Healthy Thinking for Children

Healthy Thinking

Healthy Thinking for Children

Have you noticed changes in your child’s thinking patterns since they were injured? Have you noticed that their thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes have shifted?

Thoughts can have a powerful influence on both mood and motivation. Many people find it hard to engage in healthy thinking patterns during their everyday lives, and this can become even more difficult when recovering from a traumatic injury.

  • Unhealthy thinking” refers to thinking patterns that are negative, unhelpful, rigid, and that increase stress. This type of thinking can become a habit that could lead to more serious mental health struggles, but we can improve our thinking habits with awareness and practice.

What is healthy thinking? Healthy thinking is thinking in a way that allows you to be realistic, to see multiple options for solving problems, and to recognize when your thinking is negative or unhelpful and do something about it. It is a strength to be able to think flexibly about how to solve problems or achieve goals and being able to shift your thinking patterns from self-defeating thoughts to helpful, creative, and more positive and realistic thinking.

If you find that your child is wrestling with unhealthy thinking habits, there is good news! Researchers have found helpful and effective techniques to help engage in more balanced thinking patterns.This section will help you recognize unhealthy thinking patterns with your child and work to build tools for more positive and flexible thinking.

Why is it important to pay attention to thoughts? How do thoughts affect feelings?

You may be wondering, “Why should I pay attention to my child’s thinking patterns? How do thoughts have anything to do with feelings?”

Great question! Most people think that an event happens and then they experience an emotion.

In other words, most people think that things work like this:

 An event leads to Emotions and Behaviors

For Example, your child might describe an incident like this:

“I got in trouble for throwing a toy at my baby brother and I felt angry. I stormed off and started crying.”

But it actually works differently than that! The thoughts and beliefs that your child has related to an experience have big impacts on their emotional reaction.

So it actually works like this:

Events plus Thoughts and beliefs lead to Emotions and Behaviors

Let’s use that same example above to explore this idea. There are actually lots of reactions children can have to a situation like this, and these reactions are related to their thoughts and beliefs about the event more than to the event itself.

“My mom yelled at me for throwing a toy at my baby brother. I thought that she was being mean! I felt angry and I stormed off and started crying.”

“My mom yelled at me for throwing a toy at my baby brother. I thought my baby brother might be hurt and I felt scared! I went and hid under the table.”

“My mom yelled at me for throwing a toy at my baby brother. I thought about other times I have been yelled at and felt ashamed. I went to my room and wouldn’t talk with anyone.”

“My mom yelled at me for throwing a toy at my baby brother. I thought about how my baby brother never gets in trouble. I felt jealous and broke one of his toys on purpose.”

Do you see how the exact same event can lead to lots of different emotions and behaviors? And because we can’t read our child’s thoughts, it can be very difficult to know what they are thinking unless we make sure to communicate regularly and effectively with them.

Signs of Unhealthy Thinking
Both children and adults may often fall into thinking ‘traps.’ You or your child may be cornered into patterns of negative thinking that feel inescapable. The first step in changing thinking habits is to become aware of the thoughts that are occurring and how they are affecting you or your child.

See below for some thinking traps that some people fall into after an injury. It may be difficult to notice this in your child. Pay attention to statements that they make that could give you cues into what they are thinking:

  • Thinking more negatively about themself, other people, or the world in general. Your child may make statements such as, “I can’t do anything right” or no longer want to participate in activities they previously enjoyed.
  • Viewing your emotions as facts (e.g., I feel guilty- therefore I have done something wrong). You might notice that your child is angry and unjustly blames you for what happened- it is hard for children to understand all the factors that can cause an injury.
  • Not paying attention to the positive events that occur in their life and focusing only on the unpleasant events.
  • Thinking in “black or white” terms. This means that your child may tend to think of things only as good or bad, with nothing in between.
  • Becoming overly rigid in their thoughts. For example, you may notice that your child is having greater difficulty viewing situations from others’ perspective or changing plans at the last minute

Some other common thinking traps include the following. Having a name for these patterns can help us identify them more quickly and easily.

