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How to Arm Little Kids Against Negative Thoughts

Giving children power over negative thoughts can reduce problem behaviors and freak outs that were once considered a normal part of childhood.

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Frustrating childhood behaviors often feel like a chaotic force a parent must endure or attempt to “manage” through discipline. The natural supposition is that every kid operates more or less at the whim of their developing brain, prompting freakouts, breakdowns, and general shittiness. But that idea discounts a child’s ability to become mentally disciplined, manage their own mind, and fight back against their worst impulses. The very skills that keep daddy out of jail can make a kid happier and easier to handle — and they can be taught.

“The idea is really simple,” explains child psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen, author of Captain Snout and the Super Power Questions. “Our thoughts can help us feel happy, joyful, peaceful, angry, mad or sad. They’re very powerful.”

Amen says that children can be given tools to take control of those thoughts or take up arms against them. And when the thoughts are subdued, the chemical tides that cause them tend to follow suit. Brain chemistry is — to some degree at least — a feedback loop. That’s the good news and the bad news because ephemeral thoughts can have physical consequences and, as Amen says, “Thoughts lie. They lie a lot.”

Biofeedback technique allows doctors to track the physical effects of thoughts in much the way a lie detector does: through heart rate, palm moisture, temperature, and breathing. Amen works with it and says that the responses are shockingly consistent. “When I get kids to think about happy things, their hands get warmer, they get drier, their muscles relax, their breathing slows down and becomes deeper and more efficient,” he remembers. “When I get them to think about things that make the unhappy, almost immediately their hands get colder, they start to sweat more, their breathing becomes more erratic, their heart rate increases.”

When lying thoughts go uninterrogated, they can shape the world in a dark way that is inconsistent with the truth. Particularly when those thoughts are negative. Amen calls them ANTs, or automatic negative thoughts, and they can range from a child blaming someone else for personal issues, or assuming people don’t like them, or even expecting terrible things to happen without reason.

Fortunately, he says, fighting back requires only three words: Is it true?

“Those three words are so stinking powerful,” Amen says. “So the idea is that whenever you feel sad, mad, nervous, or out of control, look at what you’re thinking and then just question it.”

Of course, kids aren’t particularly in the habit of being introspective, so it’s up to parents to help them catch the ANTs and burn them under the magnifying glass of doubt. That requires that parents are present, listening to what their kids are saying, and able to refrain from being dismissive of their issues. It requires, in short, treating thoughts that are ridiculous as not wrong or right, but dangerous. That requires a bit of a leap for parents, but on the other side of the intellectual fissure is a very winnable battle.

Just don’t tell a kid that he or she is being ridiculous. It’s poisonous and teaches them nothing. Instead, teach them to find the idea’s ridiculousness. Once they know how to banish their own fears they become powerful. (This is, for what it’s worth, kind of what the movie It is about.)

By following where the negative thought leads, parents and kids can actually beat back demons. Sometimes that’s a complicated and unpredictable thing. Sometimes it’s just a matter of thinking one’s way around to a simple truth: “People do like me!”

There’s nothing particularly magical about the technique. And it doesn’t take any special psychiatric practice or knowledge for parents to start using it right away. In fact, Amen notes that parents who do get into helping a kid track negative thoughts often also wind up managing their own. But in the end, it’s not really a trick or a mental hack.

“Honesty is what you’re teaching them,” he says. “I’m a fan of accurate thinking.”

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