Many children nowadays struggle with anxiety provoking negative thoughts which cause them to avoid or attempt to escape certain situations. For some children this may occur in social situations and for others it may come up when they are expected to sit for an examination. Regardless of the situation which may evoke negative thought patterns, it is important to teach children and adolescents how to interrupt this chain of thoughts in order to allow them to function appropriately in a variety of environments.
Step 1: Identify The Negative Thoughts
This may be done by looking for physical or physiological signs of distress, such as nail biting, sweating, or an increase in fidgeting. Once you notice that your child is engaging in behavior that indicates they are experiencing discomfort, ask them what they are thinking. Have them verbalize or write down what was running through their mind as they engaged in these behaviors when it occurs. Once you have a clear pattern which indicates that certain negative thought, such as “People will laugh at me”, occur when the child bites his nails or taps his pencil repeatedly on the desk you may begin to bring this to the child’s attention.
Step 2: Ask Them To Stop
Once you and the child can identify when they are engaging in persistent negative thoughts, ask them to stop. It may be close to impossible to stop all negative thought patterns, so ask the child to switch their thoughts to something else. For instance, if the child is thinking about a math test they have to complete later in the week and is perseverating on the belief that they will fail, redirect them to focus on more productive thoughts. Have them focus on studying for the test or complete worksheets to target areas which need improvement, rather than thinking about failing. Similarly, if the child is engaging in anxiety provoking thoughts the day of the test, you can redirect them to think that they have prepared appropriately and have the skills necessary to succeed. If the client perseverates on ideas that are out of their control, explain that they cannot do anything to change the outcome of that situation and redirect them to focus on what is occurring in the moment. An example would be if the child is focusing on whether or not it will rain the following day, they may be redirected to focusing on how clear the sky is currently or how warm the day is.
Step 3: Praise Your Child
Initially, the child may need to receive rewards, when they switch from negative thoughts to more positive thoughts in order to establish this behavior. They may need someone to walk them through this process and have it be a more external problem solving experience before it occurs internally. Once the child is consistently engaging in this behavior, you may begin to fade out additional reinforcers and allow naturally occurring reinforcers, such as escape or avoidance of anxiety and physiological discomfort, to take over. For instance, if in the past you have allowed the child to have a snack or candy each time they successfully corrected their thinking you may want to have them do so twice before delivering the treat. Similarly, if you have been providing praise when they engage in this behavior, you can fade it out by slowly lowering your enthusiasm and the length of the praise you provide such that you only say “good job”.
It may be useful to have your child practice this skill by doing role plays or coaching them as the situation arises. It may be helpful to write down some thoughts that usually occur and also some alternative thoughts to provide your child with some tools to use when they are faced with this situation