  • Mind reading. Your child might assume that they know others’ thoughts without asking them what they are thinking. For example, after an accident your child might assume that you blame them for the accident without ever talking about this with you.  
  • Catastrophizing. Your child might assume that the worst possible situation will definitely happen and that they will not be able to handle it when it does. For example, “I have another appointment with my doctor. My doctor is going to find something wrong with me that is going to make my situation even worse!”
  • “Shoulds.” Your child might focus on what they believe ‘should’ be rather than how things actually are (e.g., “I should be able to handle this better!”).

How can I help my child develop healthy ways of thinking?
Now that you are becoming more aware of unhealthy thinking patterns, you are ready to help your child improve their healthy thinking skills! There are many techniques that psychologists recommend to develop healthy thinking.

  • Help your child notice how their injury is impacting their thoughts, beliefs, and views of themself. Life events can have significant impacts on how we view ourselves and our life. Help your child think of the personal meaning they are developing related to recent events that have occurred. Are these thoughts helpful? Accurate? Noticeably different than before the injury? Consider what thoughts and feelings you have experienced during this period and how they are impacting them.
  • Help your child improve their mind’s “flexibility”. Just like with our physical bodies, we can train our minds to become more flexible. Greater “cognitive flexibility” can help your child adapt to new situations, problem solve, and learn more quickly and effectively. It can also help them view circumstances from a more balanced (and less negative) perspective. You and your child can build your cognitive flexibility by making efforts to see situations and decisions from several different perspectives.
  • Give yourself and your child time.  You may feel a great amount of pressure to make important decisions regarding your child’s health and future. Allow yourself to have as much time as needed to make these decisions. Talk with your child about your decision making process when appropriate.
  • Help your child pace themself. Your child may feel the need to hold themself to their previous standards and may feel very frustrated if they are unable to do something they used to be able to do. Help them take things on slowly and reward small victories.
  • Show compassion. Be patient and kind to your child and gently remind them to be kind to themselves. Encourage them to ask: “What would I tell a friend who was in this same position”? They might find that they are better at being kind to friends than to themselves. Take the time to have a conversation with them about this.  
  • Appreciate their successes. After an injury your child might feel that they are accomplishing less. It’s important to recognize and celebrate even small victories. Acknowledge their progress in recovery, and celebrate all their other achievements (for example, taking a walk).
  • Focus on what they can control. After an injury there can be many factors that are difficult or impossible to control. Consider areas of your child’s life where they do have some control, or at least some influence, and identify what is outside of their control. Spend your energy focusing on what they can control. For example, they may not have been able to control what happened to them, but you can control how they respond to challenges now.
  • Mindfulness practices (meditation, breathing exercises). Mindfulness practices are great tools for increasing awareness of your thinking patterns and getting a clearer sense of your responses to daily situations. Your child can practice mindfulness too by focusing on their breathing! Click below for brief videos from Sesame Street that teach children to belly breathe.

Rosita teaching belly breathing!

The Count teaching Cookie Monster the “Count, Breathe, Relax” skill!

What else can I do to help develop healthy thinking?

It is important to take care of your child’s basic needs! Develop healthy sleep habits, eat a well-balanced diet, schedule your child’s day thoughtfully whenever you can, make sure to carve out time for activities they enjoy, and engage in some form of aerobic exercise (walking, running, swimming) several times a week. Exercise can help reduce feelings of fatigue and can help support positive changes in mood and thinking. It can help break the cycle of unhealthy thinking while also helping you to problem-solve and think more calmly. Remember to acknowledge your child’s success by saying, “You did it!” or “That was really hard, and I had to take breaks, but I completed it.” Encourage them to do the same.

It can also be helpful to seek additional assistance from a licensed professional counselor, pastor, social worker, or psychologist. People in these roles may be able to view your child’s situation more objectively and be able to offer guidance. If your child continues to struggle with unhealthy thinking despite efforts to prevent it, they may benefit from seeking additional support.