Helping Children Challenge Negative Thinking 

By: Laura Driscoll
Read Time:  min

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.

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 a negative and positive thoughts on pieces of paper.
  2. Label each bag with a negative thinking and positive thinking. 
  3. Take turns drawing different thoughts and deciding whether they are negative or positive.
Negative thinking sorting activity to help students identify negative, positive, and just right thoughts.

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.

Negative thinking poster for CBT counseling with kids

Types of Negative Thinking.

Challenge Negative Thinking

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.

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 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.
Strategies to challenge negative thinking

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 as well.

Strategies to challenge negative Thinking

Strategies to Challenge Negative Thinking

Replace Negative Thinking

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 activity to have students develop a phrase they can use when they are overwhelmed by negative thinking.

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.

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Identify and combat negative thinking activities

Challenging Negative Thinking Activities

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Counseling activities to help children identify negative thinking, challenge negative thoughts, and replace negative thoughts with positive self-talk.
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.
  • 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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