I have a 12-year-old daughter whose negative thinking makes her feel bad most of the time. For instance, she says she is sure her classmates think she is stupid when she makes mistakes in math class. I read in your book that parents should try to teach their children not to believe every upsetting thought they think, but if I try to get her to see things from another perspective she says, “Don’t say it’s not true. Don’t say they don’t hate me!” I wish I could help her stop being so negative, but at the same time let her know I empathize.
This is a terrific question because learning to get a handle on our thinking can make a radical difference in how we all enjoy our lives — children and adults. Here’s my advice:
• Don’t invalidate your daughter’s feelings. While it is true that I encourage parents to help their children question their thoughts so they don’t believe the first — and worst — interpretation of reality, I would never suggest invalidating what your daughter is feeling.
“It sounds like you get very self-conscious when you make a mistake in math. It’s hard to feel shaky and worried that kids might judge you when you don’t get the answer right.”
After acknowledging what she’s experiencing, you can move on to helping her question her negative take on things — if she’s open and willing.
• Explain the idea of having imaginary lawyers in our head who convince us that what we think is true. I invite my clients (adults and children) to imagine that we have a team of lawyers in our mind who eagerly await the opportunity to build a case. If we have a negative belief, they will “prove” that belief to be true.
But if we ask our “lawyers” to build a case for the opposing side, they can do that, too!
“What are three reasons the opposite of your belief might also be true?” In the case of your daughter, thinking kids see her as stupid when she gets a math problem wrong, she might consider:
“If they laugh when I make a mistake, it might be that they’re nervous and glad they weren’t the one the teacher called on.”
“They get problems wrong, too and might feel better seeing me mess up.”
“Most kids know I’m really good at writing, and that no one is great at everything.”
By helping your daughter come up with specific reasons her negative thoughts may be untrue, she can learn how to untangle them on her own.
• Play the Are You a Mind Reader? Game. I often do this with kids in my office who struggle with chronic negative thinking and are certain that they know what others believe about them.
Susan: “I’m thinking of a number from 1 to 50 (or my favorite restaurant or pizza topping.) What is it?”
Child: “I don’t know.”
Susan: “Then help me understand how you would be able to know for sure what someone is thinking when you make a mistake in math?”
• Model what you are wanting to teach. Let your daughter hear you choosing alternatives to negative beliefs when you are facing a challenging situation.
Instead of, “Grandma’s birthday will be ruined if I don’t make the casserole just the way she likes it and they’re out of the sauce I always use!” say, “Today I have a chance to create something special for Grandma’s birthday dinner. Want to help?”
By allowing your daughter to hear you offer alternatives to catastrophic thinking, you’ll create a blueprint for her to start doing the same.
Most of us have to work hard to manage the human tendency to think the worst when we’re dealing with a difficult situation. By helping your daughter learn to question her negative thoughts while she’s young, she will be far better able to manage them when she grows up.
Susan Stiffelman is a licensed Marriage, Family and Child Counselor, an Educational Therapist, Parent Educator and Professional Speaker. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Developmental Psychology, a California K-9 Teaching Credential, a Masters of Arts degree in Clinical Psychology, and a California Marriage and Family Therapist license since 1991. Visit her website www passionateparenting.net and be sure to sign up for her free Parenting Without Power Struggles newsletter!