Preventing and Responding to Anxiety

anxious childResearch indicates that kids are sometimes born with a temperament that predisposes them to develop an anxiety disorder. This temperament, called “behavioral inhibition,” can be identified in toddlers. Such toddlers tend to have nervous responses to novelty or unexpected changes; they also tend to be more clingy and fussy than their peers when faced with separation from a primary caregiver. Toddlers with this temperament are then at higher risk for developing an anxiety disorder. What follows are six tips for trying to help such a child to not develop an anxiety disorder.

1. Avoid avoidance. This is one of the most important guidelines. This means not avoiding those developmentally appropriate situations that make your child feel nervous. When our kids hurt we parents hurt worse. So, it’s a natural reaction to just let our child avoid any developmentally appropriate situations that make her feel nervous (e.g., being left with a babysitter, getting on a school bus, joining a rec soccer team). Avoiding such situations reinforces the notion that they are dangerous and also tends to promote them becoming even more threatening over time. Moreover, this sort of a coping strategy tends to spread: your child may end up wanting to use it for more and more situations. Barring other complicating factors (e.g., the presence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), avoiding avoidance usually comes with initial distress but is followed by calm and a sense of accomplishment. (“Eventual” often ends up being just a few minutes.)

2. Promote your child’s comfort as you avoid avoidance. This can be coaching soccerdone in any number of ways. One of my favorites is to gradually expose your child to aspects of the feared situation in doses before the due date. For example, you might play soccer with him on the field where the first practice will be held or arrange for her to sit on the empty school bus before the first day of school. You would usually stay within these situations until your child seems calm, using some of the other tips in this article. This can also be done in smaller chunks prior to the due date.

3. Teach belly breathing and pasta muscles. Have your child pretend that his lungs are in his lower belly, instead of his chest cavity, while breathing deeply but comfortably, both in and out. Relatedly, ask your child to make her muscles as soft as a piece of cooked pasta. Click here for a free 15-minute audio training module I created that can promote this sort of muscle memory. These behaviors short-circuit the fight-flight response, which is the brain system that becomes activated whenever someone feels anxious. (When in the anxious situation your child should not tense then relax his muscles, as is done in the training module. That is only done for practice. When in the anxiety provoking situation, only relaxation and belly breathing should be used.)

tape over mouth4. Avoid reassurances, especially those that are excessive. Few things will trigger your child’s anxiety more quickly than your reassurance that a safe situation is safe, especially when those reassurances that are issued with emotion or conviction. I tell the parents in my practice, “imagine I told you not to worry about the ceiling over us collapsing on top of our heads. You’d probably instantly start wondering what sort of a dangerous situation you might be in.” Kids often hear many parental reassurances as, “time to start freaking out!” Moreover, when you are separating from your kid (e.g., leaving the practice, leaving the school), leave as quickly as you can. Your presence, and especially if you are issuing reassurances, will often tend to promote the very anxiety you’re trying to mitigate.

5. Get control over your own anxiety if that’s a problem. This temperamental vulnerability, by definition, usually runs in families. If anxiety is interfering with the quality of your life, you would do your kid an awesome solid by seeking out cognitive behavioral therapy for yourself.

6. Get help if these efforts don’t work! Anxiety disorders in anyone, including kids, is usually very treatable and in a short period of time. The aforementioned cognitive-behavioral therapy can be delivered to kids and teens and has a ton of research supporting its efficacy. For a referral, click here.

 

 

 

Promoting Teen Friendships

2 happy teens, african-americanAs we start a new year, my attention is drawn to The New Yorker article by Maria Konnikova titled, “The Six Most Interesting Psychology Papers of 2015.” I’d like to blog on one of these six articles, from the British Journal of Psychology, titled “Best Friends and Better Coping: Facilitating Psychological Resilience Through Boys’ and Girls’ Closest Friendships.”

In this study the participants were 409 “socio-economically vulnerable” British adolescents. The researchers found that having a close friend served an important resilience-promoting function. They concluded: “Findings revealed a significant positive association between perceived friendship quality and resilience…We suggest that individual close friendships are an important potential protective mechanism accessible to most adolescents.”

