4 steps to help children think more positively.

Parents are often frustrated, or shocked with their children’s unhelpful, negative, faulty thinking styles. But the fact is that most children have negative thinking and children, teens and adults can all experience cognitive distortions. It’s part of being human! Here are 4 steps to help children think more positively.

4 steps to help children think more positively

Do you often hear statements from your child like “I don’t want to go to dancing, everyone hates me”, “I can’t do maths, I’m stupid”, “I bet people will laugh at me”…?

Rather than rush to make false promises “I guarantee you nothing bad will happen”, criticise “stop being so negative” or invalidate “oh don’t be silly”, you can give you child so much more by helping them learn how to reframe their thinking. Here’s how:

            1. Explain what thoughts are

Children (and adults!) often confuse thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Before your child is able to challenge unhelpful thoughts, they need to know what they are! Some good ideas are:

* Get out their favourite book with pictures, and try to guess what each character is thinking.

*Explain that a thought comes from your head and a feeling comes from your heart and body

*Ask your child to draw a situation that happened that day, then draw speech bubbles over people’s heads and fill in the thought.


           2. Discuss the difference between helpful and unhelpful thoughts

Explain that some thoughts make us feel good “I love playing with my friends!”, some make us feel bad “I can’t do anything right” and some make us feel neutral “hmmm…where are my shoes?”. Giving a name for positive and negative thoughts can be a great way to distinguish between them. Some ideas are:

*Cheerful Chats vs. Terrible Talk

*Mr Worry vs. Miss Calm

*Negative Nancy’s vs. Happy Chappy’s


         3. Gently challenge the thoughts by asking questions

Again, the best way for children to learn how to challenge their negative thoughts is for them to do it themselves. But you can definitely get this step started by asking open, non-judgemental questions to challenge the negative thoughts. Explain to your child that you are going to be detectives and try to find the clues of the missing happy thoughts:

*If a friend had the same thought, what would you say to him/her?

*Is there another way of thinking about the situation?

*Has this ever happened before? How did you handle it then?

*Is your mind coming up with the worst case? Could it be not so bad?

*If that does happen, how could you handle it?


             4. Help them come up with an alternative

Make a list of all of your child’s common negative thoughts in one column. Then, together you can come up with challenges for each one. Importantly, do not just come up with a unrealistically positive statement. e.g. if a child’s negative thought is “I hate snakes, I will freak out”, don’t put “I love snakes and it won’t bother me”. They will quickly discover that this isn’t true! Instead, try to come up with a balanced, realistic challenge e.g. “I don’t like snakes, but if I see one I can breathe and walk away”

You can use this reframing chart to get you started!

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  1. Great tips. I followed a similar style when my three were little but I must admit, we never really had negative talk. Still don’t with the youngest two… my eldest 17, now that’s a different story. I’m not sure if it is negative so much as just a teen couldn’t be bothered unless they are interested kind of thing. Trying to think back to what I was like then but it was so long ago.

    1. Jess

      Maybe they never really had negative talk because you did follow this style! Start balanced thinking when they’re young and it helps them greatly throughout life…except some teen years, that it just unavoidable!

  2. I’ve been studying similar stuff for adults in my counselling course, it’s fascinating isn’t it? These are such useful strategies and important life skills for children that they can use not only now, but well into adulthood.

    1. Jess

      So useful! Reframing thoughts may seem like a simple skill but if you aren’t taught when you’re young, it becomes much harder.

  3. This is a great idea and more families need to be helping themselves to help their kids as it can be very hard when our immediate actions & thoughts go to the negative. I also realise that is often our ‘default’.

    1. Jess

      yes I agree, the negative or the ‘just be happy!’ is typically our default. Neither of which is particularly helpful!

  4. Great advice. We’ve learned some of this stuff through both our psychologist (via the cool kids program where my son learned all about detective thinking to combat anxiety) and our speech therapist. At speech my son has learned about The Unthinkables, characters that encourage you to have bad thoughts, and how to defeat them by using super flexible thinking (personified by a character called SuperFlex). We’ve certainly seen a lot of benefits with these two programs – glad that we are on the right track!

    1. Jess

      That is fantastic, I am always keen to learn of new ways to explain thinking to children. Superheroes and characters are a great way to do this!

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