Your child’s feelings and behaviors are influenced by how they think about the world around them. As a parent, you can help your child avoid unhelpful interpretations of events: thinking traps. Getting stuck in thinking traps can make your child feel overly anxious and act against their own best interests. Kids can fall into habits with how they think. Their self-talk is so automatic, they may barely notice. You may need to work with them to identify their typical unhelpful self-talk as a step in the process of teaching alternative, more helpful thinking. See this post for guidance in identifying anxious self-talk.

Just the other day we heard Ella complain that her parents never punished her younger sister Lucy. Ella sounded angry and she went right over and hit her sister. Well, you can guess what happened next. Yep, Ella was sent to her room. Although the middle of an upset is not a good time to teach alternative ways of thinking, after all was calm, Ella’s parents talked to her about her thinking traps.

Black-and-White Thinking

They pointed out that she had recently been using the word NEVER in her statements. They taught her that these kinds of extreme words result in BLACK-and-WHITE thinking. They helped her challenge her unhelpful thoughts with alternatives. They reminded Ella of all the shades of grey between black and white; how, as the older child, she is held to a higher standard, but she is also given more privileges. As they talked with Ella, she began to seem less envious of her sister and appreciative of the nuances of how parents relate to siblings of different ages.

Many children use BLACK-and-WHITE thinking in a self-critical way, such as “I’m not good at math.” These statements are extreme and describe a permanent state of affairs. While it is not necessary to state the opposite (I’m good at math), less extreme and less permanent self-talk are both helpful and hopeful. When a child falls into a thinking trap and describes themselves as not smart, not athletic, or the like, talk with them about challenging these BLACK-and-WHITE, SELF-CRITICAL thoughts. For example, “no one will want me in the play after that mistake” could be changed to “The audience didn’t seem to notice that I skipped some words.”

By changing FOREVER thoughts to FOR NOW thoughts, children develop a more open, flexible, and realistic mindset. “I always get put on the losing team” is a stuck, FOREVER thought. Change this FOREVER thought to a FOR NOW thought such as “I’ll be at the top of my age group next season.”

Catastrophic Thinking

Theo missed blocking a shot in soccer and went home with such CATASTROPHIC thinking that he believed he would never play any sport again! CATASTROPHIC thoughts are like snowballs that grow as they roll down the hill picking up snow along the way. This style of thinking involves predicting the future. “If I raise my hand and get the answer wrong, I’ll be so embarrassed that my teacher will think I don’t know anything. I’ll probably fail the class.” Kids can sound sure of what will happen. Help them to recognize the difference between what will happen and what might happen. It’s okay to feel nervous or embarrassed, but help your child stop there rather than suggest a whole chain of events that are typical of CATASTROPHIC thinking. No fortune telling!

As a parent, you have a big role to play in teaching your child to be a good thought detective.

Teach kids to avoid thinking traps:
  1. Replace BLACK-and-WHITE statements with less extreme vocabulary.
  2. Stay in the here and now. FOR NOW instead of FOREVER.
  3. Change SELF-CRITICAL thoughts that make temporary difficulties seem permanent.
  4. Consider alternative hypotheses. Challenge thinking traps.
  5. Do an accuracy check and take a realistic approach.
  6. Don’t let unhelpful thoughts snowball out of control. Don’t CATASTROPHIZE.
by Claire Freeland, Ph.D.

This Article's Author

Claire A. B. Freeland, PhD, is a clinical psychologist in private practice, working for more than 35 years with youth and their families. With an interest in bringing psychological concepts to a wide audience, she has co-written several books for children and teens on subjects related to emotions and behavior. She lives with her husband in Baltimore, MD. They have two grown children.
by Jacqueline Toner, Ph.D

This Article's Author

Jacqueline B. Toner, PhD, is the co-author of a number of books for children and teens addressing social and emotional challenges. She practiced clinical psychology for over three decades serving children, teens, and families. Dr. Toner lives in Baltimore, MD, with her husband. They have three married daughters and two grandsons.

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