This is not a surprising result for those who are familiar with the resilience literature (e.g., social competence is a well established protective factor). Here are a few tips parents can use to promote friendships among their teens:

  • Create a space in your home that is teen friendly. Key ingredients aretwo women fun things to do in a space that feels separate from parents and siblings.
  • Encourage and support extra-curricular involvements that tap into your teen’s strengths. This can be a wonderful way to develop and support friendships.
  • In instances when your teen may be struggling with peers, partner with teachers in identifying potential friend-candidates to invite over.
  • Also if your teen is struggling, see if there are any groups being organized by school counselors that your teen might be eligible to join (e.g., social skills training, divorce coping, grief); these groups can be useful for forming bonds.
  • Whenever practical and consistent with your morals, support your teen’s efforts to acquire conforming clothes, music and so forth. These are common methodologies teen use to try to feel comfortable around, and to fit in with, peers.
  • Whenever practical and consistent with your morals, allow your teen to have access to pro-social networking sites and technology (e.g., texting). Not having access to such can serve to isolate a teen.
  • happy latino coupleGiven how critically important this domain is, please consider obtaining an evaluation from a good child mental health professional if your teen is struggling with peer relationships. For a referral click here.

This complex topic goes hand-in-hand with another complex topic: parental monitoring. Please use the search bar above, or my parenting book, to find content along those lines.

 

Parenting a Depressed Teen During the Holidays

depressedThe holiday season can be harder than other times of the year for people who are depressed. When someone is struggling with depression he feels estranged from himself and the world. Then, when that world temporarily gets even more unlike him (i.e., emphasizing cheer), his sense of estrangement can worsen. For this and other reasons, parenting a teen who is depressed during the holiday season can especially challenging.

Before I offer some tips, let me offer a very important proviso. Imagine you had a kid with significant dental pain and you wondered, “what meals should I prepare that best accommodate her condition?” That seems like a useful question, but only if your daughter is receiving, or is about to receive, professional dental care. Without the dental care, cooking interventions would probably be like re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. It is the same thing with depression in a teenager. The tips below are best considered and rendered within a context of a kid already getting good mental health care (e.g., an evidence based talking therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy or interpersonal therapy).

That said, here are seven tips to consider:

• Collaborate with your teen, and ideally your teen’s treatment provider, regarding a holiday plan (e.g., which activities to do and which to set aside). Your teen’s depression would have him bail out on most, if not all, activities and that is usually a mistake. Likewise, you may be tempted to insist on 100% participation, and that can be a mistake as well. A skilled therapist’s expert assistance can increase the odds that you’ll find the adaptive middle ground.

• Do what you do for your teen without the expectation that such will cheer her african woman's half faceup. We parent-lunatics hurt when our kid hurts, and often worse. So, it’s very natural to try to cheer up a depressed teen. However, if the primary intention is to bring about a better mood it’s easy to become frustrated and worsen the stress on our teen. Better to make the effort without the expectation of an outcome.

• Accept your teen’s moods as they come. These moods can be like the weather. Sure, you’ve laid out a nice picnic and here comes a rainstorm, and that stinks. You can rage at the weather (and that can take many, many forms) or pitch a tent, realizing that the weather is outside your control, and enjoy what is possible to enjoy.

• Resist trying to reassure your teen out of a negative thought. While such encouragement can often help someone who is not depressed, to a depressed person reassurances can sound like, “you don’t have anything to feel sad about, so stop it,” which can then cause the depressed person to become even more adamant about his negative thinking. This is another instance where your teen’s therapist can be very helpful in coaching you how to respond (e.g., “I think that’s your depression convincing you of a painful lie. I believe the reality isn’t nearly as painful as your depression’s lie); the technique of thought testing can also be very helpful here (e.g., see my parenting book or search using that term above).

