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 can teach kids not to just think more positively, but also how to reframe negative thoughts.
Let's use a cognitive behavioral therapy technique called cognitive reframing or restructuring.
First - let's give cognitive reframing a new name. It's not the most kid-friendly of terms. Reframing negative thoughts asks them to take a close look at their thinking, find evidence, and come to a new conclusion.
Try using a metaphor. Students can be:
- detectives looking for facts.
- wizards who transform negative thoughts.
- scientists who test a hypothesis.
- meteorologists who update their forecast.
In the example below, I'm going to focus on thoughts about the future. Often students who struggle with anxiety or depression make negative predictions about what is going to happen.
Reframing Negative Thoughts
First tell the student what you will be doing and why it will help.
We are going to talk a little bit about some of the thoughts you've been having that make you feel upset. We are going to spend some time learning how to handle these thoughts to make you feel better.
2. Set the Stage
Explain that we have thoughts about lots of things. We think about what happened in the past and what is happening around us at the moment. We also have thoughts about things that are going to happen. They are guesses about the future.
Make sure that the student knows the difference between thoughts and feelings. Read this post on CBT for Kids: Thoughts vs Feelings.
3. Thoughts We Want to Change
Next, explain to students that sometimes there are thoughts we want to change. These are thoughts that are making (incorrect) predictions about the future.
Sometimes we predict good things and sometimes we predict bad things. When we predict that bad things will happen, this can make us feel upset or nervous or sad. Now, everyone feels upset at times and that's okay. We want to make sure that our thinking isn't making us feel bad for no reason.
4. Is It Likely?
Often when we have negative thoughts about the future, we ignore how likely they are to happen. Introduce to the student how likely or unlikely an event is.
Give examples and ask the child to rate them based on how likely or unlikely they are. You can use a 5 point scale or a 10 point scale. Use examples that students are familiar with and show a range of likelihood. Here are five possibilities:
- missing a spelling word on the quiz
- catching a cold
- winning the lottery
- getting a new puppy
- eat lunch in the cafeteria
5. Helpful or Unhelpful?
Next, have students consider what is helpful or unhelpful about predicting that bad things will happen all the time.
You can remind them that negative thoughts often cause negative feelings. It might change our actions too. For example, you might be nervous to go on the rollercoaster because you think that you will fall out. You wind up waiting by yourself while everyone else goes on.
While you don't want to push them to never have a negative thought, you do want them to realize that there are downsides to making negative guesses about the future.
Reframing Negative Thoughts: Guiding Questions
1. What's your thought? You can also use the terms predictions or guesses.
2. How likely do you think this is? Use the five-point scale.
3. What are some other thoughts you could have (predictions/guesses)? List as many as possible.
4. What evidence do you have for the thought?
- Has this ever happened to me before?
- Is there any evidence that this won't happen?
- Are there any facts to back this up?
5. How likely do you think it is now after coming up with some other possibilities and looking at the evidence?
Often, part of negative thoughts about the future is not thinking you can handle what happens. For example, say a student is worrying about making a mistake on their test. They think their teacher will think they are stupid. They can ask themselves if they can handle their bad prediction.
6. If it happens, could I handle it?
7. What's my evidence that I can handle it?
Think about the students that are on your caseload. Would some benefit from learning how to transform their negative thinking?
Want to get started? Check out the Challenging Negative Thoughts resource.
Challenging Negative Thinking Activities
Counseling resources to change negative thoughts and replace them with positive self-talk. Use this in small group or individual counseling to help students with automatic negative thoughts identify them, challenge them, and create positive replacement thoughts.
CBT Counseling Activities Bundle
Hands-on and digital cognitive behavioral therapy activities for kids to help them understand their feelings, thoughts, and actions. Students will learn to identify negative thinking, change behaviors, and problem-solve in individual or group counseling.