“Everyone stays up later than me!”

“If I make a mistake, they won’t like me anymore.”

“I’ll never be good at _________.”

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a statement like the ones above, I’d probably be writing this article from my own private island somewhere in the Caribbean. Chances are that you would be too, because you have also heard them from your kids. In fact, we haven’t just heard them before, we’ve thought them ourselves!

These statements are negative thinking traps. I call them traps because just like a trap, you don’t usually see them coming. But once you are stuck in one, your progress is impeded, and it can take a bit of work to break free.

No one likes being in a trap. Just ask a mouse.

The problem with these negative thinking traps is twofold. First, the thoughts are negative. Second, they are often untrue. Scripture places a big emphasis on the truth. In Romans 12:3, Paul tells us to think with sober judgment, and in Philippians 4:8, he writes, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever it just . . . think about these things” [emphasis mine].

Why is it so important to think thoughts that are true? The answer is that knowing what is true will help us make wise choices. Think of it this way: If there is a treasure behind a brick wall, it is worth the effort to remove the bricks, even though it may take a lot of work. If no treasure lies behind the wall, then our effort would be best spent on something else. Knowing the truth about what’s behind the wall makes a big difference.

The child who is least likely to get stuck in a negative thinking trap is one who:

  • knows what the traps look like
  • knows how to get out of the trap if he or she accidentally steps into it.

Common traps

Let me introduce you to two of the most common negative thinking traps that can pull your kids off course.

Exaggerating the negative

This deceptive snare is the culprit behind many a tantrum and upset moment. When a small problem occurs, it is easy for a child to view the situation as bigger and worse than it really is. In a young mind, one sports loss can mean that the team will lose all the games this season. One tough day at recess can mean she doesn’t have any friends.

Using false labels

Extreme words take a difficult circumstance or unexpected challenge and twist it into something that it is not. Words such as always, never, everyone and nobody can blow a situation out of proportion. Name-calling words, such as stupid or jerk, make a situation feel worse by using labels that are not true. “I always drop the ball. I’m so stupid. That person is a jerk.”

I’m guessing that both of these traps sound familiar, as we have all fallen prey to them at times. The main problem with these traps is that they trick your kids into viewing a situation in a way that is skewed. And when your kid’s thinking goes off-track, their feelings and responses go crashing off-track as well, leaving you to pick up the pieces.

Breaking free

When you think your kids might be caught in negative thinking traps, take the following steps to help them find their way out:


Everything starts here. You cannot get to the other steps without taking the time to really listen to your child’s feelings and perceptions. Don’t rush this step. Ask clarifying questions to better understand the details and keep listening until your child is confident she has fully communicated how she feels about the situation.

Name feelings

As your child talks, listen for the emotions he expresses and put names to those emotions. Your child may say he felt really bad, but perhaps he was really feeling frustrated, hurt or disappointed. Take your best guess at your child’s feelings and check to see if you are on target. Use statements such as, “It sounds like you were feeling hurt when your friend didn’t invite you to the party. Is that right?”

Summarize your child’s view

When kids experience strong feelings about a situation, some may have a lot to say while others may say very little. Either way, try to summarize the main points your child has communicated to create a statement that can be examined. For example, “So Ben, you are saying that because you didn’t play well in your soccer game today, you are not good at any sports. Is that right?”

Help your child find “true thoughts” about the situation

You might ask this question: “We want to think about things in a way that is true, right?” Kids will almost always answer yes. Then, gently ask questions that will help your child examine his thoughts and assumptions and weigh the accuracy of these thoughts. This will help your child to slowly recognize the mistakes she may have made in her thinking. To continue with the example above, you might ask:

  • “What makes you think you didn’t play well today?”
  • “Do you think other kids sometimes have games where they didn’t play their best?”
  • “What do professional athletes do when they have a bad game (e.g., drop a pass, miss a shot, etc.)?”
  • “Can a person be good at one thing, just OK at another thing and maybe not so good at something else?”
  • “What would be a better way to look at this situation?”

Your child may need some help answering these questions, and you can remind him of evidence from his own past experiences, your own or those of others. Use logic and, when possible, point your child toward solutions found in Scripture. You can remind your child that no matter what the problem is, God has promised to be with us, help us to learn from our experiences and help us to respond to difficulties in a healthy way.

Resolve the issue by helping your child find a more accurate way to view the situation, such as, “I didn’t play my best today, but everyone has a bad game sometimes,” and “I know God is always with me, even when I have a bad day.” If possible, end your discussion with a short prayer, committing the situation to God.

Your words don’t have to be perfect. The important thing is that you are connecting with your kids and helping them think accurately about difficult situations, which, in turn, will get them on the road to finding solutions based on truth. Just as important, you will be showing them that you care and demonstrating what it looks like to walk on God’s path, even on a cloudy day.

Related resources

Dr. Todd Cartmell is a child psychologist who’s been working with children, teens and their families for about 20 years at his clinical practice in Wheaton, Ill. He’s a popular public speaker, a parenting workshop presenter and the author of seven books including 8 Simple Tools for Raising Great Kids, Raising Flexible Kids and Project Dad: The Complete Do-It-Yourself-Guide for Becoming a Great Father.

© 2017 Todd Cartmell.  Used with permission. Published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.

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