Negative thoughts are persuasive, intrusive, and powerful, and they can have a profound influence on the way our children see themselves and the way they are in the world. Anxious thoughts can cause their own style of trouble for our children, shrinking their world and their capacity to own their very important place in it.
It isn’t so much the thoughts that are the problem, but what those thoughts are allowed to become. Negative thoughts that come and go without gripping on for too long are no problem at all. The ones that cause trouble are the ones that swagger in, make themselves comfortable, set up shop, and outstay their welcome. Even more boldly, they’ll run a convincing argument that must stay to protect those minds and bodies from harm – and embarrassment, humiliation, failure, making a mistake, all count as harm.
If only we could let go of negative thoughts as easily as they grab on to us, but they just don’t tend to work that way. In fact, the more we try to push them out, the more they’ll push back. When we slam the door, they’ll hustle through the window. When we run, they’ll chase. It’s exhausting!
If your children or teens are being barrelled by negative or anxious thoughts, it’s likely that you are all too aware of the staying power of those negative thoughts. You’ve probably tried telling your child not to think them, not to worry about them, not to listen to them, or argued the rightness or wrongness of those thoughts – but still those negative thoughts stay. Negative thinking can make us all feel helpless – but there is a way to change that.
Our children have enormous power to shift their negative thoughts into something that is more nourishing for them. The secret is helping them discover their power to do this.
Even better than telling them, show them
Try this with your children, “Do not think of pink elephants. Whatever you do, don’t think of pink elephants. Do not think of pink elephants with big sunglasses and fluffy pink coats and shiny pink leggings. Do not think of pink elephants. Seriously! Stop! Don’t think of pink elephants. Have you stopped thinking of pink elephants yet? You know – the ones you’ve been trying not to think about? The pink ones?”
“Now, think of blue monkeys. Imagine big, fluffy, friendly, funny, blue monkeys swinging from vine to vine. Imagine blue monkeys everywhere. Imagine big huddles of blue monkeys eating banana bread, telling jokes and laughing so hard they fall on their fluffy blue bottoms. Dark blue, light blue, middle blue – so many blue monkeys. What’s happened to your pink elephants now?”
Here’s how it works. There is only so much thinking space our thoughts can occupy. That space can be taken up with negative thoughts or positive thoughts or both. The more negative thoughts there are, the less positive ones there will be. The great news is that it also works the other way – the more positive thoughts there are, the more the negative ones will be squeezed out.
This isn’t a passive process. Our children have a lot of power in controlling which thoughts take up their ‘thinking space’. The more positive, strong thoughts they are able to think, the less room there will be for negative thoughts. It’s important to remember that they’ll never get rid of all of their anxious thoughts, but they don’t need to. The key is to increase positive thoughts so these will have more influence than negative thoughts over feelings and behaviour.
So ‘not thinking’ about thoughts makes us think them. How does that work?
Professor Daniel Wegner of Harvard University discovered that when we try to get a thought out of our minds, one part of our brain will successfully avoid the thought. Another part of the brain however will keep checking to make sure the thought isn’t coming to mind. Funnily enough, the process our minds engage to not think the thought, actually does quite the opposite.
Now that they understand the concept
Now that you’ve established how positive thinking keeps bad thoughts at bay, it’s time to help your kiddos find their own brave, strong, thoughts.
It’s important that children and teens understand that they have enormous capacity to change and strengthen their brain. This starts with understanding that it is possible in the first place. Explaining the science will support this,
“Every thought, feeling and action creates a pathway in your brain. These pathways are important because it’s how the information travels from one part of the brain to the other. When you do something over and over, that pathway becomes stronger. The stronger the pathway, the stronger that part of your brain, and the easier that behaviour, thought or feeling will be. Thoughts can release brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) and electrical impulses that create pathways in the brain.
This is why it’s so important that your thoughts are healthy, positive and strong. When you think brave, strong thoughts, ‘I can do that’, or, ‘whatever happens I’ll be okay,’ those thoughts form a pathway. The more you think those thoughts, the stronger the pathway. This is also the way for anxious thoughts. The more you think anxious thoughts, the more anxious thoughts you’ll think – so it’s important to think strong, brave thoughts whenever you can. Brave thoughts (I can do this) lead to brave behaviour. Calm thoughts (Breathe in, breathe out) lead to calm behaviour.”
