Do you have a child who is often emotional or moody – or prone to anxiety or depression? If so, you might be familiar with the negative self-talk that often contributes to these conditions. And, actually, any child – or adult – is subject to these thoughts on occasion.
Negative or anxious self-talk – sometimes also called “automatic negative thoughts” – is unhelpful, often skewed thinking that tends to drive negative emotions and behaviors. For example, your daughter might react to a friend who gets angry while playing and goes home, by thinking “I’m no fun to play with….nobody likes me” – and might avoid inviting any other kids to come over and play.
I learned about the concept of negative self-talk years ago through cognitive behavioral therapy while dealing with issues from my childhood. But I was surprised when I first began noticing examples of this thought pattern in my young son. When Elliott was in his first couple of years of elementary school, he would often come home at the end of the day and report that his day was “terrible”.
After digging a little I would often find out that one “bad” thing had happened each of these days – which then tainted the whole rest of the day. This overgeneralization / all-or-nothing thinking is an example of negative self-talk – and caused Elliott to have negative emotions about school and resist going in the mornings.
There are several different types of negative or anxious self-talk. A good reference book on anxiety for teens and kids – My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic (by Michael A. Tompkins, PhD and Katherine Martinez PhD) – gives an interesting classification for these unhelpful thoughts (a summary is listed at the end of this post). This book was recommended to me by a child and family psychologist and is well worth a read.
As the book title suggests, there are ways to deal with and manage such unhelpful thinking – and it’s useful to start early with kids who are prone to negative thoughts. At a minimum, it helps to start by identifying and unpacking the negative thought.
For example, with my son Elliott and his “terrible” days at school, I started asking him if anything good happened during the day. This got him to go over all the events of his time at school and put the “bad” experience into context – and I suggested that one or two bad experiences might not make a whole day terrible. Pretty soon, when I asked him how his day was, Elliott would outline how different parts of the day went (great, so-so, neutral, awful, etc) – and this pattern has persisted for more than five years! Even better, he has generally been much more positive about his school days ever since.
Additional exercises for recognizing and dealing with negative self-talk are provided in My Anxious Mind. Another practical book, with useful exercise to help teens cope with negative thoughts and other drivers of anxiety, is The Anxiety Workbook for Teens, by Lisa M. Schab, LCSW.
Types of Anxious Self-Talk (from My Anxious Mind: A Teen’s Guide to Managing Anxiety and Panic)
This is anxious thinking that assumes there are only two possible outcomes of a situation – both at opposite extremes, with no possibilities in the middle. So, the child in the earlier example might be focused on how the play date with her friend needed to be perfect, and if that didn’t happen it would be a disaster.
In this unhelpful thought process, your child will “magnify” the effect of something bad – like failing a test – and assume that he won’t be able to go to college as a result. Or he might “shrink” the importance of something good, like all his excellent grades in other classes.
This type of self-talk involves your child thinking he or she can predict the future – usually thinking something bad will happen. For example, your child is engaging in fortune telling if she decides to audition for a part in the school play but spends the weeks leading up to the audition thinking “I’m not going to get the part”. Maybe she will, maybe she won’t – but she doesn’t know, and anxious self-talk won’t help the outcome either way.
In the earlier example, the girl whose friend got angry and went home assumed that she could read her friend’s mind; that the friend thought she wasn’t fun and didn’t like her anymore. This is the mind reading track – and it’s important for the girl to know she isn’t a psychic and her friend will probably be back to play the next day.
With overgeneralization, similar to binocular vision, your child will focus on something small (usually bad) to make broad conclusions or sweeping statements – like, if one friend gets angry at me then no one likes me. Or if your son has one bad soccer game, assuming he’s no good and will get cut from the team.
End of the World
With this anxious track, your child is always expecting something terrible to happen. This could be at school or in relationships with friends, but it could also be thinking that every noise around the house is a burglar.
Too many thoughts with “shoulds” and “musts” can set the bar for performance and life experience way too high – and make your child anxious and less confident.
In this type of unhelpful thinking your child will jump to conclusions (usually negative) without all the facts – like when hearing that he isn’t invited to a party at a friend’s house, your son assumes his friend doesn’t like him. Getting the facts might tell him otherwise, especially if he finds out it’s a family-only affair (for example).