If your teen struggles to shut down the pessimistic voice inside their head, you can help them view things differently by teaching them to challenge their negative thoughts.
“In times of stress, we don’t always think rationally,” said Dr. Kevin Triemstra, pediatric psychologist at Akron Children’s Hospital. “For example, thinking you’re going to fail a test, and if you do, you won’t get into college. That’s not a rational thought but, when we’re stressed, it can seem true.”
Regardless of whether they pass or fail the test, teens may need a reminder that they can and will get through tough things.
Recognizing self-limiting behaviors
When kids are anxious that people will make fun of them for something they say, they may stay quiet to avoid what they ‘think’ will happen.
“Avoidance seems like the right choice in moments of anxiety, but it often just prolongs the worry,” said Dr. Triemstra. “For example, if a child chooses not to raise their hand in class for fear of being wrong, they don’t get to experience what really would have happened, which is often less scary.
“It’s likely most of their classmates wouldn’t notice or care if they got a question wrong. And, by speaking up, they may have less anxiety the next time because they saw that nothing bad happened,” he added. “Avoidance can have a negative effect on us. It’s wise to recognize when you’re falling into these traps so you can self-correct and choose otherwise.”
Turning destructive thoughts into constructive ones
Changing thought patterns is something that takes practice. Before we can start retraining or challenging our thoughts, we need to be aware of them.
“Encourage your teen to journal so they can identify their thought patterns,” said Dr. Triemstra. “Once they begin to be more aware of what they’re telling themself, they can then start to question or challenge their thoughts.”
For example, are their thoughts accurate? Are they helpful? If not, ask them to come up with something else more truthful, reasonable or uplifting. Alternative thoughts, when practiced over time, may start to come to mind more often in difficult situations.
“Talking back to a negative thought with a more helpful one can become a habit and will hopefully change how a person responds when negative thinking occurs again,” said Dr. Triemstra.
How can you help your child?
One way to work with kids on thought changing is to offer other possibilities or gently question their negative guesses. For example, if your child says, “Nobody will come to my birthday party,” you could say, “What are some other ways it could turn out?” Alternatively, you could remind them if that happens, they will be able to handle it and you will find a way to make the best out of any situation.
Akron Children’s Hospital has many resources available to families with kids and teens who need more support.