CBT for Kids: How to Address Negative Thoughts

What language do you use when talking to yourself?

When you make a mistake, do you tell yourself, "Well, I can try again next time. I can address X, Y, or Z and that may help"? Or do you say, "I'm an idiot. This is useless. There's no point in trying"?

Not so surprisingly, one of those thoughts is more helpful than the other. And it's not just adults who engage in these negative, unhelpful cognitions. Children are particularly prone to negative self-talk, especially if positive self-talk or thought flipping is not modeled for them. 

What we tell ourselves changes how we feel, and that changes how we act. 

Going through the above example, if we say to ourselves "This is pointless and I'm an idiot" those defeated, worthless feelings can directly lead to us giving up and shutting down.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for kids addresses these three components - thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

For children, we have to hep them identify what thoughts they tell themselves, and help them start to restructure or "flip" these thoughts. Let's pretend you walk into a lunchroom, and a table of kids starts laughing as soon as  you walk up. What is your first thought? 

Many kids first tell themselves, "They're laughing at me."

But we don't know that for sure - our brains just come up with this idea, and most of the time we accept it without challenging it.

CBT challenges our negative self-talk.

CBT techniques, however, can help us challenge our automatic thoughts. We can come up with alternate reasons that the table of kids starts laughing. Maybe they told a funny joke. Maybe they're talking about someone else. Maybe I could go ask them if something funny happened earlier.  Flipping our negative thought to these more helpful ones will directly change feelings of worry to curiosity, and may change our behavior from hiding away to engaging with others.

It's alright that our brains tell us "They're laughing at me." Our brains are trying to protect us. But it is important to take the time and think through it. We have to ask, "Do I know this thought to be 100% true, or is there something more helpful I can tell myself?"

Assess if your child is using helpful or unhelpful language.

Talk through problems with your child and teen, even problems that you are experiencing, to model how to use effective positive self-talk. If you help your kid with their homework and they come upon a difficult problem, model for them by saying "This is really challenging, even for me! I wonder if there is a good place to figure out how to solve this?" Or if you're driving a car and stuck in traffic, say "Sometimes getting stuck in traffic makes me feel super frustrated! But I know we'll get through it soon."

Skills are reinforced at home.

If you are modeling and demonstrating positive self-talk, you are already going a long way in helping your child develop positive thinking skills.

If you would like further tips, or have concerns that your child's anxiety, grief, stress, or trauma is impacting their self-talk, please email or call to set up a free initial assessment!