anxious, anxiety, children, thoughts, bad thoughts, act, acceptance and commitment therapy, thinking skills, happier, happiness, mental health

Thoughts are not facts. Not necessarily. Anxious or not, your kids need to know this.

Kids can think scary things from time to time. And if they’re anxious kids to begin with, these weird and sometimes frightening thoughts only compound their worries and anxiety. One of the many liberating thinking skills we can teach our children is that not all thoughts are facts. The notion that they don’t have to believe everything they think can bring an enormous sense of relief.

We all have ‘bad thoughts’

We all have what kids will often refer to as ‘bad thoughts’ from time to time. Fleeting thoughts that, as adults, we recognise as strange, inappropriate, sometimes offensive and completely out of character. We understand that just because we think them, doesn’t make them true, and doesn’t mean we want them, believe them or want to act on them. And we know that those thoughts are not a reflection of us a person. When we’re mindful, we can notice these thoughts without becoming entangled in them; we can let them come and go, forget them and move on.

When kids have ‘bad thoughts’, it can be extremely confusing for them, terrifying in some instances. These thoughts can be violent, where the child has thoughts of harming or even killing one or both of their parents; other thoughts can be sexual in nature, malicious, mean or obsessive.

Each of us has our very own private internal world inside our heads. It’s filled with thoughts, ideas, worries, memories, wonderings, reflections and predictions. It’s called “mental chatter”. Much of what we think isn’t conscious, where thoughts swirl around in our minds without our awareness of their content. If we actually stopped and noted down as much of our mental chatter as we could over a week or two, we’d find that so much of what we think about is negative. It’s a phenomenon called the negativity bias. There’s a popular saying in Positive Psychology that the brain is like Velcro for ‘bad’ and Teflon for ‘good’. We can have a brilliant day where 99 things go right and what is it we spend time thinking about when our head hits the pillow? The 1 thing that went wrong.

‘Bad thoughts’ are part of the mental chatter.

They’re actually called ‘intrusive thoughts’ (for good reason right?) and for the most part are completely normal.

When kids experience these intrusive thoughts and become entangled in them, it’s understandably something they want relief from. Now. And that’s where we come in. Kids with intrusive thoughts will usually turn to their parents for reassurance. They’re often scared of what they’re thinking and feel ashamed. They wonder how a ‘good’ person could think such things and fear rejection for their thoughts can be squarely directed at some of the people they love most.

How can we help our kids?

Empathy first

Being open to anything our kids tell us about their minds is a sure-fire way to keep them coming back to us when they need help. Empathy first is a lovely approach, where we listen to our kids’ and teens’ worries; normalise for them and validate how they’re feeling about what’s happening. Telling them that we understand how scary it must be having the thought that they’re sharing will help them exhale, feel understood, safe and ‘normal’.

Avoid doing this if you can

If you were raised to ‘don’t worry about it’ or ‘try not to think about it’ when you shared something strange happening in your mind as a kid, it’s natural that you might try the same approach with your own children. But trying not to think about something (thought suppression) only serves to amplify a thought. It’s because the brain has to remember what it’s not ‘supposed’ to think about, and keeps checking back in to see how it’s doing. You’ve experienced this right?

Try this instead

Teach your children that not all thoughts are facts. That having weird thoughts is normal. And that having a ‘bad thought’ does not mean they’re a ‘bad person’. Teaching our kids to notice their thoughts is a powerful step towards flourishing mental health. You can model thought noticing by thinking out loud and letting your kids in on your mental chatter. Help them notice theirs by asking them what their minds say too. You can also help your kids get more distance from their thoughts by using the ‘milk, milk, milk’ game and other strategies you’ll find here.

Of course, if you’re at all concerned about what your child shares with you, a great place to seek reassurance and advice is always your local GP.

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