As children get older it often becomes more difficult to talk to them. Many parents do not know how to open up the lines of communication or respond to their child’s emotional outbursts. Their child’s unhelpful thinking styles may be frightening and can make parents question how they can help.

Parents may also grieve the loss of the time when all their child wanted was to talk and run into their arms for comfort. Now parents may find themselves tiptoeing around their older children and avoiding issues in an effort to weather the storm or avoid making their strained relationship worse. However, it is at this time that children need their parent’s love and guidance the most.

Identifying Unhelpful Thinking Styles

Children often do not understand that their thoughts are determining their mood and actions. They also do not realize that there are unhelpful ways of thinking that can cause them to feel more anxious, angry, or depressed. Parents can help their children by helping them to identify these common unhelpful thoughts. 

By identifying and changing these unhelpful thinking styles children can begin to recognize that they are in control of their feelings and behavior. Once they have this important skill, they will be able to calm themselves down, adjust their behavior, and avoid conflict. Studies have shown that people who have the ability to recognize their thoughts and emotions feel more in control, handle difficulty and setbacks better, and generally, do well in life.

The first step is identifying automatic thoughts that children may be experiencing. Parents can go through these common cognitive distortions together to determine the type of thoughts their child is experiencing. The work of psychologists Aaron Beck and David Burns provided helpful insight into these cognitive distortions. Here are some brief explanations of these unhelpful thoughts provided by Psychology Tools:


  1. All or Nothing Thinking – the tendency to evaluate one’s personal qualities in extreme black-or-white categories
  2. Overgeneralizing – seeing a pattern based on too little data
  3. Mental Filter – focusing on a detail taken out of context, ignoring other more salient features of the situation, and conceptualizing the whole experience based on this element
  4. Disqualifying the Positive – dismissing positive information as a fluke or saying it doesn’t count
  5. Jumping to Conclusions – jumping to unjustified negative conclusions
    1. fortune telling – imagining and predicting that bad things will happen to us
    2. mind reading – assuming that other people are thinking negatively about us
  6. Magnification (Catastrophizing and Minimization) – exaggerating imperfections and errors while minimizing achievements and strengths
  7. Emotional Reasoning – the process of taking one’s emotions as evidence of the truth
  8. Critical Words (Should or Must) – reflecting our often unreasonable standards and frequently leading to feelings of frustration, shame, or guilt
  9. Labeling – the process of ‘summing up’ ourselves or others by labeling ourselves with tags such as “I am hopeless” or “I am stupid”
  10. Personalization – arbitrarily concluding that what happened was your fault even when you were not responsible

Parents Have the Power to Help

Once parents and children are aware of these unhelpful thinking styles, they have the power to challenge them. Parents can help their children to look at the facts and replace negative thoughts with positive ones. Many of the unkind words that a child tells themself would be perceived as bullying if one child said them to another. Children can easily recognize this detrimental behavior in others and would, most likely, come to the aid of a friend who was experiencing that type of treatment or who was saying those unkind things about themselves. 

Parents can point this out and remind their child to speak to themselves as a friend. This can help a child to develop a different perspective and it allows them to begin thinking about how they can confront and disprove these thoughts, thereby changing the narrative they have been holding on to that is causing them to be unhappy.