I'm All Ears: Thinking Traps - Listening for Your Child's Unhealthy Thoughts


Welcome to the “I’m All Ears” Blog Series with Therapist Jan Pelletier from Hopeful Horizons! This three-part series will talk about parents’ use of listening. With parents at home every day with kids, we understand that anxiety and frustrations are running high! We hope this will help provide you with some techniques and ideas for managing the next few weeks.

Part Two

Thinking Traps: Listening for Your Child’s Unhelpful Thoughts

“A trap is only a trap if you don't know about it. If you know about it, it's a challenge.” ~ China Miéville, King Rat

How many times has your child done something that defies logic? Maybe he tore up his homework after working hours on it, left a turkey sandwich in a dresser for a couple of weeks, or perhaps she decided to shave her eyebrows off? Okay, maybe one or two of these examples are a bit over the top, but we can all relate to a time or two when a child has left us asking “What were you thinking??

Our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are intricately connected. Altering any one of these pieces will result in a change in the other two. While it is difficult to know exactly what our children may be thinking, what they say and do in any given situation can be clues into their thoughts which can help us understand our children when they are “acting out”. What is the true source of the behavior? What is the thought that is creating these feelings that are so big that the child is acting out by tearing up homework, yelling at a parent, or shutting down completely?

We call these unhealthy thoughts “Thinking Traps.” Thinking traps are common illogical thinking patterns that usually result in negative feelings and behaviors. Everyone uses these patterns sometimes, but some people get stuck or “trapped”, creating unhealthy levels of stress and anxiety. As caregivers, we can help our children not only identify the thoughts that are unhelpful but change the thought for a completely different outcome. Listening for our children’s unhelpful thought patterns helps caregivers keep our loved ones healthy, happy and safe.

COVID-19 has not only changed our daily lives drastically, there are very likely “new normals” that will follow once the crisis has passed and we resume our social lives. Is your child showing some signs of distress during the crisis? That’s normal. Stress can help us remember to stay safe, but it is possible to get stuck in a pattern of negative feeling, even once the crisis has passed.

Below is a list of common thinking traps to help you recognize unhelpful thoughts your child may be having. Listening for your child’s unhelpful thoughts, whether generated from frustration over homework or the ongoing stressors related to a global pandemic, is the challenge. Together, you and your child can identify and alter unhelpful thoughts and create positive ways of thinking, feeling and reacting.

Common Thinking Traps

Ignoring the Good

You pay more attention to bad things and ignore when something good happens.

Sounds like: I cannot believe I forgot the capitol of Maine! I did awful on my test!

Alternative thought: Out of 50 questions, I got 49 right! That’s very good!

Blowing Things Up

Making a really big deal out of something small or making something a little bad seem like the worst thing ever.

Sounds like: I can’t go to the movies with my friends tonight! My life is horrible!

Alternative thought: I went to the movies last week with my friends. I can’t go tonight, but maybe I will be able to go next time.

Fortune Telling

Thinking you know what will happen in the future and knowing it will be bad.

Sounds like: I’ll never see my friends again! This Coronavirus will never go away!

Alternative thought: Things will get better. For now, we have to wait to see our friends so we can be safe.

Mind Reading

Believing that you know what someone else is thinking or why they are doing something without having enough information.

Sounds like: Emma didn’t invite me to her birthday party. I bet she thinks I’m weird.

Alternative thought: Emma lives in a small apartment. Maybe she could only invite her closest friends.

Negative Labeling

Having a negative belief about yourself and believing it applies to everything you do.

Sounds like: I had the ball stolen away from me during a game. I’m a bad player and I’m not good at anything.

Alternative thought: Someone stole the ball from me but I blocked a goal! I didn’t do everything perfect but I helped my team!

Setting the Bar Too High

Thinking you must be perfect at everything you do, otherwise you are no good.

Sounds like: If I don’t get an A on every test, I’m not smart.

Alternative thought: Everyone makes mistakes sometimes. That’s how you can learn.

Self Blaming

Blaming yourself for anything wrong that goes on around you, even if you had nothing to do with it.

Sounds like: Alicia is sad today. I must have done something to upset her.

Alternative thought: Alicia was sad today. I will ask her tomorrow if she wants to play.

Feelings as Facts

Believing that if you feel something, it must be true.

Sounds like: I feel mean, so I must be mean.

Alternative thought: I feel mean right now. I will take a break and do something that makes me feel better.

Should Statements

Believing things must be a certain way, all the time.

Sounds like: People should always be nice to me.

Alternative thought: When people are rude to me I can just walk away.

We hope this is helpful! Please share any successes you have!

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