Teaching Kids How to Respond To Their Negative Thinking

by , M. Ed., Priceless Parenting (sign up for monthly parenting newsletter and receive 20+ printable charts for kids and parents)

What thoughts are floating through your mind?

Negative thoughts can crop up like unwanted weeds threatening to choke out everything else. The tricky part about these negative thoughts is that they often sneak in quietly. They can start wreaking havoc before they’re detected.

When you notice your children getting frustrated and angry, you can bet there are some negative thoughts behind their behavior. I witnessed this one day when my son was in second grade working on a homework writing assignment. He made a mistake and erased it. He made another mistake and erased that. His anger and frustration grew with each attempt and soon there was a hole in the paper. Finally he scribbled out something to turn in and quit.

What I didn’t know then was how to help him out of the downward spiral he was in. Suggesting taking a break just made him even more upset. He ended up turning in his poorly completed assignment and received a poor grade.

Noticing When Negative Thoughts Are Spinning Out of Control

In his book, A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit, Tim Ryan tells a story about a friend's eight-year-old son, Mason. Mason was reading out loud to his Mom and struggling with it. Ryan writes "I happened to be visiting with them, so when he started crying, I decided to ask him what was wrong and he said, with tears streaming down his beet-red face, 'This book is just too hard for me!'"

Ryan realized that Mason's emotions were getting in his way of reading. "Mason was tired, fussy, and upset with himself for not reading well. His pride was hurt, and he felt his inability to read meant that he wasn't smart. As his emotions got more out of control, each time he tried again to read, he quickly gave up."

Wanting to help, Ryan waited until Mason stopped crying and then asked if he wanted help in understanding what just happened. Ryan explained to Mason how the emotional part of his brain was overriding the thinking part of his brain needed for reading.

He described how he demonstrated this: “Then I started clowning a little and using my hands to demonstrate. One hand played the role of the part of the brain that helps in reading, and the other played the role of the brain governing emotions. I explained that when he got all revved up, the emotional part of the brain interfered with the part that helps him read. I made some weird noises and had one hand take over the other hand. Again and again, I made a silly noise and let the ‘emotional’ hand dominate the ‘reading’ hand.”

Ryan then worked with Mason on following his breathing as a way to help calm his mind and body. This simple technique is an easy way for kids to get control of their thoughts. Focusing on slowly breathing in and out is a great tool for returning to the present moment and stopping negative thoughts.

Once kids understand how their brains react under stress, they are in a better position to recognize when it is happening. Dr. Daniel Siegel provides an excellent way to help kids understand how the emotional part and the thinking part of the brain interact. He demonstrates using his hand as a model of the brain in a short video. Teaching your kids this simple model will give them a useful tool for remembering how their brains respond to strong emotions.

Practicing Focusing Your Mind

Being able to control negative thoughts takes practice. To help your children get better at controlling their thoughts, it’s helpful for them to practice focusing on their breathing for five minutes every day.

Teach your children these three steps:

  1. Sit down for a few minutes with the goal of focusing on your breathing
  2. Notice when your mind wanders due to internal thoughts or external stimuli
  3. Remember the goal and go back to focusing on your breathing
Let your kids know that everyone’s minds wander. This is normal and all they need to do is remember the goal of focusing on their breathing and come back to it.

This breathing practice also allows your kids to notice the constant chatter going on in their heads. By focusing on their breathing, they have a tool for intentionally turning off the chatter. Noticing negative thoughts is the first step in purposely changing them.

About Kathy Slattengren

Kathy Slattengren

Parenting expert Kathy Slattengren, M. Ed., is dedicated to supporting parents in doing their best parenting. She helps families create homes where everyone feels accepted, heard, respected and appreciated.

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