Getting Out of Your Head

Throughout my time working with youth as a therapist, I’ve seen first hand how difficult it can be for many to thinking positively. There’s a discussion tool of journal prompts that I often use to begin sessions. These prompts focus on the positive things that have recently happened in their lives and things they like about themselves. I continue to be surprised by the amount of youth who have a difficult time answering (and may even be embarrassed) talking positively about themselves. Why is that? Is it because he/she tends to focus on the negative? That he/she doesn't have anyone in their life that asks them to focus on positive things? Are they used to parents and/or teachers focusing on things they do wrong or need to change? I believe it’s a combination of many of these.

In a world filled with negativity and violence, positive thinking can create a healthy and enjoyable life. So what is positive thinking and how can we incorporate it into our lives and are kids’ lives? There’s often a misperception that positive thinking involves the control of our thoughts. This is not exactly true. Our thoughts don’t stop and at times are endless. What we can control is what thoughts we pay attention to and how we react to our thoughts. It isn’t just about saying positive things over and over in the hopes you will convince yourself you are nice, patient, thin, smart, etc. While repeating positive affirmations can be helpful, positive thinking is about choosing to pay attention to the positive and negative thoughts and reacting appropriately. It’s about looking at the entire situation and then coming to a conclusion. The negative thoughts may bring about changes that need to be made by us to better a situation, but we can’t dwell on those alone.

Our thoughts have a big influence on our mental health, and what you tell yourself about a situation affects how you feel and what you do. Sometimes your interpretation of a situation can get distorted and you only focus on negative aspects. There are common thinking traps that are used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Here a few and some examples;

  1. All or Nothing Thinking (Black or White Thinking). This is seeing things as only right or wrong, perfect or terrible, good or bad. People who think in black and white terms see a small mistake as a total failure. For example, “I’m going to ace this test or totally fail.”

  2. Catastrophizing. This is imagining the worst case scenario no matter how unlikely it is. It’s exaggerating the likelihood that something bad will happen or exaggerating how bad it will be. For example, “I’m sick today so I’ll miss the information on the upcoming test. I’m going to bomb the test and fail the test and probably not graduate on time now.”

  3. Jumping to Conclusions. This is interpreting the situation with little or no evidence. This can also include mindreading (which is assuming you know other’s thoughts and beliefs) and fortune telling (which is expecting a situation will turn out badly with no evidence). For example, “My friend didn’t stop and say hi to me so she must be mad at me.”

If adults are miserable and stuck in negative habits of thought, what are our kids going to learn about positive thinking? The best way to teach our children about positive thinking is by example. We need to teach them that we do have some control of our own happiness. Below are ideas that you can incorporate into your family’s routine to bring about healthy positive thinking.

Ideas For Creating Healthy Positive Thinkers

  • Teach your children to control their inner monologues and self-talk. These are statements are often repeated in their minds: “What if I can’t do it?” “I will fail the test.” “Things are not going to work out.” “I’m stupid.” Help them replace negative statements by saying, “You might be having a hard time, but keep trying and ask others for help.”

  • Try to create a positive environment in your home.

  • At dinner or before bed, ask your child about one thing that was a success, accomplishment or something they were proud of that day.

  • Create a gratitude journal and anytime they are feeling stressed, encourage them to recall something they are thankful for.

  • Watch funny movies, videos (animals and babies do it for me!) or play games.

  • Help your child discover interests or hobbies that they are good at to increase their confidence. It could be a sport, music, art, etc. The more success they have, the better they will feel about themselves. Remember, though, it’s ok to not be the best too! It’s about the experience and building confidence, not trying to become famous for it!

Below is something that I also use in my counseling practice. It does a great job showing different ways of thinking and takes away the focus on negative thoughts.

As in so many areas of our lives when it comes to our children, it starts with us. We are usually the first voices they hear and their first “inner voice.” As they grow and create their own voice, our influence can still shape their thoughts and feelings about themselves. I encourage you to challenge your own negative thinking patterns and create some habits in your family to create healthy positive thinkers.

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