Many of us fall into the trap of negative thinking all too often. Sometimes, when life doesn’t go our way, it’s easy to think about ourselves or the situation in bleak terms. These persistent thought patterns ultimately affect our mental health, and they are called cognitive distortions. It isn’t just adults who experience this; cognitive distortions for kids are just as distressing in everyday life. In this article, we’ll discuss the different types of cognitive distortions, examples, and how to manage it.
What are Cognitive Distortions in Kids?
Cognitive distortions in kids are more than just instances of negative thoughts. The American Psychological Association defines it as “faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception, or belief [*].”
Cognitive distortions are unhealthy thinking patterns or perceiving the world that can impact mental well-being. The thoughts that often come to mind in this state are called “automatic thoughts,” which are characterized by rigidity since they cannot be changed or overcome easily. Negativity defines the thoughts found in cognitive distortions; anybody of any age can experience them, including children.
For some, cognitive distortions in childhood are a temporary and fleeting occurrence. However, for others, these thought patterns interfere with their daily lives and relationships. Such distortions are associated with conditions like depression, as found by a study that explored online language patterns [*].
Types of Cognitive Distortions Common in Kids
For children, some cognitive distortions are more common than others. Here are some of the most commonly observed ones for kids:
- Emotional Reasoning. In emotional reasoning, kids take their feelings and overgeneralize the emotion.
- Minimizing. This is a very common cognitive distortion. It is when a child minimizes something good that happens to them.
- Personalization. This cognitive distortion involves children taking things personally. They may end up blaming themselves for situations that are not their fault. Kids may also assume that people always think about their actions and decisions. This often leads to anxiety.
- Black-and-White Thinking. Also called “polarized” thinking, this cognitive distortion causes children to think in extremes without considering other possibilities in a given situation.
- Labeling. This cognitive distortion involves labeling oneself negatively, especially after an unwanted event or situation.
- Catastrophizing. This type of distorted thinking causes children to worry excessively that the worst will happen when faced with the unknown. It happens despite little to no evidence supporting the intense fear.
Recognizing Cognitive Distortions in Kids
Cognitive distortions may influence a child’s emotions and actions. Kids with cognitive distortions might exhibit some of the following behaviors:
- Jumping to extremes
- Thinking in absolutes (always, never)
- Pessimistic thinking
- Dramatic reactions
- Increased separation anxiety
Often, when a child is dealing with one or more cognitive distortions, it may feel as though you are on an emotional rollercoaster with them. But it doesn’t need to stay that way. Identifying cognitive distortions in your kids and yourself is the first step to helping your child.
Examples of Cognitive Distortions in Kids
Here are some of the most common examples of cognitive distortions in kids.
A child might see a scary movie such as “It” and, out of fear, overgeneralize that all clowns are terrifying.
Other children might, for example, get good grades on a test and dismiss it by saying something like, “I just got lucky. I’m not that good at math.” This is minimizing, which downplays the positives of a situation and reduces its significance.
Personalization is when children take things personally. They may, for instance, think that friends playing together without them have left them out intentionally.
Children often do black-and-white thinking. They may think things such as “If it isn’t perfect, then I have failed” or “My classmate is a bad person.”
Kids may also engage in labeling themselves negatively, such as saying, “I’m so stupid” or “I’m the worst.”
Lastly, children with distorted thinking may catastrophize. For instance, a student may fail a test and believe that they will never pass any of their subjects, leading to failure later in life.
How to Help Kids Cope with Cognitive Distortions
Despite the negative consequences of cognitive distortions, there are various ways that you can help your child cope.
Validate and empathize
If your child expresses a worry that may be a cognitive distortion, then respond with validation. Show your child you are listening by repeating what they say. Don’t try to offer solutions just yet. Instead, place yourself in your child’s shoes and try to understand their feelings. For example, you could say, “That must have been difficult,” or “I can imagine how you felt.” Allow your child to share their thoughts and experiences with you without judgment.
Recognize the negative thought pattern
Once you have listened to your child, pay attention to their thought patterns. Is there a fixation on negativity or a tendency to fall into negative ways of thinking? If so, then review the different cognitive distortions mentioned above and see if you can identify which one it might be. CBT worksheets such as the Anxious Thoughts Breakdown, or Changing Negative Thoughts can also help facilitate conversation about ways to identify and challenge negative thinking patterns.
Meet your child where they are
It is important to meet your child where they currently are thought-wise so you can gently help them move to a less extreme position. Your child needs to get there on their own so they can shift their thoughts to something more optimistic.
Provide a safe space
Ensure you provide a safe space for your child when discussing cognitive distortions. Give them familiar tools for coping strategies they are comfortable with. Things like drawing paper, fidget toys, soft pillows, or even noise-canceling earphones may help them. When children feel that they are in a safe space, they will be more open to noticing, labeling, and evaluating their thoughts.
Support your child gently by offering other ways of thinking. You might say, “I wonder if there’s another way to look at things.” Talk to your child and see if they are willing to view their thoughts from another perspective. However, do not try to force your child to see things differently. If they are not yet open to hearing other thoughts, then try starting again with validation and empathy.
When to Seek Professional Help
If your child is still showing signs of struggling with cognitive distortions after trying to help them, then it is time to seek a professional’s advice. Treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy can help your child challenge and change thoughts and behaviors that have a negative impact on their mental well-being. Many people, both children and adults alike, find a great deal of relief from this therapeutic approach and can overcome cognitive distortions as well as conditions such as depression and anxiety.
The Bottom Line
It is common for children to experience cognitive distortions, but it is important to challenge and change these thoughts to ensure your child’s well-being. The sooner you can recognize that your child has distorted thinking, the earlier you can address it. You can start with tools at home such as CBT worksheets, but if you need further help, do not be afraid to consult a mental health professional. Parents and guardians play an essential role in preventing and mitigating these negative thought patterns through guidance and care.
- American Psychological Association. APA Dictionary of Psychology.
- Bathina K, Thjj M, Lorenzo-Luaces L, et al. Individuals with depression express more distorted thinking on social media. 11 February 2021.