Although scientists can’t agree (because it’s difficult to measure), it’s estimated we have around 70,000 to 80,000 thoughts a day. The majority of these thoughts come and go without us paying much attention to them, many we don’t really notice. When we do notice thoughts that are left of centre, weird, judgemental, unkind or are generally useless we tend to be able to let most of them go too. But then there are those thoughts that stick. These are the ones that, if we buy into them, influence how we feel and what we do next. Or what we begin to avoid.
There’s no question that the quality of our thinking impacts the quality of our lives. When I was a child with anxiety I had lots of worries which made me feel distressed. I used to turn to my mum for reassurance that everything was going to be okay. I didn’t like what I was thinking or how it made me feel and I wanted to feel better. With every reassurance from her I felt better for a while, but soon enough the thoughts crept back in and began their stranglehold once more.
Back in the 70’s and 80’s when I was a kid there just wasn’t the understanding there is now about thinking skills that enable us to thrive, even under adversity. It’s different now, and as parents, we can give our kids what we never had. An understanding of thoughts and thinking, the skills to pay attention to some thoughts and knowledge of how to move on from others. Not because they have ‘control’ over their thinking, but because they understand a critical difference between two main types of thoughts.
Many of us were raised to believe we had control over our thinking in ways that are actually not possible. If I was lying in bed worrying at night mum always suggested I think of something lovely. I remember trying so hard to picture and think about a beautiful vase of fresh flowers but soon enough, my thoughts would return to the problem of the day and I’d feel worried once more. I used to wonder how I could get thoughts of flowers to stay, instead they’d drift away all too soon.
We can’t control our thinking the way we might have once believed or would like to. This is why we keep thinking about the chocolate in the pantry or the difficult conversation we have to have at work. When we tell ourselves not to think about something our brain has to remember what it is we’re not supposed to be thinking about, all the while reinforcing the thought we want to avoid. It’s futile.
So what can we do instead? And what can we teach our children? I’ll share with you here the thinking skills I’m teaching our kids. They’re 9 and 11 years old at the time of writing this but we’ve been working on this for years.
- Blue sky and changing weather
There’s a part in all of us that enables us to ‘watch’ or ‘observe’ our thinking as a process, rather than being lost in our thoughts. This develops progressively in children; some as young as 5 are able to observe their thinking however it’s more strongly developed by middle primary school and continues to develop through adolescence. A great metaphor to help teach this concept to children is to teach them that the part of them that can watch their thinking is like the blue sky, and that thoughts (and feelings too), are like the weather. The blue sky is always present and consistent, it’s the weather that changes, coming and going over time.
Children can liken their thoughts to clouds passing slowly across the sky. Over time, they can learn to observe their thinking and to share with you their thoughts.
Teaching your child to notice their thinking and also to share those thoughts with you can help you to understand what’s underlying their feelings and behaviour. One parent, whose daughter experienced separation anxiety, was able to teach her child this skill and ultimately determined that the thoughts underlying her daughter’s anxiety were dreaded worries she had about her mum being injured or killed when they weren’t together. Thought noticing or ‘metacognition’ is an essential skill to help our children develop. I’ve written about thought noticing before (read here).
2. Not all thoughts are facts
Our thoughts can feel immensely important and can have a big influence on how we feel. I grew up believing everything I thought which was why I was so often filled with dread and worry. I want my kids, and yours, to understand that just because we think it, doesn’t mean it’s true. Not all thoughts are facts. We can often place more importance on what we think because of how our thoughts make us feel. They can have such power over our emotions which reinforces our thinking that the worry, the fear the prediction we’re having thoughts about presents a real and present danger. While it’s important for our children to know this, there’s another piece to this puzzle.
3. Not all thoughts are helpful
Although it’s important for our children to know that not all thoughts are facts, it’s true that they will have some thoughts that are unpleasant, painful or distressing that are actually based in fact. Your child may indeed struggle with skills in a particular sport, carry a little more weight than their friends or miss out on selection for the team they long to join. The next thinking skill all of our kids need to learn is a question they can ask themselves. Is that thought helpful? This is a game changer. Once a thought has been noticed, it’s a critical step to question if the thought is helpful or not. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, that’s not important here. Is a thought helpful is a question that supports our kids to know which thoughts to pay attention to and which thoughts to let pass by, just like a passing cloud or storm.
When faced with an unhelpful thought, kids might need help getting ‘unstuck’ from the thought before they’re able to move onto doing what’s important in that moment. I’ll write more about that next time.
Jodi is on a mission to elevate mental health and wellbeing in families, classrooms and workplaces.
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