Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking

Powerful, Practical Strategies to Build a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility, and Happiness


By Tamar Chansky

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From a leading clinical expert in the fields of child cognitive and behavior disorders, a new edition that addresses social media, bullying, suicide, and other challenges children and parents face today

If unaddressed at the early stages, negative thinking can become the gateway to depression and more serious mental health issues. Habitual negative thinking creates chronic or occasional emotional hurdles and impedes optimism, flexibility, and happiness. Being constantly being overloaded with information from friends, classmates, teachers, parents, and the internet, children need tools and strategies for redirecting negative thoughts when they come. In Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking, Dr. Chansky provides parents, caregivers, and clinicians with clear, concise, and compassionate guidance in equipping children and teens to overcome negativity. She thoroughly covers the underlying causes of children’s negative attitudes and provides multiple strategies for managing negative thoughts, building optimism, and establishing emotional resilience.

Now, in this revised and updated edition, Dr. Chansky addresses the complex challenges that come with raising kids in a digital age–from navigating social media use to cyber bullying, as well as the grim reality of increased school shootings and suicides. This new edition also includes an expanded section on depression, the importance of healthy sleep, and the parent’s role in their children’s digital lives. With practical tools for parents to guide their children through these challenges, Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking is the handbook all parents need to help their children cultivate emotional resilience.


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All parents want their children to be happy and want to give their children the best. How we define giving and the best and even happiness itself informs our parenting approaches and ultimately makes a big difference in our children’s well-being and fulfillment in life. When we give our children the opportunity to see how they can get things for themselves—working hard, persevering, taking risks, overcoming disappointment and adversity, then we bring out the best in them. The ultimate contentment comes from having the ability to act, to see that one can manage oneself, hold one’s own. But what if your child’s thinking doesn’t allow for contentment? What if the very ideas—default and automatic—racing through your child’s mind don’t grant a fighting chance to see what is possible, what is accurate, what is good—and, in fact, it is fighting with those very thoughts that leave kids feeling defeated every day? Welcome to the world of kids with negative thinking.


For nearly three decades, I have been listening closely to the sounds of anxious children—their worries a constant barrage of questions, fraught with what-ifs, like a frantic opening and closing of doors on their future: “What if this happens?” “What if that happens?” “What if that goes wrong? What if I mess up?” “What if I fail?” Always a question, always about the worst-case scenario. But as the years went on, I started to hear a different story—from children plagued by negative thoughts. In contrast to the frantic flurry of possible disasters to avert, children with negative thinking had no questions and all the answers, and none of them sounded good: “There’s no point.” “I give up.” “It’s always like this.” “Nothing ever works for me.” “Everything’s ruined.” Or simply, “No.”

Instead of the clamor of what-ifs, I heard the silence of finality sealing shut a thick vault, all the treasures locked inside, as these kids not only expected the worst but accepted the worst. Parents would stand around that vault, trying to gain access. “But you’re good at so many things; this is no big deal,” they’d plead. But guarded by the insidious partners of hopelessness and impossibility, these kids remained, shut down, unreachable, convinced there was no use in trying to make it different. Accepting the worst leads to no satisfaction; on the contrary, it leads to sadness, even “pre-sadness,” as one teen called it. When kids repeatedly predict that things are going to go badly, they begin to get sad in advance, anticipating the defeat before they even start, borrowing ahead on the disappointment just like anxious kids borrow ahead on worry. The possibility that things could turn out well is irrelevant; they’ve already decided, it’s pointless.

When I say to these parents, “Your child has depressive thinking,” they quickly counter, and rightly so, “But he’s not depressed.” I explain how their child is demonstrating what Dr. Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive therapy, called in the 1970s the depressive triad: negative views of the self, the world, and the future. Dr. Beck codified this triad as a three-part punch: I struck out at baseball; I hate myself (one blow); baseball is stupid (the next); I stink at everything (and down they fall)1. An hour later, this child may have moved on and is asking with a cheerful smile, “What’s for dinner?” as if nothing has happened. Meanwhile, the parents, completely wrung out from a lifesaving mission to wrestle their child out of the hole he had seemingly dug himself into, are mystified. They scratch their head and sigh, but they don’t feel completely relieved because they have a hunch that they won’t be in the clear for long: The depressive triad will be waiting around the corner for the next disappointment, and kaboom—another attack of the negative brain will knock their child down again. So, although these children are not depressed per se, it is clear that with all these repetitions of the pattern of everyday ordinary events leading to damning conclusions about the youngsters’ abilities and prospects—damned by their own lightning fast (mis)interpretations, they are depressives-in-training and they are not happy about it. Part of their misery is that the solution seems out of reach—they are convinced they can’t be happy or successful because they believe that big changes have to happen on the outside: better grades, nicer clothes, more money, more friends, better hair, better toys… and today… more likes on Instagram!