• Don’t allow extended family to hassle your teen regarding his depression. Loved ones can say some pretty hurtful things in their desire to be helpful. Your teen’s therapist can help you to figure out your methods for doing this in a way that respects your teen’s privacy and independence.

teen diinterested face• Regularly let your teen know, without overdoing it, that you love her, that she is not alone and you understand that it’s terrible to be feeling what she is feeling, especially during the holidays.

• If your teen is or could be suicidal, get him in front of an expert ASAP and don’t leave him alone until you do. Consider this to be a life-or-death emergency as you certainly don’t want your baby to be one of the two million U.S. teens who attempt suicide each year.

Geez. Tough stuff huh? But, hopefully there’s a helpful tip or two here for you. Regardless, I hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday season!

 

Is being spiritual healthy?

girl smelling a flowerIn last week blog’s entry I reviewed a recent study suggesting that religiosity and altruistic behavior are negatively associated in children. In that study, the findings were weak and there were important questions left unaddressed. In this week’s blog entry I would like to quote from two comprehensive reviews of the literature regarding associations with spirituality and religiosity that have appeared in two flagship journals: The American Psychologist and Pediatrics.

The review article in The American Psychologist, by researchers Peter Hill and Kenneth Pargament, can be found here. These are some key quotes:

“…religion and spirituality have been surprisingly robust variables in predicting health-related outcomes.” These include “…heart disease, cholesterol, hypertension, cancer, (and) mortality…”

“…even simplistic religion and spirituality measures…are glorioussignificant predictors of health outcome variables.”

Citing a meta-analytic review (i.e., a study of studies) of nearly 126,000 participants: “…people who scored higher on measures of religious involvement…had 29% higher odds of survival…than people lower in religious involvement.”

“…people who report a closer connection to God experience…less depression and higher self-esteem…less loneliness…greater relational maturity…and greater psychosocial competence…better self-rated health…and better psychological adjustment among people facing a variety of major life stressors, including transplant surgery…medical illness…and natural disasters…”

The review in Pediatrics by researchers Linda L. Barnes, Gregory A. Plotnikoff, Kenneth Fox, and Sara Pendleton can be found here. Here are some key quotes from that article:

diverse happy woman on floor2Regarding youth: “A number of studies suggest that spiritual/religious beliefs and practices may contribute to decreased stress and increased sense of well-being, decreased depressive symptoms, decreased substance abuse…improved recovery from myocardial infarction and enhanced immune system functioning.”

“Instances in which spirituality and coping may intersect for children include nighttime fear, psychiatric problems, suffering, hospitalization, disability, cancer and terminal illness.”

“Spirituality and religious involvement can also help children withstand the emotional assaults of sexual abuse, racism, cultural destruction, and the trauma generated by refugee experience and life in the disenfranchised urban neighborhoods.”

“Low religiosity also tends to be related to higher rates of smoking, drinking, drug use, and adolescent pregnancy.”

Other correlates or religiosity cited in the latter study included baby in shades, good for dev jeopardyless male aggressive sexual behavior, lower delinquency, higher life satisfaction, lower suicidality & increased academic & social competence.

Keep in mind that a correlation tells one nothing about cause and effect (e.g., click here for a demonstration of that truth). However, when study after study, across decades, finds similar positive associations, we can start drawing conclusions. What causes the positive associations is an open discussion (e.g, see Chapter Four of my parenting book), but we are on firm ground to assert that scientific findings indicate that engagement with a spirituality promotes resilience across the lifespan.

 

 

 

Religiousness and Altruism in Kids

microphoneLast week media outlets around the country reported on a study out of the University of Chicago on the relationship between religiosity and altruism in kids. The study can be found here. These are some of the headlines from last week: “Nonreligious children are more generous.” “Religion doesn’t make kids more generous or altruistic, study finds.” “Religion Makes Children More Selfish, Say Scientists.” How this research was portrayed constitutes a case example of what can go wrong when social science research is presented to the public.

