Helping teens stop automatic negative thinking

Is your teen a negative Nelly, jumping to the worst conclusion all the time, or constantly thinking of the most depressing outcome of a situation? Amber Hall explains why “cognitive distortion” can cause teens to get into a habit of negative thinking – and how to help them break out of it.

Occasional negative thoughts are not unusual for teens (and adults too). It’s normal for them to jump to conclusions or let things blow way out of proportion sometimes, but regular unchecked negative self-talk can be insidious.

When kids who get into a habit of negative thinking face difficult situations, they can get weighed down by cognitive distortions (sometimes referred to as thought holes). “Cognitive distortion” is the psychological term for skewed or distorted perceptions of reality, and describes the usually negative interpretations a person makes of day-to-day situations that are based on poor, negative, or false assumptions. Research has shown that negative self-talk like “I’m so stupid” can have a domino effect leading to self-defeating emotions such as anxiety, which can lead to self-defeating actions like bunking off school, which can lead to severe issues such as depression if left unchecked.

Fortunately, it only takes a few simple steps to teach teens how to refocus and unskew their cognitive distortions or climb out of their thought holes.

Inaccurate thinking and what causes it

Imagine two people are walking down a busy street side by side. The first notices the broken glass, the dog poo, and a couple shouting angrily at each other. The second notices the gentle breeze, the blossoms on the trees, and the delicious smell of garlic bread in the air. We all take in snapshot scenes from our surroundings, the information from which we make a best guess at interpreting. This means we each create our own individual reality by consciously and unconsciously selecting what to pay attention to, based on our interests and previous experience.

We have to be selective about what information we pay attention to, because there’s simply too much information and too many possible stimuli in any given environment for our brains to possibly process. Humans are so good at this that the subconscious mind can take in about 20 million different pieces of information via our main senses in just one second. That second’s worth of information is then filtered so that consciously we can focus on somewhere between seven and 40 pieces. It’s kind of a shortcut for your brain.

That filtering process and those shortcuts mean we’re able to judge situations quickly, and prevents us from going insane from sensory overload. But these shortcuts are made for speed rather than accuracy, which can leave us vulnerable to making errors in our interpretations. Because we only construct our reality based on the filtered crumbs of information, rather than the whole cake, if that information isn’t balanced (like ignoring any positives and only absorbing the negatives), the result is a cognitive distortion or skewed perception of reality.

8 common cognitive distortions

What makes the whole cognitive distortion habit so toxic and all-encompassing is that we’re not just prone to thinking errors. We also repeat our mistakes over and over and over again without recognizing the mistakes we’re making. Common cognitive distortions are:

  1. Emotional reasoning: The assumption that your negative emotions can be translated into reality or getting feelings confused with facts.
  2. Externalising: Trying to push the blame for your problems onto someone else (despite you being the one who was primarily responsible).
  3. Jumping to conclusions: Looking at a situation and judging it based on assumptions rather than definitive facts.
  4. Magnifying: Magnifying the negative details in a situation.
  5. Mental filtering: When looking at situation, only paying attention to the negative details and ignoring the positive ones.
  6. Minimising: Minimising any positive details in a situation.
  7. Over generalising: Determining that this one bad situation will end up leading to a repeating pattern of defeat.
  8. Personalising: Taking responsibility for all the blame (despite you not being the one who was primarily responsible).

Moving thinking habits from distortion to accuracy

Knowing what the common distortions are and how they fall into those negative habits means they can now start to build a defence against them. Get your teen to answer these three simple questions:

  1. Am I using any of the common distortions?
  2. What evidence can I collect to paint an accurate picture?
  3. Does the evidence I’ve collected challenge these original thoughts?

Here’s an example. Your child, who usually is a solid student, has been asked to speak to the Dean after class. Their immediate thought is, “I’m obviously in trouble!” and so they begin to worry. Before they get unduly distressed, now they can ask themselves the three questions:

  1. Am I using any of the common distortions? Yes, it looks like I’m jumping to a conclusion and using some mental filtering.
  2. What evidence do I have to paint an accurate picture? People often get in trouble when they’re asked to visit the Dean. I haven’t failed any tests that I know of. I am generally pretty polite and friendly to my teachers and my peers. I haven’t been in any big trouble before.
  3. Does the evidence I’ve collected challenge these original thoughts? Yes, the evidence above has two quite different themes. I can use these examples to self-dispute my original thought.

Engaging in internal challenging of negative thoughts is incredibly powerful because it leads to increased accurate thinking, which in turn can improve your child’s emotional well-being. Work with your kid to understand that any thoughts they’re having – positive or negative – can affect their mental health. Encourage them to try thinking accurately instead and give them the important skill of managing their internal chatter, which will serve them for life.

A note of caution

Negative self-talk and negative thinking can be a sign of depression and anxiety. If you try these techniques and don’t see any improvements in your teen’s thinking patterns, or you are concerned about your teen’s negative thoughts, please seek professional help. Talk to your GP about getting a referral to mental health services in your area.

Scroll to Top