The truth about happiness is this: It always begins with the work you do on the inside. It always has. What will determine our happiness, to a great extent, is how we seek out meaningful experiences, help our kids discover what is meaningful for them and, perhaps most important, keep that discovery process going. Kids need the flexible habit of mind to accurately narrate the challenges and disappointments they face and to learn to expect them. To learn to not stop at the global first take, “I’m a failure!” and come back to that inner conversation with a much more accurate and focused assessment of the damages. If we want kids to develop this flexibility, they have to know to look for it. They need to hear consistently that there are different ways to narrate a situation. Then they won’t stop at the first version, as we know that with negative thinking on board, the first is always the worst!

As kids learn to pivot their inner assessment from seeing things as difficult rather than devastating, as uncomfortable rather than unacceptable, they can get back on track more quickly. Equipped with flexible expectations and accurate explanations for when things don’t go as expected, kids can acquire the emotional agility to successfully navigate their path in life.

We have to help them by reinforcing flexible expectations and accurate explanations. Stay clear from teaching that leading charmed straight-A, all varsity, picture-perfect social media lives makes kids happy. That picture doesn’t exist in real life! Happiness comes from having a sustainable understanding of how life works: Moments of struggle are not wrong, they are not mistakes that shouldn’t be happening, and having the “I can’t, I won’t, it’s not fair, everyone else is better, nothing’s good” thoughts are not wrong, either; they are part of life. I tell the kids I see that these thoughts and experiences are not personal—they’re not a Johnny or Julie issue, they’re a human being issue. Everyone hears those thoughts and has those feelings; it’s just that for kids plagued with negative thinking, these thoughts and feelings don’t just have the first word, as may happen for any of us, but they have the last as well. By deciding the meaning of events for kids, negative thinking is running the show inside your child’s mind.

Parents of kids with negative thinking know that roiling feeling—alternating between concern and disbelief—watching kids crumble, shut down, or melt down in the face of even small disappointments or hints of criticism. We ask ourselves how something so seemingly small could become so big and, more important, how we can stop this from ruining our children’s lives. If we could look behind the scenes in the brain, we would see that the mind is laying down tracks, neural shortcuts jumping from point A to point Z. When something goes wrong for these children, it feels permanently and unchangeably wrong, it impacts everything, and they usually see it as all their fault: Nothing bad can be temporary or occasional or specific and manageable. In the 1980s, Dr. Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania identified this pattern of understanding experience as a pessimistic explanatory style: negative events are explained as permanent (not temporary), pervasive (relating not just to that specific domain, but spilling over into everything), and personal (their failure), what we will refer to as the 3 P’s. He found that children don’t outgrow this style but actually grow into it, using it to explain an ever-widening circle of events and aspects of their life. Eventually with all these rehearsals and practices of the 3 P’s, this thinking habit becomes automatic, seemingly impenetrable, and so convincing to children that it is the gateway to true depression.

Over time, this high-speed brain connection becomes so efficient—like any habit—that even if a child doesn’t want to think that way and doesn’t believe these ideas in his heart, he is still convinced of them, just because they are the answer that got there first over and over again. The alternative ways of looking at circumstances, which these children could use to go on a much more inviting, realistic, and promising track, remain hidden; the children are either too discouraged to look for these transfer stations or don’t even know they are an option. Feeling intensely bad from what their thoughts are telling them and not seeing a way of being able to impact that bad feeling only compounds children’s feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Seligman and his colleagues found two things: (a) You can protect vulnerable children from developing depression by teaching them the skills to look for that other track; and (b) the protection this training provides holds even years after the training is finished; children who learned these skills had half the rate of depression of the children who hadn’t learned the skills.2

While it’s more challenging for those kids to change their relationship with those thoughts because the thoughts are coming at them fast and furious all day long, they can develop an inner translator so that those automatic negative thoughts are not the interpreters of their world and their place in it. Instead, they can learn to pause, recognize the patterns, and recognize the sound of those absolutes, the “I’ll never, you always, I can’t, I quit!” mode the brain has slipped into and get the system back on an accurate track—having the flexibility to do so is how our kids can have contentment in life.

