Children, just like adults, are prone to negative thinking. Their negative thinking can lead them to be avoidant, have meltdowns, get into fights, and take other negative actions. The concept of thoughts can be a little abstract for children. Certainly more difficult to understand than feelings and behaviors.
When helping children change their thinking, I make the concepts concrete, give them opportunities to practice, and break down the skills needed to change negative thinking to positive, realistic thinking.
First, we want to help a child identify a thought as negative or positive. The best way to do this is with simple sorting activities.
Once a child can recognize negative thoughts, you can practice labeling the kind of negative thought it is. This is helpful if a child makes the same type of thought error all the time. For example, say the child always assumes the worst is going to happen. This type of negative thinking is called Forecasting. With the child, you can create a name for it, such as Worried Weatherman or Doom & Gloom. When the child repeats this type of negative thinking, it is then easy to say, "That sounds like a worried weatherman thought to me."
Children can create a short list of the types of negative thoughts they have often. From this list they can come up with ways to change these types of thoughts.
Pushing a child to challenge their negative thinking can often lead to them being stubborn or defensive. Try separating their negative thinking from them. You can label these negative thoughts as the child's Inner Critic, Mean Brain, Stormin' Stu. It doesn't really matter.
This lets you say:
Sounds like Stormin' Stu is making you feel angry and think that everyone left you out.
That sounds like Mean Brain thoughts. We don't have to listen to Mean Brain thoughts. We can actually tell those Mean Brain thoughts they are wrong
Once you separate negative thoughts from the child, you can push them to be the boss of those negative thoughts. The child can ask their Inner Critic what evidence there is for the negative thought. Even simpler, they can ask themselves what makes that negative thought true or false.
Once you have identified and labeled a negative thought, it's time to change it. Try these approaches to make this more open task more straightforward.
Write down events that might lead to negative thoughts. State the negative event, and then reframe it by finding something good.
Ugh, I didn't get my first choice for the book report. But, my teacher did say that I could pick any other book I wanted.
You can also take the same negative events and challenge a child to find the silver lining.
Similarly, you can present the concept of half full/half empty. The child can come up with half full thoughts and half empty thoughts. You can use the same concept to have children sort negative and positive thoughts as well.
Now that they can identify, challenge and reframe a negative thought, it's time to replace those negative thoughts with positive, realistic ones.
Positive self-talk is a ideal for this. A great place to start is come up with a few key phrases that the child can repeat. For example, say they have negative thoughts before presenting a book report to their class. They are worried that they will forget what to say. Their positive self-talk could be "I am a good student and I do well when I prepare."
If you go back to the list of common negative thoughts the child has, this is a great place to write down simple, positive thoughts they can say instead.
Laura is a former school psychologist passionately trying to bring social-emotional learning to every student at every tier. Click here for hands-on resources for the classroom and counseling.
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