning and new appreciation of another person.

Here's how Attribution Theory works when practicing empathy: How we relate and make sense of others' behavior affects our thinking and behavior. Parents who learn to feel what their child feels, taking on their child’s perspective, can better understand why he is behaving as he does, and that is an important step in helping him change that behavior.

For example, a parent of a 3 year old complains during an office visit that her daughter doesn’t ever want to go to bed and once there, wants drinks, gets out of bed to get something, sneaks in to see what mom is doing. Instead of attributing the child's behavior to the child wanting to "drive her crazy" or "being bad", attributing it to an empathic point of view helps that mom think about bedtime from her child’s point of view. That will help her understand why she doesn’t want to go to bed because the child is thinking, for example: “What if I miss something exciting? One more hug would feel good. It’s lonesome in my bed by myself. I wonder what mom is doing? I hear the TV. What are they watching?”

This mom can also ask her child what she's thinking, which helps her do the next step in Mind S.E.T.--the teaching step. Using empathy, that mom knows why her child is resisting going to bed and can work on ways to help her child learn to self-calm and put herself to sleep. She is free to teach her daughter new bedtime skills.

A few more words about empathy...

Empathy involves understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experiences of another person without being told what those thoughts and feelings are. In interacting with children, it is very important to use empathy in understanding behavior. The “why” question of behavior can best be solved through trying to view the world though the eyes of the child. Remember, children are new people. They don’t enter this world with all the knowledge and experience we adults have. So, when we look at a child’s world, we can understand it better if we throw away all of our experiences for a moment and see the world as the child sees it.

Empathy is essential in the teaching aspect of parenting. You know how you feel if behavior is demanded of you that you don’t understand, don’t know how to accomplish and is presented in an angry way. Demanding change without understanding the person who you want to change will lead to frustration on the part of all. Having empathy for your child’s limits and ability to understand and follow directions will help develop a teaching strategy for success.

Empathy is essential in all of our interactions. It is especially essential for parenting because it can give a child what is needed most, a consistently caring, supportive and protective adult as a guide to adulthood.


Teaching is based on Applied Behavior Analysis, and is the third step, the "T" in the S.E.T. of Mind S.E.T.  In decades of research on effective teaching strategies, hundreds of studies have found that the best way to change a behavior is to teach a new behavior that replaces the old behavior. A whole education system is based on this field of Applied Behavior Analysis.

We also know that a child’s first teachers are his parents. And parents have a vital duty to Teach how to function in the world because children are not preprogrammed with everything they needed to know.

The Teaching steps in Behavior Checker's over 150 behaviors are based on Applied Behavior Analysis, and are quite simple: Demonstrate the behavior you want a child to do; ask the child to do the behavior; and make doing the behavior worthwhile. 

Here's an example about how to Teach a new behavior, after using positive Self-Talk and Empathy: The daughter we’ve talked about before who doesn’t want to go to bed has been using delaying tactics, such as refusing to brush her teeth, and then finding many incredibly fascinating things to look at on her way to bed. Then there are the drinks and extra hugs and cries for one more story.

So what does this mom need to Teach? Taking the problem one behavior at a time, mom can teach getting into bed quickly without a lot of dawdling and delaying tactics.

To help mom teach her child to go to bed without a struggle, Behavior Checker has two teaching tools that are based on Applied Behavior Analysis research--Beat the Clock and Grandma’s Rule. Grandma’s Rule is a when-then contract that states: “When you get into bed before the timer sounds, then you get an extra story and extra hug.” Beat the Clock involves mom setting the timer on her phone for a few minutes, saying,  “The timer starts now. Go!”

Think about all that’s being taught here: how to get into bed quickly, time counts, there’s a reward for getting a job done, and racing the clock is fun. All of these are lifelong skills that will serve her well.

These tools Teach a child what she needs to learn. She doesn’t inherently know that it is best for her health and well-being to go to bed at a regular time each night in order to get the sleep she needs. She doesn’t understand that a consistent routine makes life less stressful.




The authors and Raised with Love and Limits Foundation disclaim responsibility for any harmful consequences, loss, injury or damage associated with the use and application of information or advice contained in these prescriptions and on this website. These protocols are clinical guidelines that must be used in conjunction with critical thinking and critical judgment.