From the moment we wake up until bedtime, thousands of thoughts fill our minds. As much as we would like to have positive thoughts 100% of the time, ANTs just come out of nowhere. No, they’re not the tiny creatures in your home — rather, these are automatic negative thoughts that can affect your mental and emotional well-being.
There are different reasons why children and teens experience automatic negative thinking. In this article, we aim to explore them along with strategies to help young people recognize and tame them.
What are Automatic Negative Thoughts?
ANTs stands for automatic negative thoughts. The APA Dictionary of Psychology defines them as “thoughts that are instantaneous, habitual, and nonconscious.” ANTs can also be referred to as “routinized thoughts”[*].
Automatic negative thoughts are a concept developed by Dr. Aaron Beck, who introduced cognitive behavioral therapy, but it was Dr. Daniel Amen, a psychiatrist and brain disorder specialist, who coined the term ANTs in the 1990s.
When arriving home one evening after a challenging day with patients, he found his kitchen infested with ants. Similar to how ants work, negative thoughts steal our joy. They raise our stress levels.
Why Do We Have Automatic Negative Thoughts?
Children with anxiety and mood disorders are more prone to negative thinking, but even healthy kids experience it from time to time. In fact, negative thoughts sometimes arise to help us survive. By anticipating threats, we can prevent them from happening.
For example, a teenager having ANTs due to an upcoming exam might tell themselves, “What if I fail?” The idea of failure may push them to study hard.
However, ANTs are also caused by previous experiences and core beliefs — what we believe about ourselves, the world around us, and the future[*]. These core beliefs can be so convincing that they influence how young people live their lives.
How Automatic Negative Thoughts Can Be Harmful
In an article he wrote, Dr. Daniel Amen shared a brain study he did that compared the effects of automatic negative thoughts and gratitude on brain function. He found that healthy thinking boosted brain function, while negative thinking rapidly decreased the activity in temporal lobes, which play a role in processing information, emotion, memory, and language[*][*].
Automatic Negative Thoughts Examples
The first step on how to stop automatic negative thoughts is recognizing their presence in your child’s life. You may want to pay attention to the language they use in response to a trigger. This can be certain people or situations that make them feel uneasy.
- “I’m just bad at Math!”
- “What’s the use of trying?”
- “I’m never going to college.”
- “I feel like nobody appreciates me.”
- “I should attend the party or else I’ll feel left out.”
How to Identify Automatic Negative Thoughts
You can teach kids and teens common manifestations of negativity. In addition to the sample statements above, negativity can present as:
- Stomach ache
- Refusing to talk
- Being critical of oneself
These signs and symptoms are similar to what young people experience when they feel angry. In the next section, I’m going to show you a list of ANTs you need to be aware of.
9 Common Automatic Negative Thoughts Patterns To Watch Out For
There are different types of ANTs, depending on who you ask! I’ve included ANTs based on the ones identified by Dr. Amen as well as Dr. Beck’s list of cognitive distortions:
1. All-or-nothing ANTs
It’s when you assume that something is completely good or bad. This negative thought leads young people to believe that anything less than perfect is unacceptable. Notice words like always, never, no one, everyone, should, and shouldn’t.
2. Focusing on the negative ANTs
This ANT puts your focus on the things that happened wrong instead of the positives. Focusing on the negative can make a child or teenager susceptible to anxiety and depression.
3. Fortune-telling ANTs
People with this negative thought have an increased tendency to predict the future, and it’s almost always a poor outcome. For example, being fully convinced that you’re going to fail in class.
4. Blaming ANTs
This ANT involves blaming others for things that go wrong. Even when a child does something that may have caused a negative event, they refuse to take responsibility to avoid the consequences. “He made me do it.” “They started it.” “It wasn’t my fault!”
5. Less-than ANTs
Your child or teen may think of themselves as not good enough or not talented enough compared to others. Younger kids usually make comparisons on a physical level while older kids notice more serious things like their skills and abilities.
