4 Steps To Helping Your Child or Teen Overcome Negative Thinking
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There’s nothing worse than seeing a young person struggle with anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem. Over the many years of working with young people at the Modern Parenting Solutions office, I’ve found that the one thing that holds young people back from having a better life is their mindset.
Now I don’t want to oversimplify this, as anxiety and depression often have biological roots for their presence in a young person’s life, but I’ve seen the power that changing the mindset has when it comes to improving the young person’s life, even when they struggle with anxiety and depression.
One of the most popular and well-researched forms of therapy is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, and it is based upon three core principles:
- Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking.
- Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful
- People suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them by changing their thoughts and behaviors, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives.
CBT is my go-to mode of therapy when I work with young people and their parents because I’ve seen how focusing on changing one’s thoughts and actions goes a long way in improving people’s lives – and that’s my overall goal when working with a family. I want their lives to improve and to build better relationships with the people around them.
The CBT model of emotional experience says that situations trigger thoughts, thoughts trigger emotions, and emotions trigger behaviors (or actions). As a therapist, I know that the way to improve uncomfortable feelings and to change unhealthy (or ineffective) behaviors is to FIRST change your thoughts.
Think about it. If a young person asks their parent to go to their friend’s house on Saturday and the parent says no because the young person didn’t clean their room, then a negative and unhelpful thought that might get triggered could be “my parents are jerks and they always say no.” This thought then could influence a young person to feel unhappy, stuck, and resentful. It could lead to behaviors such as ignoring their parents, sneaking out of the house anyway, or something else equally unhelpful.
On the other hand, if the young person chooses to focus on a positive and helpful thought in this situation, such as “ok, there might be a chance to still go out of I get my room clean,” then this might influence the young person to feel hopeful, in control of their life, and optimistic. These thoughts and emotions might influence the young person to do a really good job cleaning their room and then to take a chance and ask their parent again – and this time, they are more set up to get a “Yes” from their parent.
Do you see how much power our thoughts have over our emotions and behaviors?
Unfortunately, many young people have developed a negative thinking bias which means that they’ve learned to automatically think negative and unhelpful thoughts that keep them stuc,k feeling uncomfortable, and behaving in ways that don’t bring them the things they want.
Fortunately, though, parents can have a big impact on changing their young person’s negative thinking bias, and today’s article is going to show you how to work with your child at home to help them kick the bad habit of the negative thinking bias and to adopt a more positive and helpful outlook.
What Is a Negative Thinking Bias and How to Identify It
As I touched on earlier, a negative thinking bias is when a young person’s go-to strategy is to consistently focus on all the negatives of a situation.
A negative thinking bias:
- Often exaggerates the difficult or unpleasant aspects of a situation
- Causes young people to remain “stuck” in unhealthy behavioral patterns.
- Downplays any positivity of a situation
- Overlooks possible healthy options or possible solutions to challenges.
Young people who don’t work to change a negative thinking bias while they’re young tend to mature into young adults who are pessimistic, stressed, and negative.
So, do you think your child or teen has developed a negative thinking bias? Ask yourself these questions to find out:
- Does your young person exaggerate the importance or awfulness of a situation that doesn’t go their way
- Does your young person tend to always blame themselves for something that was obviously caused by external circumstances?
- Does your young person tend to make mountains out of molehills when it comes to small inconveniences?
- Does your young person tend to believe that bad things always happen to them and good things never happen
- Do they become easily angry with themselves?
- Do they refuse to try activities unless they are sure they can excel at them or not look stupid?
- Do they have trouble tolerating mistakes, disappointment, or losing
- Do they tend to shut down in the face of any obstacle or challenge?
If you said yes to many of the questions above, your child or teen probably uses a negative thinking bias that is influencing them in an ineffective way.
Why Some Young People Default to Negative Thinking
Not all young people are plagued by a negative thinking bias, so what makes some young people more prone to thinking this way?