The participants of this study were “…1,170 children aged between 5 and 12 years in six countries (Canada, China, Jordan, Turkey, USA, and South Africa).” The key determiner of altruism was how many stickers kids were willing to share with peers. Kids in the non-religious group were willing to share, on average, 4.1 stickers (out of 10) while kids in the Christian group were willing to share 3.3 stickers and kids in the Muslim group were willing to share 3.2 stickers. The researchers also determined that the correlation between the kids’ religiousity and altruism was -.173 (negative correlations mean that when one variable goes up, the other one goes down).

question mark over brainTo better understand the confusion in the reporting I need to explain the term “statistically significant.” Research is always done with samples that hopefully represent the population under study. So, let’s say I’m a researcher that believes that 10 year old boys who eat apples for a year will end up taller than 10 year old boys who eat onions for a year. I then put together a sample of 800 10 year-old boys, half of whom eat the apples and half of whom eat the onions for one year. A test for statistical significance tells me, at the end of my study, whether my sample of 10 year-old boys represents all ten year old boys (the population). Lets say at the end of the year my test of statistical significance says that my results are statistically significant. All that means is that my sample likely represents the entire population (the standard cutoff is 95% likely or higher). However, statistical significance tells me nothing about the meaningfulness of the difference. So, lets say in my study the boys who ate the apples were .84 inches taller than the boys who ate the onions. I can tell the media that there is a significant difference between my two groups, and that would be true. But the media, and the public equate “significant difference” with “meaningful difference” and that would be troubling, especially to onion farmers.

An example of a statistic that speaks to meaning is effect size; .20 is a small effect size, .50 is a moderate effect size and .80 is a large effect size. Moreover, to consider the meaningfulness of correlations, .10 is considered small, .30 moderate and .50 is large.

So, let’s return to the study in question. The effect size on the main analysis (which they didn’t report but which I calculated) is .348, closer to the small category than the moderate category (e.g., there was a .8 sticker difference between the non-religious kids and the Christian kids). Moreover, the negative correlation of -.173 correlation is small.

But, we need to return to my apple-onion study to consider another methodological issue. Researchers commonly collect data on other related variables that might moderate the results. Do the apples and onion diets have differing effects on boys who start out shorter than boys who start out taller? Do boys who are obese have a different outcome than those who are not? Are the results different for boys who exercise than those who don’t? Including measures like these helps researchers to further interpret the meaning and relevance of the results. In well-constructed studies such analyses are common.

In the study in question there were numerous potential moderators that were not investigated. These included the presence of mental health problems among the kids, the level of intelligence of the kids, and the number of siblings in each participant’s household, psychology disciplineto name a few. Moreover, a key potential moderator variable, socio-economic status, was assessed merely by determining the mother’s level of education. So, even though the results are statistically significant, the effect sizes are small and there are many unanswered questions regarding potential moderators of the findings.

Is this study interesting? Yes. Does it make a useful contribution to the literature? Yes. Does it suggest that parents should alter their religious practices based on its findings? Absolutely not. Moreover, there is a great deal of scientific evidence indicating that numerous physical and psychological advantages are associated with religiosity in children. In next week’s blog I will review some of that science.

Value of an Allowance

money held by handMany parents wonder about the value of giving their kid(s) an allowance. I’m in favor of allowances for these reasons:

Allowances…

…can be tied to weekly chores or homework performance, incentivizing otherwise resistant kids.

…cut down on the revolving (and seemingly near constant) requests for spending money. For elective purchases, kids can now learn to budget their own resources.

…open the door to teaching about money management. For instance, a percentage might be put aside for college, teens might open up a checking account and so forth.

…get kids thinking about the importance of giving to charity.

…sometimes actually lead kids to ask for other opportunities to earn money around the home.

Parents often ask me how much they should allow their child to earn. There isn’t really a guideline that I can say is more or less psychologically indicated. It really comes down to your standard of living and the values you wish to promote. That said, you could think of $1 per year your child has lived outside of the womb as a rough starting point; you can adjust up or down from there based on your standard of living and values.

