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How to Stop Automatic Negative Thinking In Children

Every kids blow things out of proportion or jump to conclusions at times, but consistently distorting reality is not normal.

“I didn’t get invited to Julie’s party… I’m such a loser.”

“I missed the bus… nothing ever goes my way.”

“My science teacher wanted to see me… I must be in trouble.”

These were the thoughts of a high school student named James. You wouldn’t know they were from his thoughts, but James is actually pretty popular and gets decent grades.

Unfortunately, in the face of adversity, James made a common error; he had fallen into what I would like to call “thought holes.” Thought holes, or cognitive distortions, are skewed perceptions of reality. They are negative interpretations of a situation based on poor assumptions. For James, thought holes caused intense emotional distress.

Here’s the thing, all kids blow things out of proportion or jump to conclusions at times, but consistently distorting reality is not normal. Studies show that self-defeating thoughts (i.e., “I’m a loser”) will lead to self-defeating emotions (i.e., pain, anxiety, malaise) that, in turn, causing self-defeating actions (i.e., acting out, skipping school). If left unchecked, this tendency may as well lead to even more severe conditions, such as depression and anxiety.

Fortunately, in a few steps, we can teach teens how to get over their thought holes. It’s time to ditch the idea of positive thinking and introduce the tool of accurate thinking. The lesson begins with understanding of what causes inaccurate thinking in the first place.

We Create Our Own (Often Distorted) Reality

One person walked down a busy street and on his way noticed graffiti on the wall, dirt on the pavement and a couple fighting. Another person walked down the same street and noticed a refreshing breeze, an ice cream cart and a smile from a stranger. We each absorb select scenes in our environment through which we shall interpret the situation. In essence, we create our own reality through which we pay attention to.

Why don’t we just interpret the situations based on all of the information? It’s actually impossible, there are simply too many stimuli to process. In fact, the subconscious mind can absorb 20 million bits of information through all five senses in a mere second. Data is then filtered down so that the conscious mind focuses on only about 7 to 40 bits. This is a mental shortcut.

Shortcuts keep us sane by preventing sensory overload. They help us judge situations quickly. Shortcuts also, however, leave us vulnerable to errors in perception. Because we perceive reality based on a tiny sliver of information, if those information becomes unbalanced (e.g., ignores the positive and focuses on the negative), we would be left with a skewed perception of reality, or a thought hole.

Eight Common Thought Holes

Not only are we susceptible to errors in thinking, but we also tend to make those same errors over and over again. Seminal work by psychologist Aaron Beck, often referred to as the father of cognitive therapy, and his former student, David Burns, uncovered several common thought holes as seen below.

Jumping to conclusions: judging a situation based on assumptions in opposed to definitive facts
Mental filtering: paying attention only to the negative details in a situation while ignoring the positive
Magnifying: magnifying negative aspects of a situation
Minimizing: minimizing positive aspects of a situation
Personalizing: assuming the blame for problems even when you are not primarily responsible
Externalizing: pushing the blame for problems onto others even when you are primarily responsible
Overgeneralizing: concluding that one bad incident will lead to a repeated pattern of defeat
Emotional reasoning: assuming your negative emotions translate into reality, or confusing feelings with facts


Going from Distorted Thinking to Accurate Thinking

Once teens understand why they had fallen into thought holes and that several common ones exist, they are ready to start filling them in by trying a method developed by GoZen! called the 3Cs:

  1. Check for common thought holes
  2. Collect evidences to develop an accurate picture
  3. Challenge the original thoughts

Let’s run through the 3Cs using James as an example.

James was recently asked by his science teacher to chat after class. He immediately thought, “I must be in trouble,” and began to feel distressed.
Using the 3Cs, James should first check to see if he had fallen into one of those common thought holes.

Based on the list above, it seems he had jumped to a conclusion.

James’s next step is to collect as much data or evidences as possible to create a more accurate picture of the situation. His evidences may look something like the following statements:

“I usually get good grades in science class.”

“Teachers sometimes ask you to chat after class when something is wrong.”

“I’ve never been in trouble before.”

“The science teacher didn’t seem upset when he asked me to chat.”

With all the evidence at hand, James can now challenge his original thought. The best (and most entertaining) way to do this is for James to have a debate with himself.

On one side is the James who believes he was in big trouble with his science teacher; on the other side is the James who believes that nothing was really wrong. James could use the evidence he collected to duke it out with himself! In the end, this type of self-disputation increases accurate thinking and improves emotional well-being.

Let’s teach our teens that thoughts, even distorted ones, can affect their emotional well-being. Let’s teach them to forget positive thinking and try accurate thinking instead. Above all, let’s teach our teens that they have the power to choose their thoughts.

As the pioneering psychologist and philosopher, William James, once time said that,“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”