Natural Born Negative Thinkers
First of all, some young people are just natural-born negative thinkers. It’s in their genes to err on the side of negative thinking. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does make changing this behavior a little harder because it’s going against the grain of what their genes and personality want them to do.
If you’ve noticed that your child or teen seemed to think on the negative side from an early age, then chances are they’re naturally prone to thinking this way. If this is the case, be sure to have a lot of patience as you work with them to change this behavior. It may take longer than you think.
Negative Thinking is a Learned Behavior
The second reason that some young people are more prone to a negative thinking bias is that it is a learned behavior they picked up from their environment. Is there someone in your young person’s life who is also a negative thinker? Could it be you?
If someone in your child or teen’s life is modeling this behavior to them, it’s important to limit your young person’s exposure to them or ask this person to tone down their negativity around your child or teen.
If you are the one modeling this behavior in front of your child, then it’s really important to take on the task of changing your own way of thinking too. Not only will this encourage your child to change, but you’ll begin feeling better about your life too. What an awesome thing to do together!
Underlying Diagnosis of Anxiety or Depression
Finally, the last reason some young people struggle with negative thinking more than other young people their age is that this is a symptom of an underlying anxiety or depression diagnosis.
Anxiety and Depression are not our friends – they want us to focus on all the reasons why our lives are horrible because it keeps us stuck in the anxiety and depression loop. Anxiety and Depression want to stick around forever, so they’re invested in making sure that we stay miserable and unhappy. The only way to break free from the symptoms of anxiety and depression is by first changing the thoughts that keep us stuck there.
Once young people learn how to change their negative thinking, then anxiety and depression symptoms either disappear or become way less present. Positive thinking breaks through the anxious and depressive fog to help young people identify possible solutions or coping strategies that might have been overlooked or ignored by the negative thinking bias.
Is Positive Thinking Just Lying to Ourselves?
When I begin working with a young person to change their negative thinking into positive and empowering thinking, some young people and their parents have a negative reaction. They push back at my suggestion to change their negative thinking into positive thinking by telling me that positive thinking is just lying to yourself – life isn’t always rosebuds and rainbows, so why lie to ourselves?
Now, these people are right – kind of. Positive thinking that tells us that a situation is better than it actually is can be just as dangerous and destructive as negative thinking.
The power in changing negative thoughts happens when the thoughts that we replace the negative ones with are realistic and empowering. They need to be realistic in the sense that they acknowledge both the pros and cons of the situation, and they need to be empowering in a way that influences us to feel more hopeful and in control of our lives. This, in turn, influences us to behave in a way that brings about positive change.
Let me you three scenarios to compare.
First, let’s say that a young person has a big test coming up in math class, and historically, they’ve struggled with maintaining good grades in math their whole life. A negative thought about the upcoming math test might be, “I never get good grades on math tests because I just don’t get math.” This thought might influence the young person to feel hopeless and frustrated and cause them to feel like studying for the test wouldn’t even help. So, they don’t study for the test and get a bad grade, further feeding their negativity.
Here’s the second scenario. A positive but unrealistic thought for this situation might be, “I’m sure everything will work out somehow, and I’ll get an A because I deserve it.” This thought might influence the young person to feel good about themselves and about the test, but it also causes them to not feel like studying, which causes them to bomb the test. This type of unrealistic positive thinking leads to a poor test grade.
Now in this last scenario, a positive, empowering, and realistic thought could be, “When I’ve studied in the past, I’ve done well on math tests, so I’m sure if I put the work into it again this time, I’ll have the same outcome.” This thought influences the young person to feel in control of their situation. They might still feel a little nervous about the test, but they’re able to balance that small amount of anxiety with hope, excitement, and resolve. This causes them to put the time and effort into studying for the test, and the outcome is a good grade.
See the difference between each example? Extreme negative and extreme positive thinking patterns are both ineffective – the secret sauce is finding the balance between positivity and reality.
The 4-Step Process For Turning Negative Thinking Into Positive Thinking
Great! You’ve made it to the action part of the article.