6. Mind reading ANTs
This ANT assumes that you know what others think about you. For example, you believe that the reason someone isn’t responding to you is because they dislike you. Or that someone thinks you’re being stupid by the way they look at you.
7. Labeling ANTs
Kids and teens with this ANT pick one characteristic of a person or themselves and apply it to their whole identity. You may notice your child saying things like, “I’m dumb” or “I’m a nobody” just because they failed on their first attempt at something.
8. If-Only and I’ll-Be-Happy-When ANTs
Dr. Amen describes this ANT as arguing with the past and longing for the future. In other words, you look back and wonder how things could have turned out. Also, you believe that you can only be happy when something you expect happens.
9. Taking things personally ANTs
Young people who are highly sensitive may take things too personally. They might easily misinterpret what others are saying — for instance, assuming that they were being criticized when the other person meant something different.
How to Fix Automatic Negative Thoughts
Challenging automatic thoughts requires a combination of strategies that can be implemented at home or with the guidance of a mental health professional.
1. Use the cognitive triangle
In my therapy practice, I often use the cognitive triangle to explain how a person’s thoughts, feelings, and actions are connected. When you change one element of the triangle — let’s say your actions — your thoughts and feelings follow suit.
2. Positive self-talk
Another technique I recommend is positive self-talk. Parents and care providers of children with ANTs can teach them to shift their attention to positive statements when they notice ANTs popping up.
Examples of these statements include “I am human. It’s okay to make mistakes” and “I am capable of doing hard things.” Have them answer this Positive Self-Talk for High Self-Esteem Worksheet as a helpful home exercise!
3. Reframe negative thoughts
Instead of simply accepting a negative thought as true, show them that they have the ability to create healthier thought patterns through reframing. This Changing Negative Thoughts to Positive Thoughts Worksheet is a great opportunity for kids and teens to practice reframing.
Any time they notice a negative thought, they write it down in the red cloud. Then, in the green cloud, they’re going to write a positive and realistic thought to replace the negative thought!
4. Mindfulness exercises
Children can all benefit from mindfulness, which is the practice of becoming aware of the present moment. Since we deal with different challenges that cause sadness, mindfulness is a powerful tool that can lower stress, improve self-control, and feel more at peace.
While it doesn’t necessarily eliminate negative thoughts, it can help kids quickly notice them so they can counteract these thoughts. Here’s a downloadable resource showing mindfulness skills!
Last but not least, reverse ANTs by cultivating gratitude. Interrupt ANTs with a few minutes of a gratitude walk exercise. During this exercise, kids are encouraged to identify things they can see, hear, and feel that they are thankful for. With this activity, you’ll be able to help them find the extraordinary in the ordinary, which makes life worth appreciating.
When to Seek Professional Help for Automatic Negative Thoughts
If nothing has worked to control ANTs — for instance, you’ve used an automatic negative thoughts worksheet and let your child or teen practice the strategies above, but they can’t seem to shift out of a negative thought — then it’s time to consider mental health therapy. Sometimes, families need to reach out to professionals for additional support.
The Bottom Line
Life experiences, core beliefs, and certain triggers can lead to negative thinking or ANTs in children and teens. The key is to help them recognize these thoughts and show them ways to reshape them. Also, keep in mind that mastering one’s thoughts doesn’t happen overnight. It needs continuous practice and support from the right people.
- American Psychological Association. automatic thoughts
- Cowan H, McAdams D, Mittal V. Core Beliefs in Healthy Youth and Youth at Ultra High-Risk for Psychosis: Dimensionality and Links to Depression, Anxiety, and Attenuated Psychotic Symptoms. 2018 March 06
- Amen D. How Negative Thoughts Affect Brain Health + What To Do About Them. 2019 October 17
- ScienceDirect. Temporal Lobe - an overview
- Vartanian O, Saint S, Herz N et al. The Creative Brain Under Stress: Considerations for Performance in Extreme Environments. 2020 October 30
- American Psychological Association. Stress effects on the body. 2018 November 01