Cupids Health

“This is terrible!”:  How to help children and teens with their worried and fearful thoughts — Developing Minds



Research shows that children and teens who struggle with anxiety “think in different ways” compared with children who do not have these challenges.

Studies have found children with anxiety are more likely to remember negative information in their environment, interpret ambiguous situations as potentially dangerous, and be able to identify a greater number of threats in any given situation.  Other studies have found that the more anxious thinking a young person does, and the longer periods of time they spend worrying the more anxiety they experience. 

Here are some steps we can take as parents to help children and teens manage their worried thoughts.

1: Help children understand that having fearful thoughts and beliefs is a normal part of being a human being but that these thoughts can sometimes make us even more worried.

It can be to encourage young people to know that we all have thoughts and to notice their own (and others) thoughts and beliefs.  It can also be helpful to encourage children to notice how their thoughts and beliefs might make them feel more anxious. 

Here are some sentences/ideas which might help to explain these ideas to young people: 

The “threat detection systems” (OR – younger children:  “a danger checker”) in our brain are on the lookout for what might go wrong or be a problem for us – and they create sentences/thoughts about these problems which sometimes go around and around in our mind.

A long time ago in caveman/cavewoman times it was really important for humans to think about problems or things which might go wrong – this helped us to be aware of dangers and to avoid them where possible.  We have the same kind of brain and so we often think about things that might go wrong.

Sometimes our worried thoughts go around and around in our head and make us feel even more anxious.

2:  Help children/young people understand that fearful thoughts and beliefs are not always true or helpful (including understanding that humans make “thinking mistakes”)

It is often helpful to explain to young people that human beings –especially when they are worried – do not always think clearly or helpfully.  We can also explain particular types of thinking styles or thinking mistakes we make when we are worried. 

Here are some sentences/ideas which might help to explain these ideas to young people: 

Research (younger children “scientists”) has found that when we are worried or stressed, we do not think in the same way as when we are feeling calm. 

We have a part of our brain which is designed to quickly tell us what can go wrong and remind us of problems – but we can’t always trust it 100% as it makes mistakes.

When we are anxious or stressed we are more likely to make “thinking mistakes”.  Thinking mistakes are particular types of thinking when we focus on what might go wrong without thinking accurately or helpfully. 

For instance, catastrophizing is a type of sentence our brain says which tell us which is a sentence that says things are very terrible.  Mind reading is a type of sentence our brain tells us which says that people are thinking negative things about us.  Future predicting is a type of sentence our brain tells us which says bad things will happen in the future.

We all do this – adults do too. 

3: Help young people to be able to notice, test out or question their own fearful thoughts and beliefs to see if they are true or helpful  – and help them do this themselves at least sometimes (“catch what they can”)

It can be helpful to teach children/teens to start to notice the errors in their own thinking – or to be able to at least “test out” their thinking.

This is a difficult task – even for adults – so usually we need to actively assist young people to do this, by inviting them to tell us their worried thoughts.  Here are two important points about this process.

1)      Young people do not always know their anxious or worried thoughts – especially younger children.  They just “feel scared”.  This is quite normal and in which case, we need to skip this step until they have more understanding or insight into throughts.

2)      It is important to make sure that young people do not feel like their worries are being invalidated in this process.  As we do it, we need to remind young people that it is normal to have worried thoughts, and that we believe that they feel very “true” to them.

Here are some sentences/ideas which might help to explain these ideas to young people: 

Could you tell me what your worries are about that?  Would you like to tell me about what exactly you think could go wrong/that person will think/will happen in that situation?  Are you particularly worried about X or Y?
 
Do you think this is 100% true?  DO you think there are any alternative explanations?

Do you think your brain is telling you the worse case scenario or realistic case scenario?

Do you mind me telling you my perspective on that?

Is there any way you could actually test that thought/belief to see if this is true?

If you were on a jury, and had to weigh up all the evidence and judge whether someone is saying something true or false.  Let’s put your belief on the “stand” and see what you think.

4: To teach young people to create more helpful or accurate thoughts and beliefs – and to be able to remind themselves of these thoughts/beliefs

It is often helpful to assist children and young people to come up with some positive, helpful or more accurate thoughts and beliefs about the situations which make them anxious.  Given this is often a difficult task, it usually requires us to actively assist them to do this.  For example, we might need to suggest “sentence starters” consisting of calm and helpful thoughts and beliefs and ask them to complete them.   

Possible explanatory sentences/ideas to explain these concepts: 

(Older children/teens) We can’t stop ourselves from having anxious thoughts.  However it is often helpful for us to come up with some helpful and more positive thoughts and beliefs to be able to think about we are anxious.  We might not always 100% believe these statements to start with, but knowing there is another way of viewing a situation can help a little over the long term.

(Younger children) Calm sentences are sentences we can use to help us when we feel worried.  Calm sentences often start with these words:  I can cope because….I don’t know for sure that….This is not terrible because….

How could we test out some of these positive/helpful thoughts and beliefs to see if they actually are true? 

How can you remember or bring these thoughts or beliefs to mind when you are feeling anxious? Some kids/young people like to draw a picture to represent them, shortening them to be a word or two which “represents” the thoughts, taking a picture of calm sentences to put around home/on their phone etc.

5: To help young people notice when they are spending lots of time going over their fearful thoughts, and to calmly move their attention to a different topic

It is important for us to teach children that it is helpful (and possible) for them to reduce the time they spend worrying (going over and over anxious thoughts).   In other words, we can explain to them that they might not be able to stop their worried thoughts from coming into their head, they can catch themselves spending lots of time focusing on them, and to learn to move their attention away from them when this happens

Here are some sentences/ideas which might help to explain these ideas to young people: 

Spending a lot of time thinking our worried thoughts over and over again is called worrying.  Worrying doesn’t help us feel better and often makes us feel worse.  We might not be able to stop having worried thoughts sometime but we can avoid spending lots of time paying attention or thinking about them.

Let’s try to think about the times you spend time worrying about X.  Often kids tell me that they worry when (provide example trigger events or situations) – do you think this is true for you

How can you notice when you are worrying?  What happens to your body/mind/feelings?

What are some other activities you can do when you notice you start to do lots of worrying?  

I hope this helps you think about some of the ways you can helping your child/young people respond to and manage their worried thoughts and beliefs.   This is important work – we are helping young people build skills they can use throughout their lifetime. 

Kirrilie

If you have a primary aged child who struggles with worried thoughts, we have short video courses for them to explain “Calm Sentences” and “Worried Thinking” in ways which they can understand – and activity sheets for them to complete to help them learn to think in more confident ways.





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