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7 Thoughts That Make Children and Teens Feel Miserable

Helping children and teens stay emotionally healthy as they return to school.

We are in the thick of a worldwide pandemic. Complicating all of this, soon kids will head back to school buildings and/or into online school. For them to truly function well in these scary times, they need to be resilient to deal with stress. As parents, therapists, educators, and coaches we need to help children and teens learn to manage their anxiety, sadness, anger, and other challenging emotions.

As I describe in my new book, The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, children and teens very often experience combinations of upsetting emotions, versus one at a time, even if this does not appear evident. Yet whatever combination of anxious, sad, or angry feelings a child is experiencing, it's those underlying, lurking negative thinking patterns that drive these emotional struggles!

The process of identifying, reevaluating, and challenging these problematic thoughts—the essence of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)—is sometimes referred to as cognitive restructuring. When you discuss managing troubling thoughts with children and teens, the term, ANTS, (automatic negative thoughts) may resonate more readily with them. Whatever words best echo this crucial message, we must teach and encourage children to spot and learn to dispute the following upsetting thought patterns! These self-sabotaging thoughts not only lead to school stress, but also to peer struggles, body image issues, and family conflicts.

Here are seven distorted thinking patterns that weigh heavily on children and teens:

  1. All-or-nothing thinking. Otherwise known as polarized thinking, this type of cognitive distortion comes into play when we think things in our lives have to be perfect or else, we are just a failure. So, for example, if a child doesn't get an A on a test then they unfairly see themselves as a total failure.
  2. Jumping to conclusions. This occurs when we fool ourselves into thinking we can read others’ minds. As an example, a child may already think that they will be seen in a negative way in the eyes of peers even before seeing them.
  3. Negative filtering. This occurs when we focus on the negative aspects of a situation and exaggerate or magnify them while failing to see any positives. For example, a child's teacher tells them they did a nice job on a presentation but also provided constructive feedback with the suggestion to slow down the pace. The child or teen then dismisses how well they did when the teacher really just wanted to hear what they had to say.
  4. Catastrophizing. This is also known as magnifying. Catastrophizing occurs when we say things to ourselves like “What if,” where we expect the worst things to happen. For example, the child or teen might say, “What if I don’t make the baseball team and kids give me crap about it for the rest of the year?”
  5. Should thinking (“Shoulding”). With this problematic thought pattern, you have a list of rigid rules about how you and others should behave. Let’s say a child or teen is frustrated about how long it’s taking them to do a single math problem. They may problematically think, “What is wrong with me? This math problem shouldn’t be so hard to do.” Sometimes teens, and even adults, think that beating themselves up with the word, should, makes them feel or look noble. The reality is that it leads to shame. And shame can lead children and teens to feel down, and zap their motivation to get things done and reach their goals.
  6. Negative labeling. You rigidly stick a negative label on yourself. For many kids, when it comes to schoolwork, they frequently saddle themselves with unfair labels like “lazy” or “stupid.” Negative labels are a real burden because once you give yourself one, you tend to live up to it.
  7. Negative comparisons. This occurs when you unfavorably compare yourself to others. For example, kids may think, “She’s thinner, and she’s prettier, so who cares if I have nicer hair?” Or, “He is a star athlete and hot girls like him; who cares if people think I’m smart?”

The full approach to managing upsetting thoughts that I espouse, involves using a combination of mindfulness skills (to quiet the mind), CBT (to challenge upsetting thoughts), and positive psychology (to infuse optimism and grit going forward). The examples below, which focus on helping children and teens identify and reframe negative thoughts, are provided as sample soundbites to empower them to identify, challenge, and conquer anxious, sad, and angry thoughts that get in their way.

Talking Back to Unhelpful, Counterproductive Thoughts

Ask children and teens to think about how some of their negative, counterproductive thoughts that they have had about presentations, and homework demands and how they trigger certain worries. Gently help them see those upsetting thoughts get in the way of these academic demands. Share the following examples to help them see that while the reactive part of their brain leads them to doubt their academic abilities, that doesn’t mean they have to buy into these anxious thoughts.

You can use the following soundbites or extrapolate from them to speak directly to help your child or teen:

  • When a child expresses a counterproductive, all-or-nothing thought like, “I will never understand this homework,” you might reframe it for them with a helpful thought, such as, “Yeah, this assignment is tough, but I have made it through hard class material before.”
  • If a teen describes a negative labeling thought like, “I failed the science test, so I am stupid,” you can coach them to replace this with a more positive thought, such as, “I didn’t do well on this test, but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I get better grades when I study more.”
  • When children struggle with “shoulding” thoughts like, “I should have studied harder for the math test tomorrow,” you can encourage a more realistic, reasonable alternative thought such as, “I’m not loving this hard math test, but I owe it to myself to give it my best effort.”
  • For a child or teen expressing a negative-comparison thought such as, “Why did I get a C on that lab assignment when my partner got an A?,” you can suggest they will feel a lot better by thinking, “I did my best, and I even improved from last time.”

Telling children and teens to relax and not be so stressed out will not get them very far if they don't have tools to use. But constructively coaching using examples such as these described above will help the learn what I consider to be the two most crucial skills for life: Calming down and solving problems.

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Bernstein, J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (2nd Ed.) Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein J. (2009) Liking the Child You Love, Perseus Books, New York, NY.

Bernstein, J. (2019). The Stress Survival Guide for Teens. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Letting go of Anger—Card deck for teens. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.

Bernstein, J. (2017). Mindfulness for Teen Worry: (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications)

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