Let me offer two caveats:

First, it’s important to not make a kid spend his or her allowance on necessities such as clothes and food. Providing necessities is our job. Of course, if your budget parameters call for your child to bag her lunch, but she prefers to purchase it at school with her allowance, that’s fine. Or, you have it in mind to purchase a durable sneaker but your kid wants the designer brand, that’s fine also.

Second, it’s important to not try to over control how your child spends his or her allowance. If the proposed expenditure isn’t inappropriate for him or her (e.g., a 10 year old wanmentorts to purchase a mature rated video game), or immediately harmful (e.g., yes, too much ice cream is harmful in the long run but a dosing of it isn’t immediately harmful once allergies are ruled out) it’s important to let your kid make his or her own decision, even if it drives you crazy. It’s hard to learn how to manage money, and how to make decisions, if mom or dad are always calling the shots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What To Do About a Bad Report Card

writing fatigueHaving your kid come home with a poor report card can be challenging and upsetting. For responding to this I’d like to offer two perspectives and six steps.

Perspecitive #1: Though we all do it from time-to-time, freaking out is rarely helpful. This response is certainly understandable, especially if you believe your kid has dropped the ball. But, it rarely helps and often hurts both your relationship with your kid and the underlying problem (e.g., a kid hating school).

Perspective #2: The underlying issues are usually fixable, it just take properly understanding what has happened. Staying problem and solution focused can be very helpful. The following six steps are meant to help you in this regard. (These steps are not meant to be a sequential list.)

Step #1: Schedule a face-to-face meeting with the teacher or teachers. At this meeting discuss, at minimum, your kid’s strengths, what the teacher(s) believe has caused the poor report card, and a plan of remediation. Please read my blog entry “Eleven Important Tips When You Meet with a Teacher” to make the most out of this meeting.

Step #2: Figure out what constitutes success for your kid. We parents do well to focus on effort more than outcomes. Is your kid bringing it and getting Bs? If yes, that may be okay. Is your kid barely trying and earning As and Bs? If yes, that may not be okay.

Step #3: Determine what role homework plays in your kid’s grades. Is there too stressed student with booksmuch of it? Is your kid trying hard enough? Is your kid lying to you about what homework is assigned? Aspects of your assessment of the homework situation can be useful to share in the teacher meeting. Please read my blog entry “Seven Tips for Coping with Homework Hell” to get the most out of this step.

Step #4: Determine if extracurricular activities, sleep schedules or your kid’s social life are interfering with academic performance. If yes, the problem(s) may be easy to tweak if you’ve caught it/them early enough. (Searching with the word “sleep” above will list multiple entries regarding sleep.)

Step #5: Consider improving the quality of the relationship between you and your kid. If you are surprised by a poor report card, that may suggest that there is too much distance between the two of you. Spending one hour a week doing “special time” with your kid can be a fix (see Chapter One in my parenting book or articles on this blog site for more information on how to implement special time).

Step #6: Ask yourself whether a glitch in your kid’s mental health could be playing a role. If your kid seems depressed, angry, worried, stress out, hung over, or some other negative adjective, seriously consider having a good child or adolescent psychologist do an evaluation to get to the bottom of things. (See my article titled “What Does a Good Mental Health Evaluation Look Like?” to get the most out of this step. You may also find value in reading  character with key in head“Affording Mental Health Care” or Chapter 10 of my parenting book.) Part of this work-up may include an evaluation to rule out a learning disability.

Good luck and, on behalf of your future kid, thank you for your work on this!

 

 

Helping Your Kid Get a Good Night’s Sleep

It’s back-to-school and many parents are working on sleep with their kids. In previous entries I reviewed evidence that most teens do not get sufficient sleep, shared authoritative guidelines for how much sleep kids should get and summarized the most common ways kids suffer when they do not get enough sleep. Here I offer guidelines for how you can promote a good night’s sleep in your kid.

• Try to encourage a consistent bedtime ritual that starts about an hour prior to the time you’d like your  to fall asleep. In this hour try to avoid activities that promote an active or a fretful mind. For younger children reading them a book as they lay in bed can be effective. A shower or bath in this hour can also be relaxing.

