How to Change Our Children’s Negative Thoughts Which Create Anxiety

negative thoughts

How to Change Our Negative Thought Patterns Which Create Anxiety

To decrease the high rates of anxiety that we’re seeing in children and teens everywhere, we have to start teaching them about their thoughts, especially their negative thoughts, from an early age.

Everything begins with a thought…

When children are young, they believe everything they think, and therefore they think all their thoughts are real.

When children are older, I help them dispute this belief by asking what their thoughts would have been about the characters and princesses at Disneyland when they were four years old, compared to now.

They’re able to realize that at age four they would have believed all the characters and princesses were real but now they know it’s actors and actresses dressed up in costumes, and this dramatically changes how they look at them.

negative thoughts

For children, who may still believe in the fantasy world of various magical characters, I show them the vase of flowers sitting on our reception desk.  I ask for their thoughts about the flowers.  They tell me that they’re tulips.  They’re sitting in water.  They would smell nice etc.

Then I tilt the vase to one side and they see that the “water” is actually a clear gel that doesn’t move and then they touch the flowers and realize that they’re not real!

The key message is being aware that all our thoughts are not necessarily real. Our thoughts often create an illusion of what we believe to be true, but really there is no proof, this particularly applies to our negative thoughts.

We all have a negative voice and a positive voice in our head…

If we can distinguish our thoughts and recognize when we’re having negative thoughts, we have the ability to give them less power.

One of the psychological strategies for being aware of our negative thoughts is to externalize them by giving them a name.

negative thoughts

Surfing the Worry Imp’s Wave p.5

I like to call them the Worry Imp because imps are imaginary, mischievous and like to play tricks on us.  This is what happens with anxiety.  We worry about things in the future which may or may not happen.

When we name it, we can say to ourselves: “Oh that’s just my Worry Imp trying to play tricks on me,” or “That’s just my anxiety voice trying to give me the worst case scenario.”

The key message is to call our anxiety a name, such as Worry Imp or for older children/teens it can just be called “Anxiety” or “Worry”, and realize that we don’t have to give lots of attention to all our thoughts, especially the negative thoughts.

We often have a tendency to ruminate in the past, or worry about the future…

“Let us not look back in anger or forward in fear, but around in awareness.”

~ James Thurber

When our negative thoughts are about anger or what went wrong, we are usually ruminating in the past.  When our negative thoughts are based on worries about the future, this is anxiety.

negative thoughts

Surfing the Worry Imp’s Wave p.79

The present moment is the moment that we have right now and the place where we can find the most peace.  When we are ruminating or worrying, we need to find ways to ground ourselves in the present.  One strategy involves focussed awareness on one of our five senses.

It’s challenging to be simultaneously, consciously focussed on one of our five senses and ruminating in the past or worrying about the future.  I find the sense of smell is the most powerful sense at bringing us into the present moment.  If you’re upset and you take a moment to smell some scented soap, or a scented candle, it can quickly shift the emotion.  In my anxiety management groups for children ages 7-9 yrs. and 10-12 yrs. we spend one of our sessions on this concept.  I bring in different items, hidden in brown paper bags, for the children to smell and guess what they are smelling.

The key message is to bring ourselves back to the present as much as possible, especially when having negative thoughts.  

Next time you or your child is ruminating or worrying, try going for a walk and using the five senses to bring you back to the present moment.


negative thoughts

PS.  These three strategies are part of the ten Wise Owl thinking tools which I teach to children in my forthcoming book, Surfing the Worry Imp’s Wave ~ A self-help book, with digital discussion/activity guide, for children approximately ages 5-10 years, available to preorder on Kickstarter, here, for the month of January 2018.




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