Negative thinking isn’t something that just plagues adults. It also plagues kids.
In the book Freeing Your Child From Negative Thinking: Powerful Practical Strategies to Build a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility and Happiness, child psychologist Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D, writes that for kids with a “negative thinking bias,” negative thoughts become “the default, the first, last and final word.”
Kids simply don’t realize that they have a choice in whether they internalize these thoughts. Instead, they start to see these inaccurate beliefs as absolute truths.
Fortunately, Chansky says that parents can help! Whether your child expresses negative thoughts occasionally or on a regular basis, you can help them overcome these harmful patterns of thinking. Below are three activities to try with your kids.
Spotting Negative Thoughts
But first, in order to tackle negative thoughts, you have to be able to spot them. Chansky provides this list of red flags.
- Exaggerating and extending the importance of an adverse event
- Blaming self for something that was caused by external circumstances; blaming big for small things
- Generalizing that whatever happened always happens
- Becoming easily angry with self
- Not trying activities unless sure can excel
- Thinking bad things always happen, good things never happen
- Trouble tolerating mistakes, disappointment or losing
- Shutting down in the face of any obstacle
1. Distinguishing between negative and accurate thoughts
For kids, telling the difference between negative and more accurate thoughts is tough. (It’s tough enough for adults!)
One simple way to help young kids make the distinction is by using stuffed animals to represent each line of thinking. Chansky says: “The cranky puppy and the happy bear can both be looking at the same situation—spilling the milk—and have two very different versions of the story.”
If your child is older, take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On one side, write “Negative Thoughts or “Meany Brain Thoughts.” On the other side, write “My Good Thoughts” or “Smart Thoughts.”
2. Becoming an optimistic thinker
Cultivating optimism in kids also is key in addressing negative thinking. Chansky gives a good example in her book. Say two kids are at an ice cream shop and their rocky road slips off the cone. One exclaims, “It wasn’t on right, so it fell. I want another one.” The other child says, “Why does this always happen to me? This store always does it wrong. Everything’s ruined. This is the worst day of my life.”
In the first example, the optimistic child relays the facts and sees a solution for the problem. However, the pessimistic child “inserts extraneous material from outside the script, attributing intention, permanency and a global quality to something that was a small accident, plain and simple.” (Which might sound familiar to many of us adults!)
Parents can play the “Unfortunately, Fortunately” game with their kids. Together with your child, come up with “five sticky situations,” which you write down on cards and put in a hat. Each person then pulls out a card and says the unfortunate situation (Chansky uses the example: “Unfortunately, the movie I wanted to see was sold out”). The other person responds with a fortunate perspective (“But fortunately, I went to see another movie”). Then you go back and forth, each mentioning unfortunate and fortunate circumstances.
The next time your child is going through a difficult situation, you might say, according to Chansky, “There are a lot of ‘unfortunatelys’ stacking up. Can we see if there are any ‘fortunatelys’ in this situation?”
3. Building distance from negative thoughts
It’s also important to help your child get “some distance and perspective” on a situation. To do so, avoid saying that they’re being negative. Instead, blame the “negative brain.” (This also makes you an ally, Chansky says, in helping defend your child against this “troublesome third party of Mr. No—the real bad guy ruining her day.”)
According to Chansky, this relabeling “begins to demote the validity of negative thinking, encouraging the child to not trust it as the ‘truth,’ but as the annoying, upsetting, overprotective or just sort of ill-informed voice that it is.”
Ask your child to pick a name for their negative brain. Chansky gives the following examples: Mr. Sad, Meany Mouse, Fun Blocker. Have them draw the character and create a voice, too. Plus, they can brainstorm ways to talk back to that negative brain: “You’re not the boss of me; you make me feel bad; I’m not listening to you; you see everything as awful; you need new glasses!”
Chansky also has a suggestion on how to initiate the chat with your child about creating the negative brain character. You might say: “Remember when you said you were ‘stupid’ because you drew on the table by accident? You don’t feel that way now, right? But what would you call that voice in your head that made you feel that way then?”
In general, the goal isn’t to halt, deny or fight negative thoughts, Chansky says. Instead, she writes (by the way, an important lesson not just for kids!):
We must change our relationship to them: Although the negative brain is programmed to see the problems, flaws and disappointments, we can nevertheless pick ourselves up and look at things through a different window. The thoughts are just one of many interpretations of a story, and choosing to consider just one or two of the alternatives releases you from the moment of being stuck.