“But I have a really strong brain – like, really strong – and sometimes it’s determined to think anxious thoughts. What then?”
Anxious thoughts are nothing to be worried about. In fact, they are a sign of a strong, healthy brain doing exactly what it’s meant to do in keeping us safe.
By nature, we humans are designed to pay more attention to threats and negative information. We have survived for as long as we have because we have a brain that is more focused on the things that could hurt us than the things that won’t. This can be annoying, because it means our brains will tend to find it easier to think anxious thoughts than happy ones. The good news is that all of us have the power to retrain our brain, so our thinking is braver, stronger, and more positive.
To help kids take back control and be the boss of their thinking, can help to introduce them to the part of the brain that is responsible for filling their heads with negative thoughts.
“The main part of the brain that takes responsibility for keeping us safe is the amygdala – a very small but very powerful part of your brain that is there to warn us of danger and get us ready to respond. The amygdala takes its job VERY seriously. It’s like your own fierce warrior, there to protect you, but sometimes it can take it can work a little too hard. When this happens, it might warn you of danger even when there’s really nothing at all to worry about. Humiliation, embarrassment, being separated from someone you love, missing out on something important, having things not turn out as planned, making mistakes – these all count as potential threats to an amygdala that is fiercely devoted to keeping you safe. If thoughts are coming from big feelings – sadness or anger, it’s also likely that the amygdala is involved.
Your amygdala will be super quick to take control if it thinks there’s trouble. When this happens, it gets your body ready to flee the danger or fight the danger. Even if you’re pretty sure there’s nothing to worry about, these feelings can make you feel as though there is. Anxiety is a sign that your amygdala is being a little overprotective, and taking over even when there is no need. There’s nothing wrong with this – it happens to all of us, but it’s important to know how to be the boss of your amygdala so you can calm it when you need to.
Here’s the powerful secret – Your amygdala will always listen to you. It wants you to be brave – but you will need to be the boss. You and your amygdala are a brilliant team, but things will always work better when you’re the one in charge. Amygdalae are super-smart, but they can all read things wrong sometimes. The key to finding calm and feeling brave is to find the words that will calm your amygdala. Perhaps your words will be something like, ‘I know you’re trying to look after me, but I can do this – I’ve done plenty of hard things before,’ or ‘Thanks amygdala for looking after me – you’re a legend, but I’ve got this,’ or, ‘Whatever happens I’ll be okay,’ or, ‘What if I say the wrong thing? Well, amygdala – so what if I do? And something else … what if I don’t!”
These words will help your kiddos shape stronger, braver self-talk. It’s not just about the words though. How they use their self-talk is important too.
The tone and the way they feel when they think them can have a massive impact. Encourage them to respond by speaking back to their anxiety (their amygdala) with as much confidence as their anxiety speaks to them.’
Now to power it up
What we do with our physical selves can also have a significant effect on how we feel. For example, research has found that when we reduce our physical presence (by crossing arms or legs, wilting, slouching, head down) we’re more likely to feel smaller, more anxious, or less powerful. On the other hand, expanding our bodies (think superhero poses) can make us feel more confident, less stressed and less anxious. What we do with our bodies, has an important effect on how we feel inside them.
In terms of brave thinking, research has also shown that by writing down negative thoughts, ripping them up and throwing them away, we find it easier to not think about them.
‘When they threw their thoughts away, they didn’t consider them anymore, whether they were positive or negative.” – Richard Petty, researcher and professor of psychology at Ohio State University. On the other hand, we can give positive thoughts greater influence by writing them on paper, and, quite literally, keeping those thoughts close by putting the paper in a pocket or under a pillow.
“This suggests you can magnify your thoughts, and make them more important to you, by keeping them with you in your wallet or purse.” – Richard Petty. So, to diminish the power of negative thoughts, ask your children to write (or draw) their negative thoughts on paper, rip them up, and throw them in the bin. After this, ask them to write their positive, brave thoughts on another piece of paper to keep in their pocket or under their pillow. By doing this, negative thoughts are more likely to be ‘trashed’, while the positive ones will stay protected and close.