• Baring unusual circumstances, consider not allowing your kid to keep a cell phone in her bedroom.

•Try to avoid allowing your kid to watch TV as he falls asleep. However, if you do, make sure it is not on for long and that it is turned off shortly after he falls asleep.

• If your kid is waking up soar or stiff or if her mattress is showing signs of wear or tear, consider replacing it.

• If your kid reports being too cold or too hot when trying to fall sleep, adjust accordingly.

• Try to avoid laying with your child until she falls asleep. If her anxiety level seems to mandate such, see a qualified mental health professional for help.

• Dim night lights are fine to use if such makes your child more comfortable.

• Of course, try to ensure that your child’s environment is quiet. If you live in a busy area and outside noise is interfering, consider purchasing a noise cancelling machine.

• If your kid consistently fights you in getting to bed on time, consider making her earn access to a desired activity or object the next day by getting into bed on time (e.g., cell phone access the next day is earned by having gotten into bed on time with the lights out).  This is not punishment. (“I’m taking your cell phone away because you did not get to bed on time.”) This is reward. (“You earn your cell phone each day by having gotten to bed on time the night before.”) So, your kid either earns or doesn’t earn the desired activity or access while you remain an empathic bystander.

• If your kid reports that he cannot fall asleep because his mind is too busy, try one or more of the following strategies:

  1. At a soft volume, play an audio recording of a story with which your child is familiar. Try to avoid plots that are action packed.  Also, make sure to turn it off shortly after your kid falls asleep.
  2. Encourage your kid to imagine that it is the next day and he is in a boring class. In the class he is extremely tired, but he MUST stay awake. Encourage your kid to imagine what each of her senses experience as he does this mental exercise.
  3. Encourage your kid to imagine a repetitive pleasurable activity (e.g., fishing, cheerleading, pitching a ball game, dancing, etc.). Again, encourage her to engage all of her senses when imagining this activity.
  4. Play sounds from nature (e.g., the beach, a rainforest, etc.) or other soothing music (e.g., insomnia tracks available on iTunes). If your child has a device like an iPod, he may enjoy using one of the compatible pillows that are available.
  5. Some people report that the aroma of lavender can have a sedating effect. So, consider this as well.

Insomnia is like a fever as it is a symptom that has many possible causes (e.g., sleep apnea, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, etc.). If your child suffers from persistent insomnia consult with your child’s pediatrician regarding possible medical causes. If medical interventions do not resolve the problem, are contraindicated or will take a while to implement, consider seeking out the services of a qualified mental health professional.

Developing Gratitude in Kids

happy jumping black boy, white backgroundHelping kids to develop gratitude has multiple benefits. It weakens self-entitlement because kids need to recognize that they have been gifted with something instead of feeling inherently entitled to it. Gratitude also promotes adaptive thinking, joy and a sense of meaning. This entry focuses on a few strategies for promoting gratitude in kids.

A good way to start is to do gratitude letters across the entire family. For that methodology, see this blog entry. Being on either end of a gratitude letter is usually a very enriching experience.

Families can also develop gratitude rituals. Before eating a shared meal, whether it’s all of the family or just part of the family, each person might mention 1-3 things that she is grateful for that day. These might be small things (e.g., the sounds of birds chirping in the morning) or big things (e.g., being on the honor roll). Moreover, if your family shares a spiritual practice of praying, prayers of thanksgiving can be offered each night for specific developments during the day.

There are also things kids can be trained to do on their own. For example, counting three blessings in the show can be a mood lifting habit, as can doing so right before bed. Some kids also find value in making a gratitude list once a week for things that happened that week. The research suggests that such practices promote positive feelings and attitudes. As is said: that which you pays attention to expands.

