According to Dr. David Burns, a researcher and author in the mental health field, everyone experiences unreasonable and/or irrational thoughts from time-to-time. Even children. For example: Let’s say your son receives a low score on a test. He believes that he got the worst grade in class and that he’s “the dumbest kid in school.” These thoughts cause him to feel sad, and he puts his head down on his desk and hardly pays attention the rest of the day.
What if instead your son thought, “Well, I didn’t do well this time, so next time, I’ll study harder.” Now he feels hopeful and determined, which may lend itself to his participating more in class.
What changed? Well, in the latter scenario, your son thought in a more reasonable, objective manner, which is how we all hope our children process and respond to tough situations. But how do we get our children to think in this way?
Using Cognitive Behavioral Principles
With a basic understanding of cognitive behavioral principles, you can teach your child how to process uncomfortable situations at school, at home and on the playground. And not after the fact, but before they even happen.
Cognitive behavioral principles suggest that thoughts, feelings and behaviors are connected—that when a situation is interpreted in a subjective, one-sided manner, it can create negative/unhelpful feelings or thoughts. These thoughts can manifest in a variety of ways, but here are two common negative/unhelpful thoughts a person may have:
- Blaming – taking all of the blame or taking none of the blame. For example: Thinking a football team lost because of you.
- Overgeneralization – drawing conclusions based on a single event. For example, if one of your friends doesn’t say hi to you on your way to class, even though many others did, you conclude that no one likes you.
Let’s go back to your son and his bad grade. How can a parent or caregiver use cognitive behavioral principles in that scenario to help him better process the situation?
- Validate your child’s feelings. When children are upset, it’s difficult to appeal to them. Understanding and acknowledging their emotions is your first line of defense in getting them to be receptive to your support.
- Name the unhelpful thought. In this scenario, the irrational assumption is that your son believes that he got the worst grade in the class without having evidence to support this.
- Ask questions. For example: Did you do all your homework? Did you study? Did you go for extra help? Did you get plenty of rest the night before? Even if you already know the answers to these questions, it’s helping their thought pattern.
- Guide them towards a more realistic thought. If your son had mixed answers to your questions, help him understand that he can learn from this. His realistic thought could be: “I didn’t do well on the test, but I know what to now do next time.” Your child is more likely to feel more hopeful and determined.
- Reinforce productive thinking. Teach your child how to identify irrational thoughts perhaps by telling them when you’ve had irrational thoughts and describe how you replaced them. There are also many programs online created by licensed mental health providers that teach how to think more productively. It also may be beneficial to consult with a therapist who can offer added support and guidance.
Helping children become aware of unhelpful thoughts and then challenging them will not happen overnight. And some children may have difficulty letting go of their unhelpful thoughts. It’s something you should consistently teach over time. But once they gain this skill, it will help them feel good and think productively when negative emotions arise.
Remember: You’re just a thought away from changing your day!
Dr. Busto is a psychologist licensed in New York State and is certified as a school psychologist. She has been employed in Farmingdale School District since 1997 where, in addition to her job description, she trains both masters and doctoral level students as part of their internship experience. Since 2002, Dr. Busto has maintained a private practice with offices in both the north and south shores of Long Island, New York. She earned her B.A. in Psychology and her Psy.D in School/Community Psychology both from Hofstra University. In between time, she has earned her M.S. in School Psychology from St. John’s University.