Mental health problems during childhood are more common than we imagine. About six to seventeen percent of children and teenagers are affected by anxiety disorder or depression. Research has identified that many children and teenagers with an anxiety disorder showed cognitive distortions, which are characterized by negative thinking patterns — in other words: when the repetitive exposure to derogatory and negative content has a negative impact on thoughts, emotions, and behaviors — affecting their well-being, the way they see the world, and their adaptive functioning.
According to this article, these cognitive distortions are the result of negative thinking patterns. When this negativity in the way of thinking becomes a pattern as early as childhood, it directs how information and events are interpreted throughout one person’s life.
Negative thoughts are common and everyone has them, from kids to adults. But you need to be careful so that this does not become so recurrent to the point of becoming a pattern, especially during childhood.
If you notice your kids are having cognitive distortions — if their thoughts are inflexible, their expectations are chronically negative, or their feelings are too strong for them to reflect on their thinking patterns, it is time to look for the help of specialists. Kids who are suffering with this in a way that their routines, behavior and perspectives of the world are affected need to be monitored by a professional.
What is it: It is seeing things in only two ways, categories or possibilities, therefore thinking that they are either good or bad, black or white, without any gray area in between. It is a common distortion that makes you think — and then feel — that if something is not everything you want, then you do not want any of it. It is also thinking that you must perform excellently at everything (perfectionism) — otherwise you have failed miserably.
Examples: “I did not get into my first-choice university, therefore all my hopes are lost.” Or: “if I don’t get a 10 on that test, I have completely failed.”
What is it: It is believing that, because you feel something, it must be true, even if there is no other evidence to support it aside from this feeling.
Examples: “I feel alone, therefore no one likes me.” Or: “I’m afraid of elevators, and that is why elevators are dangerous.”
What is it: It is talking about a negative detail or event related to a situation and turning it into an universal pattern which is true about your entire life.
Examples: “Someone does not want to hang out with me. No one ever wants to hang out with me!” Or: “I messed up a chemistry experiment today. I never do anything right!”
What is it: It is putting a negative label on yourself — or others — so that you no longer see the person behind the label. When you reduce someone to this kind of thought, your understanding becomes so rigid that there is no more space for you to see yourself or someone else in a different way.
Examples: “I fell today at soccer, trying to score. I’m so clumsy!” Or: “I didn’t have anything to add to this conversation. I’m so boring!”
What is it: It is predicting something will happen in a negative way. This can turn into a negative way of seeing the future and can impact behavior, increasing the chances of your negative predictions happening.
Examples: “I know I’m going to fail this test”; and then you get nervous and your performance deteriorates. Or: “If I talk to this person, they won’t talk to me or accept me”; and then you don’t talk to them or have the chance to connect with someone whom you want to get to know better or who could help you.
What is it: It is assuming that you know and understand what other people are thinking, and usually, being sure that it reflects badly on you.
Examples: “I am talking to someone else and they don’t seem to be paying attention. I’m sure they don’t like me”; and, actually, you don’t know what the other person is thinking: for example, they may only be distracted or worried about something completely unrelated to you and are finding it hard to focus.
What is it: It is distorting a problem or something negative out of proportion.
Example: “This party is going to be the worst experience ever!”
What is it: It is minimizing something positive that happened so that it “does not count” as a good thing or a pleasant experience in your life. It dismisses any evidence that goes against your negative vision of yourself or of a situation.
Examples: “I did well in the exam, but that was pure luck.” Or someone says: “I love going out with you!” But you think: “They were only being polite, they didn’t mean to say that.”
What is it: It is seeing only the negative side instead of the positive or all the aspects of an experience.
Examples: You write an article for a teacher and they give you a lot of positive feedback — but you wrote someone’s name wrong. All that you can think of is the wrong name. Or you have many positive conversations throughout the day and in one of them you say something slightly awkward. Appalled, you focus only on the embarrassing thing you said, forgetting all the other nice interactions you had that day.
What is it: It is making everything become about you when it is not. That includes blaming yourself even for things beyond your control and taking things personally when they don’t mean to be harmful to you.
Examples: “If I wasn’t such a burden to my parents, maybe they wouldn’t be getting a divorce.” Or: “How dare that person walk in front of me, that is so disrespectful!” When the person simply didn’t see you and cutting in front of you was merely a distraction.
What is it: It is thinking “should” and “must” (and the opposites “shouldn’t and “can’t”).
Examples: “I should present my school work in class without feeling anxious. What is wrong with me?” However, thinking like that at the height of your anxiety will only make you even more nervous regarding said presentation!
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Going to therapy can help! Cognitive behavioral therapy helps to identify, challenge and restructure these thoughts.
For actions beyond therapy, it is important for you to start observing, identifying and recognizing your own negative thinking patterns. For example, if your kids have anxiety, you may end up personalizing it, blaming yourself and labeling yourself as a “terrible parent”. Always remember that it is a cognitive distortion, which is reversible, and avoid judging both yourself and, mainly, your kids.
In order to help kids learn about cognitive distortions, you can explain them with fun cards or a game of questions and answers. It is important to keep this team work lighthearted, without putting too much pressure on yourselves, and to be careful so as not to invalidate your kids and tell them what they are feeling — even by accident — or tell them these negative thoughts are “wrong” or “unreasonable”. Even if they are, we cannot assume children are ready to handle them and see them this way. Each person has their own time, including (and especially) kids.
An important reminder is that, if you notice your kids are having too many inflexible thoughts and putting too much pressure on themselves, or that their expectations are almost always negative, it is time to seek the help of a pediatrician, therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist.
Written by Luisa Scherer
Translated by Mariana Gruber