Most important, in happy lives, things do go wrong—sometimes big, sometimes small—and we know that. The key to a sustainably successful life is how you frame the problem from the get-go. Is the hurdle in front of you a problem, or a challenge? An opportunity to grow? When things go “wrong,” kids can get caught up in the idea that it shouldn’t have happened, that things shouldn’t go wrong. It feels like an injustice to them, if not an emergency. You can help teach them that it isn’t either. It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to lose. It’s okay to be disappointed. Help them to change the conversation in their head and with you to know that it isn’t a wrong moment, it’s a hard moment. Rather than blaming themselves—I’m so stupid!—keep it impersonal: that’s so frustrating! Keep the significance of that event small and don’t rewrite their future and past based on the tough moment they’re in. It’s really the conversation about these feelings that matters most in promoting your child’s resilience and satisfaction. If this sounds hard to believe and somewhere deep down you think your child is using this to try to get attention, your child isn’t grateful enough, or something like that, those things may be true, too, but that’s not the reason your child is acting that way. You have the opportunity to teach your child how things work, to expose and change the conversation in your child’s mind, which in turn changes the conversation your child is having with you. You can teach this resilience, but only if you practice it, too: Changing the apparent or immediate meaning of struggle, failure, disappointment and seeing it as one step in a many, many-step process that we—parents and children together—only move forward throughout life.

We need to teach our kids to remember that when they are having the stuck feeling, this is a “thing” to learn to fix, like learning to fix a stuck zipper or untie a knot. When this “thing” happens, they need to learn to summon their inner executive who says, “I feel stuck.” “Is it helping me to think their way?” “Is this true?” “Is it helping me?” “What do I want to think instead?” And in so doing, instill in your child or teen the sense that happiness and well-being don’t happen on their own, and must be actively pursued.


Many kids come by happiness naturally, although even for the sunniest kids, it’s still not a given all the time. For others, happiness is entirely contingent on things working out exactly as expected, without a single hitch. As soon as one thing goes off the track, it’s the end of the world as we know it.

What should we be doing for the kids with a nose for the negative, or for any kid for that matter? We could keep trying to make life work for our children, make them feel better, bend over backward, walk on eggshells, and do a daily minesweeping to keep all systems go. As all parents of a child with a negative bent know, there’s always that one more thing that we didn’t think of. The nose for the negative is like a bad allergy to adversity or discontent so a child notices potential obstacles in the most minute detail, sees them as foregone conclusions, and is thrown into a tailspin ahead of time, before anything has actually gone wrong. Trying to “just be positive and hopeful” (or asking kids to be that for themselves) doesn’t work and often backfires. It’s like applying paint to a poorly prepared surface: No matter how excellent the paint, it simply won’t stick. As we’ll see, the opposite of negative thinking isn’t positive thinking: It’s possible thinking, helping your child see the myriad opportunities that await just on the other side of the rapid-fire pessimistic conclusions that her negative thinking supplies. And when your friends and relatives chide you to just be “more firm” and use “tough love” with your child’s “crankiness” or “spoiled” behavior, they are completely missing the point: These kids would love things to be different; they don’t want to think, feel, or act this way; it makes them miserable. They just don’t know what else to do.

Enter: parents. I have seen just how competent and influential parents can be in changing the course of their child’s life once they have a road map through the twists and turns of their child’s negative mind. My hope is that these pages will equip you with the words, pictures, and ideas for this journey, and that they will inspire your creativity and tap into your strengths, not just fixing your child’s life, but teaching the mindset and worldview that change is possible and how to get there.


