PRACTISING REALISTIC THINKING
All children experience worrying thoughts – this is normal. But sometimes these can become excessive, where they overestimate the likelihood and impact of them coming true. This can lead to a range of issues including poor sleep, a lack of focus at school, a reluctance to do things that are outside of their comfort zone and more. What can we do as parents to help our children through these situations?
Thinking more realistically about worries is a powerful technique that we can teach children (and practice ourselves!). In summary, it involves helping children identify their worrying thought, gather evidence for the thought and then, if there is limited evidence to support the thought, replace it with a more realistic thought. It’s a technique that forms part of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which helps us reframe negative thoughts, feelings and behaviours into more positive ones.
Realistic thinking should not be confused with positive thinking – it’s about replacing worrying thoughts with realistic ones, not positive ones. Children may learn when applying the technique that their worrying thought is the realistic thought. It’s important to acknowledge this and to do some problem solving to help address the worry – more about this in a different blog! All children can benefit from this technique, but it should never replace taking a child to see a mental health professional, where worrying thoughts are adversely affecting their lives.
So, how can we teach this technique to our children?
It can be difficult for children to identify their thoughts, so the first step needs to be helping them do this. We can start by telling children that thoughts are words we say to ourselves and that we don’t say out loud. We have thousands of thoughts every day. They are automatic and come and go like leaves blowing in the wind. It can be very empowering for children to learn that just because they have a thought it doesn’t mean it is real!
We can play games to help children identify their thoughts. When people watching, or looking at picture books or magazines, ask your children what they think people are thinking. When sitting with our children we can draw characters with thought bubbles and write or draw in them suggested thoughts. We can take this a step further by drawing two bubbles for the same character – give them a situation or event, e.g. the character saw a dog or heard a sound in the night, and ask them to write or draw a worrying thought in one bubble and a calming thought in the other.
With older children, we can explain that our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are connected. An example might be that we have a worrying thought, it gives us butterflies in our tummy and this causes us to avoid whatever it is we are worried about. This is important as when asking children to identify their worries, they will often give us a feeling: “I’m scared of the dark”. We need to probe them to find out exactly what it is they are worried about.
We then need to teach children how to collect evidence to support their worrying thought. This can be fun! Why not dress up as a detective and go around the house with a magnifying glass looking for clues. Children could work together to create their own TV cop show where they look for evidence. Older children can enter into a debate.
We can help children collect evidence by giving them some questions to ask. Example questions are: “How likely is this to happen?” “How many times has this happened before?” “How will you feel about this in two weeks’ time?” “What would your best friend say to you?” “What control do you have over this worry?”
Once we’ve done this, and assuming that the worrying thought is excessive and not founded in reality, we can teach our children how to replace the worrying thought with a more realistic one. For example, a child might be worried that a rattling sound is a burglar trying to get into the house. After thinking more realistically about this worry, they might ascertain that a burglar has never entered the house before and that it’s therefore unlikely, that when they have heard similar sounds in the past it’s been the fly screen rattling in the wind, that in a couple of weeks they will have forgotten all about it, that their best friend would say “Just go to sleep and don’t worry about it” and that there is nothing they can do to control whether a burglar breaks in or not.
They can then replace their thought with a more realistic one. In this situation this might be: “The sound is most likely the fly screen as this rattles in the wind.”
Regularly speak with your children about how they are feeling and what is going on for them. Encourage them to open up about their worries.
Teach them to identify their thoughts and describe to you what it is they are worried about.
Teach them how to think more realistically about their worries, bringing the conversation to life by playing some fun games.