Following is the master plan to helping your child resist negative thinking that Dr. Tamar Chansky presents in her book “Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking.” However, her strategies are just as effective for adults.
Used by permission of Da Capo Lifelong, a member of the Perseus Books Group.
Step One: Empathize with Your Children’s (or your own) Experience
As much as the end result of the master plan is to help your child embrace a different point of view on his situation, your first goal is not to lose your audience by coming on too strong with the agenda of change. Instead, start from where he is: Wheat emotion is he expression? Reflect that with your words or a hug, a gesture. Squatting may be all it takes. Thoroughly accepting how he feels doesn’t mean that you agree with him or see the situation the same way, but it does release him from having to show you how bad he feels. So when your child says, “I feel like I’m in jail,” resist the urge to say in so many words, “Are you crazy?” Don’t try to steer him off his course. Go in the direction of his swerve, and you will be able to direct him back to himself. The key is to normalize his experience without minimizing it. If you’re too cheerful, he has no choice but to be grumpy to get his point across. As the popular bumper sticker says, “If you are not outraged, you are not paying attention.” Introduce the idea of choice: “Your thoughts are making you feel really bad. I wonder if there is something different we could do.” You don’t want to oppressively correct your child or go in with the right answer. Your child will feel bad for feeling the wrong answer so deeply.
Step Two: Relabel
If only our automatic negative thoughts came with a disclaimer–“The message you are about to hear is notoriously unreliable, distorted, and out of proportion”–what anguish we could prevent. Instead of being led down a thorny patch lined with terrible impossibilities, accusations, and more, we might steel ourselves, get some distance, or get ready to take our thoughts with a grain of salt. Relabeling is about noticing the familiar “ring” to children’s thoughts and distress: the everything, always ring tone, or the ding-dong of doom and gloom. Children can learn to recognize it immediately, and just as we prepare ourselves when we look at our phone’s caller ID, when children know that it is Mr. Negative calling, or you suggest it to them, they know where that conversation is going, and they can come into the conversation prepared rather than being taken off guard. Interestingly, even thought hearing a litany of negative thoughts could make anyone feel bad, over time, when we hear that same old story, like a broken recover, and can predict, “Yep, I knew my negative thinking was going to jump to that conclusion,” we can decide not to listen, and that decision leaves us free to choose other interpretations.
Step Three: Specify What Went Wrong
Don’t be tempted to try to solve the huge problem that your child initially presents you with: “I hate my life, everything is terrible, I can’t do anything right.” The target is actually much smaller, so teach your child to shrink it by narrowing it down from its global form to the specific offending thought or situation that needs to be addressed. With young children you can frame this approach as doing “detective work” to locate the source of the problem; with older children, you can explain that it’s usually a triggering event that makes us feel really bad–a straw that broke the camel’s back. It holds the key to helping us know that to do to feel better.
Step Four: Optimize and Rewire
Optimizing a system means making modifications or trying different settings to make it run more efficiently, use resources more wisely, and conserve energy. When a child is in negative-thinking mode, her thinking is stalled, her strengths and resources are locked up, and her energy , motivation, and hopefulness are being drained. The optimizing step is about trying different settings or perspectives on the specific problem that your child has identified–“I’m not going to have any friends at camp”–and choosing the version or interpretation that works best for your child, the one that is the least damaging, is the most accurate, and gets her system moving in a new direction. Like a teacher who needs to “call on other kids” when one persnickety child is dominating the class, children can be encouraged to step into their rightful place of authority and tell Permanent-Marker Man or Disaster Guy to give it a rest and let other voices be heard.
Step Five: Mobilize or Be the Change You Want to See
There is a certain point where you can’t think your way out of your mood anymore, but you can move yourself out of it. What we know about brain rewiring is that actions can speak louder than words. If you sit still dwelling on a situation, it is harder to shake it off than if you get up and do something active. Like picking up the needle on a skipping record and putting it down elsewhere, doing something active helps your brain get engaged in something enjoyable and pass the time until your nervous system recovers from what felt like a near miss. It’s not that you necessarily need to forget about what you were thinking before, but you may be like a windup toy that spins its wheels when it gets wedged against a wall: No matter how much it spins, it can’t get moving. It needs to be picked up and headed in a new direction.
It is important to note that picking up is entirely different distracting oneself from negative thoughts. Distracting yourself is like playing a game of hide-and-seek with your negativity. Even if you pretend it’s not there for a while by doing something else, eventually it will find you. The master plan is about dismantling the power of the bully first, correctly and devaluing the ideas, and then getting busy with the things that matter to you more. You’re not distracting; you’re either accepting or dismissing the thoughts, but either way, you’ve established who’s the boss, you’ve made it clear in your mind that these thoughts have only the power you give them, and you are ready to either let them float on by or to amend, correct, or replace them.