How can we change a pattern that has become so automatic? The brain gets good at whatever it does the most. This is what Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley describe in their book The Mind and the Brain3 as “the survival of the busiest.” Whichever neural circuits are tapped into most often have more brain resources devoted to them. So, if our kids are running daily laps around the pessimism track, they will become sprinters—effortlessly reaching conclusions that are at once airtight and totally undermining. But by the same token, if we begin to create some new hubs in their explanatory landscape—hubs that say, “Some things are temporary,” or “It’s one thing; it’s not everything,” or “Don’t stop at your first thought; think in twos!”—they will get very good at heading toward those new circuits in their thinking. Over time, they will become able to manage the ups and downs without falling flat, and eventually those new, healthy, realistic thoughts will meet them halfway and may even beat out the negative ones. So: new answers, new tracks, happier kids.

The problem is that parents may feel daunted by learning how to help their child create these new tracks. Their responses to this point—frustratingly ineffectual—have been either to rush in with reassurance or, after reassurance leads nowhere, to get fed up and say, “Enough!,” or “Get a grip!” which leaves them feeling like horrible, insensitive parents. Parents’ uneasiness and uncertainty about how to approach their child is not lost on the child and only rocks an already struggling, unbalanced vessel. On the one hand, parents see their child suffering and want to make it better; on the other hand, talking about what is bothering their child feels like a process that could spiral into a complaining fest on a good day or, worse, a bottomless pit in which the child—holding onto his negativity like a heavy anchor—is not only not ready to let go but is going to take his parents down with him.


Parents are always the first responders to their children’s distress. In my own practice, I have repeatedly seen how parents, armed with the right tools, train their scared and anxious children to think differently and learn to recognize and outsmart the worry traps in their mind. Similarly, parents of children and teens who are either negative by nature or otherwise vulnerable to depressive thinking can learn how to recognize and respond powerfully to their children’s slipping into that locked vault and can teach them how to learn the combination, open the vault, and stay in touch with their treasures—even in the face of the occasional, but inevitable, disappointments or failures. Rather than keeping their fingers crossed that their kids won’t get tripped up by the vicissitudes of life, parents and children alike can tackle the tangles head-on, as they set their navigation system to the way out.

To buffer our children from getting stuck in negative thinking, the key is to get specific, and narrow down the overwhelming, global problem to one specific trigger, event, or situation, setting in motion a process to find an accurate interpretation of its significance and meaning. Children don’t know that they are feeling so overwhelmed because they are seeing their situation magnified one hundred times. Even something as familiar as a strand of hair can look unrecognizable (and even creepy or daunting) under a microscope. By learning to adjust the microscope’s controls—realizing that there are controls that they can put their hands on metaphorically—children can eliminate the distortion and shrink the problem back to its actual size and see a different picture, an accurate and therefore more manageable one. So, we teach kids to cultivate the two-track mind: for young children, that means to put down the negative glasses and pick up the “competent glasses”; for teens, this translates to not going with that first pessimistic reaction and taking a second look by asking themselves the “million-dollar question” of what they truly believe the significance of that adverse event to be. Then, after they have looked at different perspectives on the situation, we can help them “mobilize” and choose to be an agent of change on their own behalf. Names like Disaster Man or The Exaggerator help children reduce the tyranny and authority of their negative thoughts to their proper place—and to see them as just one among many possible interpretations of the situation. While it’s campy, teens can benefit from these concepts as well, even if with a smidgen of age-appropriate sarcasm and disdain.


Our Changing World

We live in uncertain times. In the ten years since this book was first published, the general climate of fear, anxiety, and our sense of an insecure future has not shown any signs of letting up and in many ways has intensified. Much has changed for all of us, but perhaps most dramatically in the lives of children. As I write these words, a news alert pops up on my phone announcing that 2018 was the worst year for gun violence; ninety-four tragic school shooting incidents, a nearly 60 percent increase from the previous record in 2006 of fifty-nine. Lockdown and active shooter drills have become a regular part of our children’s daily reality.

There has never been a more urgent time in our history for these lessons. The statistics below indicate the staggering scope of devastation caused by childhood depression:

• Depression costs the United States $210 billion a year in medical expenses and lost productivity. This has increased nearly five-fold in the last ten years.

• At any one time, 10 to 15 percent of children and adolescents have some symptoms of depression; 11 percent may meet for a diagnosis of a major depressive episode.

