Helping Children Challenge Negative Thinking 

By Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min
Transform that inner critic into a cheerleader!

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 harmful actions. The concept of thoughts can be abstract for children. Indeed, they are more challenging to understand than feelings and behaviors.

When helping children change their thinking, make the concepts concrete and give them opportunities to practice and break down the skills needed to change negative thinking to positive, realistic thinking.

Label Negative 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.

  1. Write down negative and positive thoughts on pieces of paper.
  2. Label each bag with negative thinking and positive thinking. 
  3. Take turns drawing different thoughts and deciding whether they are negative or positive.
sorting negative thoughts

Once a child can recognize negative thoughts, you can practice labeling the kind of negative thought. It is helpful if a child usually makes the same thought error. For example, say the child always assumes the worst will 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 negative thinking, it is 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 devise ways to change these types of thoughts.

negative thinking poster

Challenge Negative Thinking

Pushing a child to challenge their negative thinking can often make them 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 matter.

Then you can say:

Sounds like Stormin' Stu is making you angry and think everyone left you out. 
That sounds like Mean Brain thoughts. We don't have to listen to Mean Brain's thoughts. We can 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.

Reframe Negative Thinking

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. 

Ugh, But

Write down events that might lead to negative thoughts. State the adverse event, and then reframe it by finding something positive.

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.
negative thinking strategies

Silver Lining

You can also take the same negative events and challenge a child to find the silver lining

Glass Half Full or Half Empty

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.

Negative Thinking Strategies 2

Lots of the students you see for individual or group counseling struggle with some sort of negative thinking. Those negative thoughts can lead to negative feelings and negative actions. We

Counseling Techniques: Reframing Negative Thoughts

Replace Negative Thinking

Now that they can identify, challenge, and reframe negative thoughts, it's time to replace those negative thoughts with positive, realistic ones.

Positive self-talk is ideal for this. A great place to start is to 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 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."

positive thinking activities

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.

Dive in with these posts and download the KICK Plan!

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KICK Plan for Anxiety

Download this set of worksheets to help students become aware of their negative thinking and make a plan to change it.

Negative Thinking Resources

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Challenging Negative Thinking Activities

Use this in small group counseling or individual counseling to help students with automatic negative thoughts identify them, find strategies to challenge them, and create positive replacement thoughts.

Negative Thinking Counseling Activities

This resource will help you teach students about different kinds of negative thinking, how to recognize and challenge that thinking, and how to replace it with something more realistic and positive.

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I’m a school psychologist who left her office (closet?) and got busy turning a decade of experience into ready to use counseling and SEL resources.

I live in New York City with my adventurous husband and relaxed to the max daughter who’ve grown to appreciate my love of a good checklist.

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  1. I would love to get this set Social Emotional Workshop. It is not posted at the end of this posting. This is perfect for what I need for group.

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