A lot of teens and tweens struggle with negativity. Many teens focus on the negative and dismiss the positive. As a parent, it can be really hard to watch your child give up easily, or listen to them rant about how everything is too hard, doesn’t work, or there’s no point to it. Parents can feel overwhelmed by their children’s negativity. How can we help them let go of negative thinking?
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It’s very common for tweens and teens to see every problem as a catastrophe. That tendency to “catastrophize” leads to giving up and anxiety. How do you help your teen DE-catastrophize? How can you help your tweens and teens let go of this negative thinking?
I am reading an incredibly useful book called Building Resilience in Children and Teens – Giving Kids Roots and Wings by Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg.
“The first step in helping kids build resilience is to help kids think differently and break the pattern of negative emotional reaction.”Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg
In his book, Dr. Ginsburg describes how you need to teach your kids to recognize negative self-talk, notice how it makes them feel and act, and then CHANGE the self-talk.
The ABC Technique
He refers to the ABC technique, created by Albert Ellis, PhD:
- A = Adversity – The problem
- B = Beliefs – The person’s beliefs about their problem
- C = Consequences – What will happen because of the problem
Parents tend to focus on A: “What’s wrong?” “What happened?” and C: “What are you going to do about it?” “How can I help you solve the problem?”
But B IS THE MOST IMPORTANT. What are your teen’s beliefs about the adversity? These beliefs affect how your teen or tween reacts and therefore make the consequences happen.
That is so important, I’m going to say it again:
Your teen or tween’s beliefs about their problem affect how they react to it and therefore make the consequences happen.
Parents need to help their teens HEAR the self-talk of their beliefs. When a problem happens, ask them “What are you thinking?” It may be a negative thought like:
- Everything bad always happens to me!
- The teacher hates me!
- I can’t do anything right, I’m so stupid.
- Nothing I try ever works.
- No one likes me.
When most parents hear these types of statements from their kids, they immediately try to fix it by contradicting them:
- Of course the teacher likes you, honey!
- No, no, you’re not stupid!
- Everyone loves you!
- You have so many friends!
But unfortunately, it’s not that easy. If you just tell them to stop having those thoughts, if often has the opposite effect.
We have to help our kids take control of their thoughts.
How to help your kids take control of their thoughts
Dr. Ginsburg says there are four steps to help your children take control of their thoughts and let go of negative thinking:
- Help your child recognize their thoughts.
- Evaluate the accuracy of the thoughts.
- Find a more accurate explanation for what happened.
- Let go of the idea that it’s a catastrophe.
Here’s an example. Last week, my daughter, M, was excited to do a craft. She invited me to help her with it. She had the idea to make a paper flower garland for her room. She’s been redecorating her room and was excited to make something in her new gray and pink color scheme.
We folded the paper and made it into flower shapes. Then we used twine to string them together. It turned out beautifully! Next, we put some pushpins on the wall to hang it from. As we hung it up, we realized it wouldn’t hang right. The flowers were heavier in the front than in the back, so when we hung the garland, the flowers wanted to point down or flip over instead of showing the prettiest side.
Her reaction: “Nothing ever works for me! It’s ruined!” She ran over to her bed and threw herself onto it. Done. It’s over. We had failed.
So, remember the quote above? “Your teen or tween’s beliefs about the problem affects how they react to it and therefore make the consequences happen.”
In this case, the problem was that the garland didn’t hang right. M’s belief about the problem was that she can’t do anything right and nothing ever works. Her reaction? To give up and go to bed. The consequence? The project failed. What does she learn from this??? —> Her beliefs were right. What might happen next time? —-> Don’t try again. Nothing ever works.
Yikes. Time for mama to step in and help with some life lessons, right?
- First option: How would many parents handle this? “No honey, everything you do is perfect and amazing!” Well, that’s obviously not true. She’s not stupid, she doesn’t want to hear that her project that isn’t hanging right looks perfect. Moms, this will only help you get a reputation as an idiot. And it likely won’t get you invited back for another project.
- Second option: “Stop being so dramatic! Everything is not such a big deal! Get over yourself!” Alright, I have to admit this is my go-to solution. It works great! Oh wait, no, it sucks. But I get to yell, which is pleasant release.
- Third option: Let’s try Dr. Ginsburg’s suggestion.
The 4-step method for ending negative thinking
- Help your child recognize their thoughts: With M, this is easy. She yells her thoughts at me. If you don’t have such a helpful child, you could ask, “what are you thinking? What is making you so upset? Why do you think it’s not working?” In her case, the thought was that the projects she tries never work and that this project was ruined.
- Evaluate the accuracy of the thoughts. In her case, I would have to agree with her that often she has trouble the first time she tries a new project. In a way, she is right. However, I reframed it for her in a positive light. I pointed out that she is a super-creative person who is always bravely trying new things. She loves to do crafts and comes up with so many interesting ideas! If she always did the same craft over and over, it would work. But that wouldn’t be as fun or interesting!
- Find a more accurate explanation for what happened. Her other belief was that the garland was a failure. When anyone tries something new, there is a period of trial and error. Don’t get frustrated and give up. Instead, try another solution! It’s not that the project is a failure, it’s that the first try didn’t work. Think about how the art could be approached differently for a better result. A more accurate thing to say is that it didn’t work the first time. We could see why it wasn’t working – the flowers were heavy in a way we hadn’t expected. It’s not that the garland was a failure, it was that we needed to try to find a way to get it to hang correctly!
- Let go of the idea that it’s a catastrophe. Ooo, this is a toughy. It’s not easy to get someone out of bed to come help think of solutions for the “horribly ruined” flower garland. I decided the best way to handle it was to model what I wanted her to do. I thought out loud, and said things like, “hmm, how could we get this to hang straight? Maybe next time we could punch holes in it differently so the weight hangs better? Let’s see, could we hang this one by adding some tape to make the flowers go the right way?” We tried painter’s tape on the back of the flowers, but it still didn’t work great. Then we tried adding a few pushpins, and the garland hung correctly! A few days later we came back and made another garland with holes punched in a different place, and that one hung correctly the first time!
More resources to help your tween or teen let go of negative thinking
More realistic thinking leads to positive action. Another helpful book on this subject is Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens by Mary Alvord and Anne McGrath. It’s a workbook to help kids gain control of their negativity.
For more help with getting your children to be flexible and keep trying, read my article about developing a growth mindset.
Big Life Journal specializes in helping kids to develop a growth mindset and reduce negativity. They have a variety of journals, posters, and even teaching materials for parents and teachers to help kids get stronger mentally! Click here to find out more.
Wrapping it up
I hope you have found these ideas for helping your tweens and teens let go of negative thinking helpful! If you have found more resources on this topic, please let me know in the comments. Or, if you have other issues you’d like me to cover, please let me know in the comments below!