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Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking
Powerful, Practical Strategies to Build a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility, and Happiness
Read by Maggi-Meg Reed
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A leading clinical expert in the fields of child cognitive behavior therapy and anxiety disorders, Dr. Tamar Chansky frequently counsels children (and their parents) whose negative thinking creates chronic or occasional emotional hurdles and impedes optimism, flexibility, and happiness. Now, in the first book that specifically focuses on negative thinking in kids, Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking provides parents, caregivers, and clinicians the same clear, concise, and compassionate guidance that Dr. Chansky employed in her previous guides to relieving children from anxiety and obsessive compulsive symptoms. Here she thoroughly covers the underlying causes of children’s negative attitudes, as well as providing multiple strategies for managing negative thoughts, building optimism, and establishing emotional resilience.
ACCLAIM FOR TAMAR E. CHANSKY’S FREEING YOUR CHILD . . . BOOKS
Praise for FREEING YOUR CHILD FROM NEGATIVE THINKING
“Many youngsters are burdened by self-doubt, negative feelings, and depression. Their lack of confidence and sadness typically trigger feelings of confusion and distress in their parents as the latter struggle to find the best approach to help their children develop a more optimistic, resilient outlook. Tamar Chansky’s book Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking offers a wonderful resource for parents. In a very skillful manner, Dr. Chansky explains the roots of negative thinking, but most importantly, she offers specific, realistic strategies with actual dialogue that parents can use to minimize their child’s negativity. Her empathy and understanding for children and parents is evident on every page of this very readable, practical book. It is a book that parents of children of all ages will read and reread as they seek to help their children perceive themselves in a more hopeful light.”
—ROBERT BROOKS, PH.D., FACULTY, HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL AND COAUTHOR OF RAISING RESILIENT CHILDREN AND RAISING A SELF-DISCIPLINED CHILD
“Tamar Chansky gives parents a dynamic approach to helping their children escape thinking badly about themselves and their world—thoughts ranging from mild negativism to clinical depression. Her insightful and creative techniques, based on scientifically grounded cognitive behavior therapy, are, on any given day, helpful not only for parents and their children but for all of us. Next time I want to blame myself for something that went wrong, or feel terrible about something I did, I will open this book and I know I will soon feel better.”
—MYRNA SHURE, PH.D., AUTHOR OF RAISING A THINKING CHILD AND THINKING PARENT, THINKING CHILD
“Tamar Chansky has distilled cutting-edge research on optimism, pessimism, depression, and resilience into an incredibly thoughtful guide for parents. Her book is full of suggestions about what to look for and what to do (and what not to do) that parents should find engaging and accessible. Reading this book should ease the worries of both parents and their children.”
—BARRY SCHWARTZ, AUTHOR OF THE PARADOX OF CHOICE AND PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY, SWARTHMORE COLLEGE
Praise for FREEING YOUR CHILD FROM ANXIETY
“Following up on her outstanding guide for parents of children with obsessive-compulsive disorder, Dr. Chansky once again demonstrates that she is the master of providing clear, accessible, practical advice and guidance for wise and loving care of the anxious child. Her ability to provide parents with quite sophisticated yet extremely digestible information, all effectively aimed at solving real-world problems, is very impressive indeed.”
—JEFFREY M. SCHWARTZ, M.D., AUTHOR OF DEAR PATRICK: LETTERS TO A YOUNG MAN, BRAIN LOCK, AND THE MIND AND THE BRAIN
“Freeing Your Child from Anxiety is an excellent book, one of the best of its kind. Written for parents, it will also be indispensable for any adults (including educational, medical, and mental health professionals) who work with children who are anxious. Dr. Chansky writes clearly and comprehensively, demystifying the experience of anxiety. She answers critical questions such as ‘How do I know if my child (or adolescent) has an anxiety disorder?’ ‘How can I explain anxiety to my young child?’ and most important, ‘Exactly what can I do to help my child overcome his/her anxiety?’ Dr. Chansky approaches the treatment of anxiety using cognitive behavior therapy, a highly efficacious form of psychotherapy that research has demonstrated to be the treatment of choice for anxious children. For each anxiety disorder, she offers a step-by-step plan and concrete suggestions for precisely what to do to help children overcome their anxiety. This book has the potential for helping thousands and thousands of children, their parents, and their families.”
—JUDITH S. BECK, PH.D., DIRECTOR, BECK INSTITUTE FOR COGNITIVE THERAPY AND RESEARCH, CLINICAL ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF PSYCHOLOGY IN PSYCHIATRY, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA, PAST-PRESIDENT, ACADEMY OF COGNITIVE THERAPY
Praise for FREEING YOUR CHILD FROM OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE DISORDER
“Anyone in need of profoundly useful information and expert practical advice on how to help a child afflicted with obsessive-compulsive behaviors would be wise to delve deeply in the pages of this book. Dr. Chansky has accomplished a tour de force, which is certain to offer much-needed assistance both to children with OCD-related problems and to their families.”
