Teenagers must navigate a turbulent landscape of emotions during adolescence. As they go through phases of self-discovery, they may also be susceptible to negative thinking patterns that can shape their perceptions and impact their mental well-being. Cognitive distortions for teens can become significant roadblocks to healthy emotional development. Here, we’ll discuss cognitive distortions, what they are, and the different types, examples, and ways you and your teen can manage them.
What are Cognitive Distortions in Teens?
Exactly what are cognitive distortions? Essentially, they are irrational and biased ways of thinking that can contribute to negative emotions and behaviors. The American Psychological Association defines cognitive distortions as “faulty or inaccurate thinking, perception, or belief [*].” Such thought patterns reinforce negative beliefs, perceptions, and even behaviors, and they can affect people of all ages, especially teenagers.
Teenagers experience all sorts of emotions, so negative thoughts are bound to come up occasionally. However, too often, these thinking errors can quickly become a habit. This might justify harmful or self-defeating behaviors and reinforce unhelpful ways of thinking. Negative thinking and affect are also commonly associated with conditions like anxiety or depression [*].
Observing cognitive distortions in teenagers is especially important because they are still developing the skills and knowledge needed to identify and control their negative feelings and problematic thought patterns. Many teenagers experience intense emotions that are often overwhelming. It is also difficult for them to regulate their emotions and reactions to events and situations in life.
Types of Cognitive Distortions Common in Teens
Some cognitive distortions are more common in teenagers than children or adults. Here are some of the types of cognitive distortions that teens are likely to experience.
- Mind Reading. When teens have this cognitive distortion, they assume they know and understand what another person is thinking. Typically, teens are sure that the other person’s thoughts reflect poorly on them.
- Future-Telling. Future-telling is predicting that something will turn out negatively. This usually manifests in a pessimistic way of viewing the future. It can impact a teenager’s behavior and make it more likely that the event they are future-telling will turn out badly based on their predictions.
- Catastrophizing. This cognitive distortion involves taking something negative or a problem and blowing it up out of proportion.
- Labeling. This involves putting a negative label on yourself and others. Often, teenagers no longer look past the label and form a rigid understanding of seeing themselves or another person differently.
- Overgeneralizing. When teenagers overgeneralize, they take one negative event or detail about a situation and make it a universal truth that applies to all aspects of their lives.
- All-or-Nothing Thinking. All-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking means viewing things in only two categories. This cognitive distortion makes teenagers see things in extremes, usually without considering other possibilities in between.
- Blaming. Teens may also sometimes focus on other people as the source of their negative feelings. People with this cognitive distortion often have difficulty taking responsibility for changing themselves.
- Personalization. Personalization is just making things about you when they are, in fact, not about you at all. Teens who do this may blame themselves for things beyond their control and take things personally, even when they are not intended to be harmful.
Recognizing Cognitive Distortions in Teens
Recognizing cognitive distortions in teenagers can be challenging, as they may not always express their thoughts and feelings explicitly. However, some signs and behaviors may indicate the presence of cognitive distortions. Here are some ways to recognize cognitive distortions in teenagers:
- Negative Self-Talk. Pay attention to the language your teenager uses when talking about themselves. If they consistently use negative and self-deprecating language, it may indicate distorted thinking.
- Excessive Perfectionism. Teens with cognitive distortions may set unrealistically high standards for themselves and feel intense pressure to be perfect. They might become overly upset or anxious when they fall short of these standards.
- Emotional Overreactions. Observe how your teenager reacts emotionally to different situations. If they consistently respond with extreme emotions that seem disproportionate to the situation, then it could be a sign of distorted thinking.
- Social Withdrawal. Cognitive distortions can contribute to social anxiety and the belief that others are constantly judging or rejecting them. Distorting thinking may be a factor if your teenager avoids social situations or shows signs of isolation.
- Constant Comparison to Others. Teens with distorted thinking may frequently compare themselves to others and feel inadequate. This can contribute to feelings of low self-esteem.
- Difficulty Accepting Compliments. Suppose your teenager has difficulty accepting compliments or positive feedback. In that case, it might be a sign that they are filtering out positive information and focusing only on the negative aspects of themselves.
- Self-Blame. Teens with cognitive distortions may tend to blame themselves excessively for negative events or situations, even when they are not directly responsible.
- Avoidance of Challenges. Cognitive distortions can lead to a fear of failure, causing teens to avoid challenges and new experiences. They may prefer to stay within their comfort zones to prevent making mistakes.
If you notice these signs in your teenager, it's essential to approach the situation with empathy and open communication. Encouraging them to express their thoughts and feelings and seek professional help is essential. Maintaining a supportive and non-judgmental environment is also crucial for fostering positive mental health in teenagers.
