I want to start by putting your mind at ease. If your child or teenager is having thoughts that are frightening and upsetting, or what they call ‘bad thoughts’, they’re not alone, and there’s a lot you can do to help them. It’s actually not just kids who have scary thoughts, all of us have thoughts that are scary, weird or intrusive at times, but most people are able to shrug them off and move on, paying them little to no attention. It’s when we give a lot of weight to the content to our thoughts and when they feel like the absolute truth, that it can be very distressing. One of the important thinking skills that helps kids to manage their thoughts in helpful ways is learning to notice that they’re ‘having a thought’, rather than being swept away by what they’re thinking. Learning to look at thoughts rather than through them is a game changer. The next step is learning that not all thoughts are facts. The notion that they don’t have to believe everything they think brings kids an enormous sense of relief now, and over a lifetime. These are thinking skills all kids’ need, no matter what age they are.
We all have ‘bad thoughts’
Do you remember having unhelpful, even distressing thoughts when you first became a parent? It’s actually really common. Or have you had times when you’ve been thinking, or even ruminating, over something worrying and it affects your whole body? Stomachs can sink and hearts can race. When we’re lost in a difficult or painful thought it’s as if we’re under threat in that very moment, based wholly and solely around what’s going on in our heads. It can feel pretty awful. For kids, who often haven’t learned to look at their thoughts or how to change their relationship with what they’re thinking, it can be especially hard and very upsetting.
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. While sometimes thoughts can be extreme in these ways, other times thoughts can be less intrusive but none-the-less upsetting. Keep an eye on your child’s behaviours and open conversations about whether or not the thoughts feel like instructions, urging a particular behaviour to follow. Intrusive thoughts followed by compulsions to ‘neutralise’ the thinking points towards obsessive compulsive disorder possibly becoming a challenge.
When these types of thoughts show up it’s upsetting for everyone and it’s important to seek professional help to talk over what’s happening and how to move forward.
The negativity bias
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 one 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. As I mentioned earlier, most of us are able to brush them off or dismiss these types of thoughts without them impacting much, if at all, on how we feel and what we do.
When kids experience these intrusive thoughts and become entangled in them, it’s understandably something they want relief from. Now. Yesterday actually. 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?
TEACH THE SKILLS OF THOUGHT NOTICING
You know when you get lost in a thought for a moment, or three, and then eventually realise you’ve ‘drifted’? This is the difference between being swept away by our thoughts and then thought noticing. No matter the age of your child(ren) you can begin to either sow the seeds of thought noticing skills or teach them outright. With young children you can model thought noticing by using language such as “I notice I was having a thought about what to cook for dinner” or “You were asking me a question just now but I realise I was paying more attention to the thoughts I was having. I was thinking about what time Nan is coming over this afternoon.”
For primary schoolers metaphors such as thought bubbles are great. You could ask “If you had a thought bubble over your head what would it say?” Talk them through the idea of paying attention to the fact that they’re having a thought, many in fact!
For older children you can teach the idea explicitly, by discussing the difference between being ‘lost’ in their thoughts and noticing they’re having thoughts.
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, feel safe and begin to feel more calm. On that, let them know that this is the way human minds work, and that lots of people struggle with unhelpful thoughts the same way they are.
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? In fact, thought suppression has been shown to actually amplify the thought that a person is trying to rid themselves of. Not quite fair I know.
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 enhanced 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 and through mindfulness practices. You can also help your kids get more distance from their thoughts by using the ‘milk, milk, milk’ game and other other strategies you’ll find here.
Of course, if you’re at all concerned about what your child shares with you start keeping a journal of what’s happening and make an appointment with your local doctor. The journal will support you to share with your doctor exactly what’s been happening and when.
Like this article? Happy to deliver straight to your inbox, you can subscribe on my website here where you’re so welcome to stay a while and take a look around.
There’s more great information on supporting kids with anxiety in my book Anxious Kids
This post was originally published on 12/5/2019 . Jodi updated the post to provide you with the most up to date thinking, accuracy and learning on this topic.
Jodi is on a mission to elevate mental health and wellbeing in families, classrooms and workplaces.
Calm your anxious brain
Calm your anxious brain
Sign up for my free 5-day ‘Calm Your Anxious Brain’ email mini-course. Put the strategies into place for yourself, light the way for your kids, or do both.