In the midst of anxiety
Anxious thoughts are exhausting for everyone, whether you’re 5, or 105. For something you can’t see or touch, they have a way of occupying space and time like they belong there. In most cases, anxious thoughts don’t like being challenged. As any parent who has tried to argue against anxious thoughts would know, an anxious brain is highly resistant to logic and rationality —
“But I don’t want to go to school. What if something happens to you while I’m not with you?”
“But it won’t. I’m completely safe.”
“Oh. Ok. Phew. Thanks for letting me know. See you after school then.” said no anxious child ever.
It’s important that the conversations about replacing negative thinking with brave thinking happen during times of calm. An anxious brain is not only powerful, but also extremely busy, and focussed on staying safe. Assuring anxious kiddos that there is nothing to worry about in the midst of anxiety will likely fall flat. The truth is that they are worried, and something doesn’t feel right. To an anxious brain, the only reason you aren’t worried is because you don’t understand the threat – you don’t understand how steep the hill is or how important the speech is. This can allow feelings of helplessness and fear to escalate. The more you argue that everything is fine, the more anxiety will argue back.
The good news is that despite how strong their anxious thoughts may be, our children will always be stronger. The key is getting them to realise and understand this, but the best time for that is when the anxiety has passed. In the midst of anxiety, what kids need is to know that you’re on their team and that you get it. Their fears may not make sense to you, but they make sense to them. Behind every anxious thought is a valid fear or a valid need, often linked to very important human needs such as security, safety, and ‘what will happen to me if ______’. The thoughts that we as parents hear might sound irrational, but that’s often because the genuine fears are too difficult to relay in words.
In the thick of anxiety, what kids need more than anything is support, warmth, validation and acknowledgement. Think of this like standing with them against their anxiety. Try, ‘That sounds like a really scary thought.’ Then, breathe, be still, and be a strong, steady presence as the wave subsides. During anxiety, that is all you need to do. The steps you can take on helping them feel braver, stronger, and less vulnerable in the face of anxiety will be most powerful when they’re calm and able to take in new ideas and new information.
Strengthening positive memories will making positive thoughts easier
Anxious thoughts are often driven by anxious memories, but research has found that these memories don’t necessarily have to stem from actual experiences. Hearing about an emotional experience, via things such as the news, a friend, or a story, is enough to influence the amygdala and stir anxiety. These experiences don’t have to be ‘big’ to assume influence. Hearing about an experience that was embarrassing, confusing or confronting for someone else, can be enough. While these stories might not always be in the forefront of your child’s mind, they can still sit behind the scenes and drive worries, fear and negative thinking.
The way to combat this is to make positive thoughts more accessible. Research has found that gratitude can increase our tendency to recall positive memories, making it easier to access happy memories. Essentially, positive memories will lead to positive thoughts.
Encouraging a regular gratitude practice will help to strengthen the tendency to recall positive memories. In turn, this will help to direct thinking towards the positive, rather than the negative. Nurturing gratitude in kids can be done so simply. Before bed (or around the table/ in the car) ask them to name three things they’re grateful for. They can write them down in a gratitude journal, write them on pieces of paper and put them in a gratitude jar, or say them to you. It doesn’t matter how it’s done. The point is that thinking of things to be grateful for will encourage the memories that drive positive thoughts.
All children are naturally equipped with everything they need to be brave, strong, and happy. One of our important job as parents is to make sure they know this. Negative thoughts and bad feelings will inevitably come. They’re part of being human. What’s also part of being human is drawing on the pool of courage and strength to push through negative thoughts and bad feelings.
This skill that will develop over time, but first, it is important that our children know that they have the power to do this. How they think will affect the way they see themselves, which in turn will breathe life into the way they are. As the important adults in their lives, we have enormous power to give them the skills and wisdom they need to fuel the warrior inside them that will fight for them, believe in them and strengthen them from the inside out.