Examples of Cognitive Distortions in Teens
We’ve outlined some of the more common cognitive distortions that teenagers may have as they go through adolescence. Here are a few examples of those cognitive distortions to illustrate them better:
Say, for instance, that your teenager is talking to someone who does not seem to be paying attention or reciprocating. They then form an assumption that the other person does not like them when, in fact, they may just be distracted or stressed and have a hard time focusing. This is known as mind reading.
On the other hand, future telling may look like a teen telling themselves that they will do horribly on a test. As a result, they panic and perform less effectively.
When a teen catastrophizes a situation, they may say things like, “This party is going to be the worst experience ever,” or “If I get a bad grade, then I will never get into a good college!”
Teens can also label themselves and other people negatively. A teen who falls down while trying to score a goal in soccer practice might label themselves as a “horrible klutz.” Other ways teens label themselves or others are by saying, “He’s a loser” or “I’m disgusting.”
Overgeneralizing may look like a teen thinking that just because one person doesn’t want to hang out with them, it means nobody wants to hang out with them at all. They may screw up on a test and say, “I fail all the time. I never do anything right!”
Teens may also see things in black and white from time to time. Imagine your teen gets something less than an A on a test. Extreme black-and-white thinking might lead them to believe that their “bad grade” means they are a total failure.
Blaming is also common in teenagers. They might say their parents are the source of their troubles, or they might fixate on a person they do not particularly like and blame them for the negativity they are experiencing. Teens may also blame teachers for their performance in school.
Lastly, teens may be susceptible to personalization. They may say, “If I hadn’t demanded so much of my parents, then maybe they wouldn’t get a divorce.”
How to Help Teens Cope with Cognitive Distortions
Helping teens cope with cognitive distortions involves a combination of support, communication, and the development of cognitive-behavioral strategies. Here are some helpful strategies:
Encourage open communication
Create a safe and non-judgmental space for your teen to express their thoughts and feelings. Encourage them to share their concerns and challenges without fear of criticism.
Teach mindfulness and awareness
Introduce mindfulness techniques to help teens become more aware of their thoughts and emotions. Mindfulness practices, such as deep breathing and meditation, can help them observe and detach from distorted views.
Identify and challenge distorted thoughts
Teach your teen to identify cognitive distortions by questioning negative thoughts and examining evidence for and against them. Help them reframe negative thoughts into more balanced and realistic ones. Worksheets like the Anxious Thoughts Breakdown can help teens explore and challenge negative thinking.
Promote positive self-talk
Encourage the use of positive and affirming language when they talk to themselves. Help them replace negative self-talk with more constructive and compassionate statements.
Foster a growth mindset
Teach the concept of a growth mindset, where challenges are seen as opportunities to learn and grow rather than as indicators of failure. Emphasize the importance of effort and persistence in achieving goals.
Promote healthy coping mechanisms
Encourage healthy coping strategies such as exercise, creative activities, and spending time with supportive friends. Discourage the use of unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse or excessive screen time.
Provide positive reinforcement
Acknowledge and celebrate their successes, no matter how small. Reinforce positive behaviors and efforts to build self-esteem.
Model healthy thinking
Be a positive role model by demonstrating healthy thinking patterns and coping strategies. Share your own experiences with overcoming challenges and setbacks.
Seek professional help
If cognitive distortions significantly impact your teen's well-being, consider seeking the help of a mental health professional. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can effectively address and challenge distorted thinking patterns.
Remember that addressing cognitive distortions is an ongoing process, and progress may take time. It's important to be patient and persistent in supporting and guiding your teenager. If needed, involve professionals specializing in mental health to ensure your teen receives the appropriate assistance.
When to Seek Professional Help
Cognitive distortions are common in teenagers, so you can use simple tools like CBT worksheets at home. However, if your teen is much more negative than usual, has changed behavior, or is unable to function normally, then it might be time to consult a professional for help.
The Bottom Line
Understanding and overcoming cognitive distortions is the compass to mental resilience. By recognizing and challenging distorted thoughts, teens can unlock the power to navigate challenges with clarity. This journey towards emotional well-being empowers them to build healthier perspectives, fostering lasting mental strength. Conquering cognitive distortions in teenagers is not just a skill; it's a key to unlocking a brighter, more resilient future for teens as they navigate the complexities of adolescence.
- American Psychological Association. APA Dictionary of Psychology.
- Stefanovic M, Rosenkranz T, Takano K, et al. Is a High Association Between Repetitive Negative Thinking and Negative Affect Predictive of Depressive Symptoms? A Clustering Approach for Experience-Sampling Data. 24 May 2021.