My eight-year-old son is a big feeler and a big thinker. I know this can be a strength, but I notice it also sometimes means he gets bogged down in his thoughts and can be pessimistic or negative. For example, one small thing goes wrong and then “everything’s wrong,” or he makes a small mistake and then it’s “I’m a failure.” How can I help him be more positive and not see little challenges as catastrophes?
– Positively Tired of the Negativity
Gosh that sounds tough! Even for the most flexible thinking of parents, hearing our children speak negatively can put us into a negative tail spin as well.
Although it may not seem it, the types of thinking your son is displaying are very common, and honestly, quite natural. We are wired to notice what’s wrong as a form of protection! However, this can cause problems when we do it most of the time and in most situations.
The fact that you are noticing how your son is negatively impacted by his own thoughts is a great starting point to help him turn things around. As he gains awareness of his thought patterns, he will be in a good position to reframe his thoughts to more helpful ones.
The term we use in cognitive behavioral therapy to describe your son’s habit of thinking is Cognitive Distortions. Basically, he is interpreting events that happen in his life in unhelpful or distorted ways, which leads to yucky feelings, and often poor choices, initiating a self-fulfilling prophecy and negative feedback loop.
What your son can do, with your help, is gain awareness of what unhelpful thinking styles he tends to use, and practice using alternative and more helpful thoughts instead. Once you and he understand the unhelpful thinking styles, you can get to work together as emotion detectives to find evidence that disproves the unhelpful thought. When we replace or reframe an unhelpful thought with a more truthful and helpful one, you can see how it positively impacts mood and behavior.
Your son’s claim that “everything is wrong” is a great example of Black and White Thinking, also known as All-or-Nothing Thinking:
Black and White Thinking
With this style of thinking, your son views things in extremes: Things are always good or bad, right or wrong. This is called Black and White Thinking because he thinks in terms of opposites.
How to reframe his thoughts: Talk with your son about how things in life are rarely black and white, always or never, awesome or terrible. If he can catch himself when he thinks or says “everything’s wrong” and then find evidence that disproves it—such as identifying a few things that are not, in fact, wrong—he can reframe to something like, “I am not happy about that, and I will make a plan to handle it.”
Your son’s other claim that he is “a failure” after making a small mistake is an example of the cognitive distortion called Name Calling:
This thinking style involves your son calling himself mean names based on his behavior in a single situation. For example, he might do poorly on a test and say, “I am so dumb” or “I am a failure.”
How to reframe his thoughts: Talk with your son about the objective facts of what happened, without judgments or opinions. Making a mistake doesn’t mean that a whole person is a mistake or failure. Look for evidence that disproves the original unhelpful thought, such as times when a mistake created a learning moment or was actually better than the original plan. A reframed thought could be, “I made a mistake and that meant I didn’t do well on the test. I am human and mistakes happen, plus I can learn from this.”
These are just two of the many categories of cognitive distortions, and we can all be guilty of them from time to time—kids and parents alike! Remind your son that it’s okay to have these thoughts. What’s important is noticing them, recognizing them, and reframing them to change your overall mindset.
I hope this helps as a starting point for you and your son to make a habit of more helpful thinking! There are also books that can help support your conversation with him, including my newest children’s book My Brilliant, Resilient Mind: How to Ditch Negative Thinking to Handle Hard Things Better.
Keep up the great job of supporting your kiddo. Best wishes!
– Christina Furnival, MS, LPCC