This next section takes you through the 4-step process to coach your child or teen into changing their negative thoughts into positive and empowering ones.
Step 1: Teach your child or teen about the three parts of the emotional experience.
Talk to them about how situations influence thoughts, which influence emotions, which influence behaviors. When we change our thoughts, we change the whole trajectory of our immediate situations and our overall lives.
I’ve found that most young people mistakenly believe that their emotions rule their lives and that they have no power whatsoever to change their emotions. This is because we get so used to discounting our thoughts during intense situations that we focus more on how we’re feeling than what we’re thinking.
But your goal is to teach your child or teen to focus on their thoughts instead of their emotions during these times.
Step 2: Help your child or teen learn to identify their thoughts during intense situations.
This is harder than it sounds. It takes practice to stop in the moment when we’re feeling intense and uncomfortable feelings to examine our thoughts, but it gets easier with practice.
The best way to practice this is to talk to your child or teen during a calm moment. Teach them about the three parts of the emotional experience and then let them know that you are going to help them learn to change their negative thoughts to positive and empowering thoughts during intense situations at home. During these times, you’ll ask them to pause, take a couple of deep breaths to center them, and then you’re going to ask them to identify what they’re thinking.
Now, when you do this in the moment, you can’t get mad at what they tell you they’re thinking. They need to feel safe to really investigate their thoughts. It’s also important to point out that their thoughts aren’t bad – they’re just their thoughts. Teach your child to not be ashamed or afraid of their thoughts. Once we acknowledge all our thoughts, we can then focus on only the thoughts that lead to a desired action or outcome.
Step 3. Help your child or teen identify all possible solutions and options.
Negative thinking is very narrow – it clouds the young person from seeing any other options other than the one that continues to feed the negativity. Once your child has identified their thoughts, challenge them to also identify all possible (and realistic) options.
For example, let’s say that your young person is upset because their friend hasn’t texted them back. You ask them to identify their thoughts and they tell you that they’re thinking that their friend hates them and that they must have done something to ruin the friendship. Now challenge them to identify all possible options of what could be happening (both good and bad): maybe your child upset the friend; maybe they got their phone taken away by their parents; maybe they’re taking a nap; maybe they’re busy doing something else.
Once you’ve identified all the possible options, go on to the next step.
Step 4. Create a positive and empowering thought.
This is the step where you put it all together. Challenge your child to choose to focus on one of the realistic, but positive, thoughts identified in step 3.
For example, if your child chooses to focus on the fact that their friend might be busy, a possible new thought could be:
“I don’t remember doing anything to make my friend mad, so maybe my friend is busy. They did something like this before, and it was because they had to go to their Grandma’s house where they weren’t allowed to be on their phones.”
Now, if your child or teen is new with this strategy, you’re probably going to have to come up with the positive thought for them at first. They might even act like this is a stupid idea, but over time, they WILL learn how to change their negative thinking on their own. Just don’t give up coaching them when you have the opportunity!
To help you out, I’ve created a free resource for you that gives you 50 examples of turning negative thoughts into positive ones. It’s called
Practice, Practice, Practice
Now I want to remind you that it takes A LOT of time and patience on your part to help your child or teen to change their behavior.
Your young person has been able to practice the negative thinking bias for a really long time, so it’s going to take some time before it becomes second nature for them to think positively.
The two best things you can do to set your child up for success for this strategy is to 1) model positive thinking in front of your child and 2) practice turning around their negative thinking with them at every opportunity. When they experience this one-two punch of positive thinking, then even the kid with a strong negative personality will eventually get better at positive thinking.
So the take-home message here is that YOU can do a lot to help your child feel better and to make good things happen in their life all by helping them change their negative thinking into positive thinking.
This parenting strategy isn’t easy – and it takes some time to become a new habit – but it’s well worth it in the end. When young people master the ability to change their uncomfortable emotions into tolerable ones, identify healthy and effective solutions to problems, and focus on the fact that THEY are in control of their emotions and behaviors, then they’ll mature into happy and successful young adults.
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