Updated: May 3, 2018
Humans have somewhere between 12,000 and 70,000 thoughts per day. Some are helpful, some are pleasant, some are insignificant and others can linger in our minds and get in the way of what we’re doing.
When kids describe their thoughts, they do so in some unique ways. I have heard kids describe thoughts (especially those lingering and unhelpful ones) as an “annoying voice” in their head or “like there’s a goodie and a badie” and it’s hard to know who to listen to. When kids are still learning about metacognition, that is, thinking about thinking, it can be hard to help kids to first notice and then understand how thoughts can have an impact on them.
Thoughts can affect how we feel and how we behave. Our inner dialogue can contribute to whether we feel calm, anxious or angry about a situation. Imagine your 10-year-old is invited to a friend’s party. The birthday girl loves to dance and so one of the activities on the invite suggests a dance class will happen on the day. Your 10-year-old is not very confident with her dance skills and the invite triggers thoughts like "yay, a birthday party!", “oh I’m not good at dancing,” “I can’t dance at the party,” “everyone will be better than me,” “everyone will laugh at me,” “it’s not fair,” and “why does it have to be a dance party?” Your 10-year-old went from excited, to anxious, to angry. And this may be followed by avoidance behaviours, such as saying she does not want to go to the party or is feeling sick on the day. If your 10-year-old verbalises her thoughts, then you have an opportunity to help understand her inner dialogue and problem solve the situation. But, children don’t always know what they’re thinking, yet alone verbalise it to others.
Nagging thoughts are negative thoughts that regularly enter our children's heads. And...they are not necessarily helpful for their state-of-mind. In the previous example, perhaps for our 10-year-old the thought "everyone will laugh at me" comes up time and time again. It is triggered at swimming lessons, at show and tell and in PE class. And when it enters her head, it can overshadow her inner dialogue and impact her feelings, her confidence and her behaviour. It's a nagging unhelpful thought that may need some help to pass.
People have different ideas about the most helpful ways to manage nagging thoughts. Some believe it is better to draw attention to them, others attempt to ignore them, others distract themselves from them, challenge them or let them pass. As a child psychologist, I have found that there is no one-size fits all when it comes to helping children manage nagging unhelpful thoughts. Some kids really connect with the idea of being a “thought detective” and analysing their thoughts by coming up with evidence that can ultimately challenge and change the way they think about things (a cognitive-behavioural therapy approach). Whilst others prefer to be a non-judgemental observer and imagine their thoughts pass them by in a form of visual imagery (e.g., floating on leaves down the lake, acceptance-based approach). And many, prefer to access a range of strategies dependent on the situation.
So, whilst there are several ways to manage nagging thoughts, I have found that teaching kids to let go of their thoughts can be a great way to help children:
1) increase their awareness of thoughts and
2) manage the emotion-provoking thoughts that come back again and again.
Because children (and adults too!) are still learning about their thoughts, using some real visual imagery can be helpful.
Here are 5 ways to teach children how to “let go” of nagging thoughts. Ask your child to:
1. Write down their thoughts and let them go on a balloon
Ask your child to think about a nagging thought that has been on their mind. To help demonstrate, come up with some examples of your own. A common anxiety-provoking thought may start with “what if…” (e.g., what if… everyone laughs at me, what if… I forget the words to my speech, what if… I’m late to school etc.).
Then, blow up a balloon or ask your child to blow up a balloon as big as they can.
Grab a permanent marker and ask your child to write down the thoughts on the balloon. If they don’t like writing or they are too young to write, they can draw a picture or you can help.
Then…let the balloon go.
Your child will love watching it fly about the room.
Then, when they pick it up, their written thought has shrunk on the balloon.
Afterwards is a great opportunity to have a conversation with your child about how letting go of the thought made them feel. What was it like to watch it fly away? Their thought also shrunk in size. Maybe it is smaller in their head now too? Help your child to come up with some other thoughts about the situation, and discuss which ones might be most helpful to pay attention to (e.g., “I can only try my best,” “maybe it won’t be that bad” etc.).
2. Flush thoughts away down the toilet
Like the previous idea, ask your child to write down a thought on a piece of toilet paper. Using a pencil, ask your child to write a word, thought or draw a picture of something they would like to “let go,” of and then watch it be flushed down the toilet bowl.
Some children prefer to yell their words into the toilet bowl and then flush them away. This can be helpful for kids who need to release some energy / tension associated with their thoughts (e.g., “it’s not fair”).
Children will enjoy watching their thoughts flush away.
3. Shoot thoughts through a basketball ring
Children can shoot their thoughts (written on paper or taped to a ball) through a basketball hoop. It can be an inside set up or it can happen outside on the basketball court.
Children will enjoy letting go of the ball as they aim for the hoop.
4. Feed them to a worry eater
Younger children may enjoy feeding their worrying thoughts to a worry eater. This activity starts with making a worry eater with a tissue box and some craft supplies.
Children can feed the worry eater pictures of their worries or words written by their parents.
5. Crush them on a can or cup
Older children may prefer to do some recycling crushing and crush unhelpful thoughts written on soda cans or milk bottles in the recycling.
Children will enjoy being able to crush down on the nagging thoughts that keep entering their head.
Regardless of the visual imagery you use to help your child to become more aware and let go of their nagging thoughts, the idea is that once your child engages in the process regularly, they can internalise the imagery and utilise this skill anywhere and anytime.
If parents prefer their children to remain non-judgemental about their thoughts, rather than letting go of the nagging ones, the above strategies can involve all thoughts (without judgement) and instead focus on how thoughts come and go.
If you are concerned about your child’s thoughts or feelings, it may be useful to seek professional help. Our psychologists at Mind and Seek can help children and their parents with a range of emotional and behavioural issues, including how to cope with nagging thoughts.
Please call us on 9746 8088 to book an appointment.
Dr Chaille Breuer
Principal / Clinical Psychologist
MPsych (Child Clinical) / PhD, MAPS
Mind & Seek