The mind is powerful. Simple words generated by our mind greatly affect how we feel and what we do. Many thought patterns can become habitual, and when they are primarily negative, a vicious cycle of negative thinking/feelings/and/actions can be set into motion and become perpetuated.

Children with negative thought habits may frequently whine, have tantrums, argue, or otherwise get upset about many things. Negative thought habits are also common with depression, anxiety, and fear and can cause children to withdraw, resist trying new things, or have difficulty “performing” in front of others. For these children, learning to reframe negative thinking can be an important step toward feeling better and behaving with better coping skills. It takes guidance and practice, but it makes a positive difference that can last a lifetime!

As an example, let’s look at the difference our mind can make when learning new things. It’s common to stumble and get frustrated while learning new things. We may think: “I’m stupid – I quit!” versus “I made a mistake and often have trouble with this, but there are many things I’m smart about. If I stick with it, I can do this.”

The child with negative thought habits believe s/he is stupid, a failure, unable to do anything right, so s/he quits the activity, feeling terrible, frustrated, angry, and worthless and making cross facial expressions, holding her/himself tightly, yelling, and refusing to try similar things.

The child with positive thought habits will, in a similar situation, ask for help or try other ways to engage in the activity, feeling confident, hopeful, powerful, and persistent and re-applying her/his efforts and looking forward to trying new things.
Negative thinking takes many forms, but often involves inaccuracies and exaggerations. “Red flag”  words usually describe things in absolute terms and can trap children into a limited and often negative frame of mind, leaving little room for truth, collaboration, resilience, or constructive solutions. These words include:

  • definitely
  • boring
  • stupid
  • dumb
  • hate
  • don’t care
  • failed
  • worst
  • wrong
  • quit
  • everything
  • nothing
  • never
  • always

Just as negative words and phrases can close off the mind to solutions and increase the risk of conflict, other words and phrases help expand the mind, creating the possibility for accuracy, collaboration, and solutions. These words include:

  • right now
  • sometimes
  • some things
  • one thing
  • this part of…
  • this assignment…
  • what worked was…
  • next time
  • maybe
  • probably
  • but if…
  • what if…
  • fortunately…
  • I feel…
  • I wonder…
  • I imagine…
  • another way to look at it…

With practice, children who struggle with negativity can develop new, more accurate and beneficial ways of thinking.

  • “You never listen to me” versus “It seems like you aren’t listening to me right now. I’d appreciate it if you …”
  • “This is boring” versus “I am bored, but I’ll look for some way to occupy myself or something I can find interesting here.”
  • “I’m a loser” versus “Sometimes I have a difficult time with…”
  • “We failed” versus “One thing that went wrong was…”
  • “I quit” versus “What if next time I…”
  • “He/she is so mean” versus “Maybe he/she didn’t mean to hurt my feelings… anyway, I can handle this.”

Parents, try to catch yourselves thinking or using “red flag” words” and replacing them with phrases that are more accurate and helpful. You may notice how you feel and act differently. Whether we have noticed it before or not, many people do this automatically. (“I don’t want to get out of bed!” gets replaced by “I’ll give myself a few more minutes and then get ready for the day. If I’m prepared, it will be a better day.”) You can do this internally while paying attention to your thoughts and can also make verbal corrections. Verbalizing has added benefits of modeling healthy thinking to children.

For people with persistent or debilitating problems with negative thinking (including those who may be anxious, fearful, depressed, or have difficulty with frequent or extreme bouts of anger), consider seeing a therapist who practices “cognitive behavioral therapy” (CBT). CBT provides tools and techniques to make you more aware of thoughts, feelings, and actions and ways to develop new and healthy (thought, feeling, and action) habits. CBT can be effective with children as well as adults.