Back to School Thinking Errors

This time of year brings with it some very unique and interesting challenges for many school-aged children. Adolescents especially, are prone to finding themselves navigating through a proverbial mine-field of troubling thoughts and situations that can feel all but impossible to overcome. Once the newness of the outfits has faded and the excitement from seeing old friend has worn out, teens are left with a view of reality that isn’t always easy to understand. Parents play a vital role in how their children respond to these uncharted territories; knowing some of the common signs and symptoms can help catch thinking errors before they get out of control.

David Burns, in his bestselling publication, The Feeling Good Handbook, describes a “Checklist of Cognitive Distortions” which can grip even the most advanced minds. Listening to your child’s language can cue you in on which of these errors they are struggling with and better inform you of the coping skills they may be lacking. Training our thoughts is much like training a new pet; the habits might be out of control at first, but with consistent effort and proper education, even the most unruly minds can be tamed.

One of the most destructive back-to-school thinking errors is “Overgeneralization”. This is when the mind takes its current struggle and projects it out into an unforeseeable future as a “never-ending pattern of defeat” (Burns, 1999). If your child is bound to this distortion, their thoughts might sound something like, “I’ll NEVER fit in!”, or “I got an F in class so why try at all?” Some of the most effective means of stopping such thoughts are to first acknowledge and verbalize them. Once they are exposed, together you can find examples in the past which disprove the belief. After enough ‘evidence’ has been collected, the mind is allowed to willingly release the previous distortion.

Another frequently troublesome thinking error arises when the mind begins to filter out the positive information and only perceives the negative or frustrating environmental ques. “Mental Filtering”, as Burns describes it, prevents thoughts that could improve or boost the child’s mood from being recognized or given credence. Noticeable signs that this is occurring show up in statements like, “I hate myself, I can’t do anything right!”, or “Everything about my life sucks!” In spite of the well-meaning efforts of parents and friends, this thinking error acts as a Teflon surface, by not allowing the positive to stick (no matter how true the statement may be). Working with adolescents stuck here requires slight adjustments to prior approaches. Instead of combating the problem directly, it helps to educate the rational side of the brain as to what it is overlooking. Expanding awareness is a natural byproduct of honest inquiry. Teaching your teen to see the same good in themselves that they see in those they admire will show them that they do indeed have the capacity to free themselves from their negative cycles.

Burns goes on to outline his “Daily Mood Log” where any one of the ten categories of thinking errors can be captured and exposed for the lie which they propagate. By simply dividing up a page into three columns, your child can identify their “Automatic Thoughts”, then they can expose the “Distortion”, and finally, they are given the opportunity to combat the distortion with a “Rational Response”. Regularly reviewing this journal with your child can develop deep and lasting coping skills which, in turn, are able to follow them throughout the rest of their lives. As a parent, it is comforting to know that as we walk this path with them, we too can benefit from the journey by resolving our own thinking errors.