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Key Takeaways:

  • Negative thinking patterns are repeated patterns of unrealistic negative thinking that result from traumatic events, social pressures, impossibly high standards, and anxiety or depression.
  • Common unhealthy thought patterns include all-or-nothing thinking, overgeneralization, catastrophizing, and self-criticism.
  • Parents, teachers, and caregivers can help children overcome negative thinking patterns through mindfulness, social support, journaling, and seeking professional help.

Everyone experiences negative thoughts. When a child fails a test, engages in playground bullying, or simply has a bad day, talking themselves down isn’t unusual. However, persistent negative thoughts can lead to anxiety and depression.

Learn how negative thinking patterns manifest in children and what you can do to help reframe these thoughts.

What are Negative Thinking Patterns?

Negative thinking patterns, called cognitive distortions, manifest as incorrect assumptions about the self and how others perceive an individual [*]. These thoughts aren’t based on facts and can cause young children to develop a distorted view of reality.

How Do Negative Thinking Patterns Develop?

Various factors can influence unhealthy thought patterns in children, and parents, caregivers, and educators need to be aware of these potential causes to address and support children's emotional well-being. Some common reasons behind negative thinking in adolescents include:

  • Traumatic or distressing experiences like bullying, academic struggles, or the loss of a loved one
  • Social pressures in school and on social media
  • Lack of developed coping strategies to manage stress and disappointment
  • Anxiety and depression disorders
  • Excessively high standards, leading to perfectionism
  • Health conditions that negatively impact self-esteem

The following mental health conditions may also exacerbate negative thinking patterns:

  • Obsessive-compulsive Disorder (OCD): Adolescents with OCD experience intrusive and unwanted thoughts, leading them to perform repetitive and mundane tasks to prevent self-harm or other consequences. OCD generates depressive and negative thought patterns.
  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): Adolescents with GAD experience persistent worry and anxiety, even in stable environments.
  • Depression: Inescapable sadness and hopelessness can give adolescents a fatalistic view of their relationships, success, and prospects [*].

Common Types of Negative Thinking Patterns

Negative thinking patterns can range from minor inconveniences to self-catastrophizing and impacting interpersonal relationships. Below are a few common negative thinking patterns you may recognize in children.

All-or-Nothing

Adolescents with all-or-nothing tendencies may perceive things in black-and-white. They think in extremes, with no in-between, perceiving small mistakes as significant failures.

Overgeneralization

Overgeneralization occurs when a teen applies something negative from one event to all succeeding events. For instance, a teen may fail a school exam and perceive it as a complete failure rather than something that happens occasionally.

Adolescents who overgeneralize tend to disqualify the positive or actively disregard good outcomes because they expect negative ones.

Fear of the Future

Some adolescents may assume the worst outcomes or catastrophize to avoid feeling disappointed. This fear of the future wastes emotional energy, and adolescents struggle to accept that they have limited control over many circumstances.

Self-Criticism

A lack of self-confidence isn’t out of the ordinary, but negative thinkers may take their negative thoughts about personal weaknesses to the extreme. They may experience reduced confidence in their ability to face challenges, causing them to become avoidant.

Jumping to Conclusions

A negative thinker may jump to conclusions regardless of how people perceive a situation. They may distort reality or blow minor inconveniences out of proportion.

Adolescents who jump to conclusions tend to use emotional reasoning as a crutch. They experience strong, occasionally insufferable emotions with no factual basis.

Making “Should” Statements

Adolescents who constantly make “should” statements create unrealistic expectations, as they hyperfocus on what they “ought” to do.

How Negative Thinking Patterns Impact Emotions and Behavior

Negative thinking patterns lead to other negative emotions like anger, guilt, fear, and shame. In addition, they can damage a child’s relationship with others and even lead to health consequences from chronic stress.

Children who don’t correct negative thinking patterns may become cynically hostile adults, directing anger, judgment, disdain, and mistrust at others.

Strategies to Overcome Negative Thinking Patterns

Fortunately, there are at-home daily steps and techniques parents and caregivers can use to help adolescents counter negative thinking.

Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring enables adolescents to identify and turn negative thoughts into positive ones [*]. Practice undoing a negative mindset with your child by asking them the following questions:

  • Is the thought realistic?
  • Have they experienced this thought before? Under what circumstances?
  • Are there alternative explanations for this thought occurring?
  • What do they gain or lose by continuing to believe in this thought?
  • What would they tell a friend experiencing the same thoughts?

Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness helps negative thinkers become more conscious of their thoughts as they occur [*]. Encourage your child to know how their thoughts influence their emotions and behavior.

If your child is easily overwhelmed, encourage them to focus on their sensations in the moment. Speak them out loud. “I am breathing in. I am breathing out.”

Over time, your child will learn to use thoughts more adaptively and stay grounded.

Positive Self-Talk

90% of self-talk is negative. As they experience negative self-criticism, ask your child if they would say the same about a friend. Then, tell them to use these compassionate responses as positive self-talk.

Here are some examples:

Negative: I’ve done this before and failed. I’m going to fail again.
Positive: I’ve done this before and know how to handle it better this time. I’ll try my best.

Negative: I didn’t score for my team, and we lost. It’s my fault.
Positive: Sports are a team activity. We win and lose together.

Negative: I’m not good enough for this. I’m going to fail.
Positive: This is an excellent opportunity to learn something new, even if I don’t succeed.

Visualization and Reframing

Visualization involves imagining oneself in a specific scenario—typically a comfortable and familiar one. If you’re new to visualization, use guided audio or a script. Incorporate positive affirmations into this visualization. For example:

“I am confident in my ability to succeed.”

“I trust myself.”

“I am deeply loved and accepted.”

Encourage your child to speak to their negative thoughts. For instance:

“I am more powerful than the thoughts weighing me down.”

“I am more than my insecurities.”

Journaling

Journaling enables adolescents to identify and track negative thoughts as they occur. Start with word associations and use these to analyze thoughts.

Alternatively, consider starting with a prompt. For example:

“I don’t trust myself today because…”

“Today, I feel unsure of myself because…”

Some adolescents achieve catharsis by discarding what they write afterward. Something ritualistic, like ripping up their writing, is symbolic of releasing these thoughts from their minds.

Social Support

Adolescents who feel isolated can benefit from social support. Especially in their developmental years, young children with positive friendships experience:

  • Boosted happiness
  • Increased self-confidence and self-worth
  • Enhanced ability to cope with traumas
  • Increased sense of belonging
  • Decreased risk of health problems

Good friends help adolescents challenge their assumptions about themselves. As a parent or caregiver, it’s imperative to keep your lines of communication open and accessible to your child.

When to Seek Professional Help

It’s essential to seek professional help if your child’s negative thoughts become persistent and debilitating. Negative thoughts can potentially lead to suicidal ones. Thus, parents and caregivers should have hotline numbers on hand or be in regular contact with their child’s primary healthcare provider.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are some typical signs that someone might be engaging in negative thinking?

Typical signs of negative thinking include self-criticism, pessimism, excessive worry, constant focus on flaws or mistakes, and a tendency to view situations cynically.

Can negative thinking patterns contribute to anxiety and depression?

Negative thinking patterns can contribute to anxiety and depression by reinforcing and intensifying negative emotions and beliefs.

How long does replacing negative thinking patterns with positive ones typically take?

The time it takes to replace negative thinking patterns with positive ones varies from person to person. Still, it often involves consistent effort and practice over weeks to months to see significant changes.

The Bottom Line

Negative thinking patterns can significantly impact adolescents' lives, especially when they dwell and ruminate. Conditions like OCD, GAD, and depression can exacerbate tendencies to overthink, jump to conclusions, catastrophize, and self-criticize.

Fortunately, getting social support, practicing mindfulness, journaling, and cognitive restructuring can help individuals turn negative thoughts into positive ones and develop healthier, more self-compassionate habits.

While unlearning unhealthy thinking patterns takes time, you can start small by exploring our worksheets to engage your child.

Sources:

  1. Covin R, et al. “Measuring Cognitive Errors: Initial Development of the Cognitive Distortions Scale (CDS)” 2023.
  2. Trick L, et al. “The association of perseverative negative thinking with depression, anxiety and emotional distress in people with long term conditions: A systematic review.” 2016.
  3. Brown AP, et al. “Mindfulness-Based Interventions in Counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development.” 2013.
  4. Shikatani B, et al. “The impact of cognitive restructuring and mindfulness strategies on postevent processing and affect in social anxiety disorder.” 2014.