• At any given time, as many as one in every thirty-three children may have clinical depression. The rate of depression among adolescents may be as high as one in eight.

• Preschoolers are the fastest-growing population for depression; over 1 million are clinically depressed.

• Every 100 minutes, a teen takes his own life.

• Twice as many girls develop depression as do boys.

• Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people aged ten to twenty-four.

• Suicide rates are twice as high for black children under age twelve as for white children.

• LGBTQ youth are three times more likely to contemplate suicide than are heterosexual youth.

Beyond the dire statistics and tragedies, it’s perhaps the profound changes in the technology of daily life that pose the most predictable challenges for parents of kids struggling with negative thinking. We just need to survey the blinking lights and power cords around us to see the technological advances we’ve enjoyed in the last few decades, but this has not translated by any means into better mental health for our children; in fact, some suggest that it is those advances—and specifically the rise in smartphone use—that are at the heart of the surge in symptoms of depression (up 33% in the five years between 2010 and 2015) and teen suicide attempts (up 23%), and teens who committed suicide (up 31%).4

It’s especially difficult for parents to think about negative thinking in kids at a time of turmoil when parents themselves are struggling to know what to do with their own doubts, fears, and default overwhelmed state. Many of us may try to cope with our uneasiness by clinging to the belief that if we do everything we can, we can make our children happy. But if it were even possible for your kids to be happy all the time, that in and of itself would be a problem! You’d be working too hard, and your kids won’t learn how to manage temporary unhappiness if they never get in the trenches and practice.

Ten years ago, only the most precocious or fortunate kids held devices in their hands. Now, kids and teens never have a free hand as they are swiping, clicking, posting. Their very understanding or definition of what constitutes life has changed—young kids are constantly angling for more time on their screens, and social media often ends up defining their worth and determining their mood. For teens, their popularity, inclusion, and measure of happiness is calculated by the ticker tape of likes on their Instagram. Parents can feel daunted by this third party in their parenting. Or they can take it on. By helping kids and teens understand how habits form in the brain, we can also teach them how to dismantle that faulty wiring and reconnect the wires differently, more accurately, and ultimately with a much more fulfilling and broader view of life. In short, we can teach children how to create new habits: getting perspective, accepting that things are hard (especially at first, but even after that, too), problem solving, experimenting, and asking for help at the right times make us more effective and even independent.

These lessons are not new but never more needed. What has stayed the same is that parents want to make the world right for their kids. We want our kids to thrive, to grow, to learn how to take care of themselves, to succeed, to have a meaningful life—to be happy. External pressures have always been there in some form, but importantly, as we’ve said, happiness is an “inside job.” We can supply our kids with a loving environment, great education, and social support, but the way they frame their successes and especially their disappointments will determine their mood and their actions.


The very good news is that parents of children who are negative by nature can nurture their kids to learn a better way of thinking. By implementing the strategies in this book, parents will learn, not only how to turn their unwitting depressives-in-training into experts in depression prevention, but also how to enable their children to hold their own—in their mind and in the world. Their children will develop the flexible mind-set that obstacles do not signal “time to quit” but are surmountable and can be approached from many different angles. This is the formula for resilience, resourcefulness, and happiness in life.

We can’t simply ignore negative thoughts because the more we try to ignore something, the more it will come stampeding back. But we also don’t need to stop our thoughts, and we can’t. There isn’t a switch that we can flip. It’s a process. If, rather than ignore, you are prepared to recognize negative thoughts—line yourself up with their true significance (or lack thereof!)—and see them as a universal, knee-jerk reaction to doubt, then they cease to be a personal crystal ball for our future. As I tell kids, if I think there is a bear next to me, I won’t be able to (and shouldn’t be able to!) ignore it. If, however, I realize that it’s a picture of a bear (coming from my imagination and thoughts, not a threat), then it’s easier (with diligent practice) to dismiss it and say to myself—that’s just a thought, an idea, not a fact or a threat. I can let it be, thoughts come and go, there’s nothing I need to do about it.



On Sale
Jan 14, 2020
Page Count
368 pages

Tamar Chansky

About the Author

Psychologist Tamar Chansky, PhD, is the founder and director of the Children’s Center for OCD and Anxiety and the author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. She lives in Philadelphia.

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