There are two traps to avoid. First, directing a kid towards gratitude usually teen laying down and looking aheadwouldn’t be a good way to respond to that kid’s legitimate pain and suffering. Trying to direct a kid towards gratitude, when he is legitimately hurting, can make it harder for him to learn to cope adaptively with such experiences. Second, it’s important to try to be specific with expressions of parental gratitude and to not offer vague praise (e.g., a parent saying to a child: “I’m grateful that you’re so smart” is not nearly as helpful as “I’m grateful that you aced a difficult English exam today”).

Tolstoy said it well, “Happy families are all alike. Every unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way.” I think it’s fair to say that happy families, and individuals for that matter, regularly engage proportionate and specific gratitude.

 

“I’m stupid!” “I’m a loser!” Responding to a Kid’s Negative Thinking (Thought Testing)

“I’m stupid!” “No one likes mcharacter sitting on book overwhelmede!” “I suck at sports!” “I have no friends!” Most parents have heard lamentations like these. Our typical response is to reassure our kid and offer contradicting evidence. However, there are many occasions when that approach seems to escalate the problem. This is because if a kid is being influenced by a depressed or anxious mood, such reassurances are heard by her as “knock it off. You don’t have any reason to feel this way.” Our kid’s response is then to insist, often with more distress and an offering of data, that the negative thought is true. The technique of thought testing can be helpful in these instances.

Step #1: Get to the core thought. Our thoughts are like onions; core thoughts are the deepest layer of the onion. Sometimes our kid offers a core thought right at the start, like the ones I listed above. If so, we can skip this step. Otherwise, a kid can seem disproportionately upset about an activating event, like not getting invited to a party or making a mistake during a game. You can start by asking, “what does it mean that Monica didn’t invite you to the party?” A kid might say, “she doesn’t like me.” You can then respond with, “okay, let’s say that’s true. What would it mean about you that Monica doesn’t like you?” A kid might then say, “I have no friends.” Core thoughts are usually expressed in a few words and represent black-and-white and negative conclusions about oneself, others or the world at large. Write down the core thought at the top of a piece of paper, then draw a vertical line in the middle of the page underneath the core thought. On the left side write “facts supporting.” On the left write “facts contradicting.”

theory into practice signStep #2: Collect supporting facts. This is the step that opens up a new universe for your relationship with your kid. You say, “okay, what are the facts that support this thought? By facts, I mean things that a police officer would write down, or things that could be used in a court of law.” (You might have to do different kinds of teaching regarding what a fact is depending upon your kid’s age and intelligence.) If your kid suggests some facts in support of the thought, write it down as a valid point. The kid might say, “I didn’t get invited to Monica’s party.” You might say, “you’re right. That is a fact that suggests you have no friends so we’ll write it down on the left side. What’s next?” So, instead of arguing against the core thought, you’re asking for the data that supports it. This is what’s new. Usually a kid will have 2-4 facts, and rarely more. Just be sure you write down only facts, not what you kid imagines, guesses or implies.

Step #3: Collect contradicting facts. When your kid says she has no more supporting facts, ask if there are facts that contradict or disagree with the core thought. Usually, these start cascading from your kid (as long as you’ve done the first two steps that is). Feel free to add here-and-there but let most of the facts come from your kid. You write each one down on the right side. As you write, don’t let your kid see what you’re writing yet. It’s okay not to exhaust this side. You can stop once you have much more data on the right side.

Step #4: Give the list to your kid and ask, “Okay, you’re judge and jury. Is the thought true or false?” Your kid will usually express relief that the thought is not true. (In my parenting book I review an augmenting strategy for when a kid wants to assert that a given fact on the left side carries more weight than the facts on the right side.)

cute girl sitting white backgroundStep #5: Decide what you want to do next. Maybe you want to do “problem solving” regarding the activating event (search for that term on this blog site). Or, maybe your kid decides just to distract herself whenever she has this thought going forward, as it isn’t true.

I have two caveats. First, if the thought proves true, use it as an opportunity to do problem solving. Second, if thought testing doesn’t work for you, and your kid has a pattern of being distressed by negative thoughts, seek out a referral for a good child mental health professional. You can get a referral by clicking here.

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