—JEFFREY M. SCHWARTZ, M.D., AUTHOR OF BRAIN LOCK: FREE YOURSELF FROM OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE BEHAVIOR AND A RETURN TO INNOCENCE
“A comprehensive resource no parent of a child with OCD should be without. Dr. Chansky’s experience as founder and director of the Children’s Center for OCD and Anxiety shines through every page.”
—BRUCE M. HYMAN, PH.D., AND CHERRY PEDRICK, R.N., AUTHORS OF THE OCD WORKBOOK
“Dr. Chansky vividly describes this puzzling and mysterious illness, which can devastate children and entire families. After reading this book, parents of a child with OCD will be armed with the information they need to get their child well as soon as possible.”
—MICHAEL A. JENIKE, M.D., PROFESSOR OF PSYCHIATRY, HARVARD MEDICAL SCHOOL, AND CHAIRMAN, OC FOUNDATION SCIENTIFIC ADVISORY BOARD
“It should be a law that whenever a therapist diagnoses a child with OCD, he or she has to give the parents a copy of Chansky’s Freeing Your Child from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.”
—PATRICIA PERKINS-DOYLE, PAST-PRESIDENT, OBSESSIVE-COMPULSIVE FOUNDATION
“If you have a child with OCD or are in any way interested in how to help a person handle this beguiling condition, then Tamar Chansky’s book is a must. You will find on these pages the rare combination of hard-earned knowledge, gracefully presented. . . . All interested in how to practically apply what we have learned lately about the mind and the brain will love what they find in this wonderfully rich yet concise exposition.”
—EDWARD HALLOWELL, M.D., AUTHOR OF CONNECT, WORRY, AND DRIVEN TO DISTRACTION
TAMAR E. CHANSKY, PH.D. , is the founder and director of the Children’s Center for OCD and Anxiety and founder of www.worrywisekids.org, an informational Web site for parents and professionals. The author of Freeing Your Child from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Freeing Your Child from Anxiety , she has offered expert advice on numerous television and radio programs. Dr. Chansky lives with her husband and two daughters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Also by Tamar E. Chansky, Ph.D.
Freeing Your Child from Anxiety
Freeing Your Child from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
Freeing Your Child from Anxiety
Freeing Your Child from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
For Phil, Meredith, and Raia—the heart of my happiness
OPENING UP THE VAULT
FOR NEARLY TWO DECADES NOW 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 children 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, the treasures of these children remained locked up, shut down, unreachable, and the children remained convinced there was no use in trying to make it different.
When I would say to these parents, “Your child has depressive thinking,” they would quickly counter, and rightly so, “But he’s not depressed.” I would explain how their child was 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 (and the next); I stink at everything (and down they fall).1 An hour later this child will 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 heads 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 as their parents told me, these children were not depressed per se, it was clear that they were depressives-in-training .
All of us want our children to be hardy and happy, and we can all identify with these parents—alternating between concern and disbelief—as we watch our children 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 connecting point A to point Z, and that when something goes wrong for these children, it is permanently and unchangeably wrong, it impacts everything, and it is usually seen 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 (all my fault), what we will refer to as the 3 Ps. 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 Ps, this thinking habit becomes automatic, 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 has got there first over and over again. The alternative ways of looking at circumstances—that these children could use to take them 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. Seligman and his colleagues found two things: (a) You can protect vulnerable children from developing depression by teaching them the skills to find that other track; and (b) the protection from this training 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
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”—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 exhausts everyone and gets nowhere, to get fed up and say, “Enough!” 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 wayward, unbalanced vessel. On the one hand, the 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 child’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 specific-size, what we’ll refer to as specificize, or narrow down, the overwhelming, global problem to one specific trigger. 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, children can eliminate the distortion and shrink the problem back to its actual size and see a different picture. So we teach kids to cultivate the two-track mind, to put down the negative glasses and pick up the “competent glasses.” 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.)
There has never been a more urgent time in our history for these lessons. As the statistics below suggest, the number of children who develop depression is staggering:
• Depression costs the United States $43.7 billion a year in medical expenses and lost productivity.
• At any one time 10-15 percent of children and adolescents have some symptoms of depression.
• 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.
• Of depressed people, 15 percent will commit suicide.
• Depression will be the second largest killer after heart disease by 2020—and studies show that depression is a contributory factor to fatal coronary disease.
• Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people ages fifteen to twenty-four. Even more shocking, it is the sixth leading cause of death among children ages five to fourteen.
The very good news is that parents of children who are negative by nature can nurture their children to learn another way of thinking. By implementing the strategies in this book, parents will learn not only how to turn their depressives-in-training into experts in depression prevention, but also how to enable their children to hold their own—in their minds 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.
THE PARENT’S ROLE
Happiness is a given for many kids, although even for the sunniest kids, it’s still not a given all the time. For others, happiness is entirely contingent on everything’s 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. In the face of our children’s distress, we anguish over their suffering and the burden it creates in their life. As parents, we need to develop a two-track mind, too—feeling that burden, but seeing the possibilities for change.
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 minesweep 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. Some children’s nose for the negative is like a bad allergy to adversity or discontent so that they notice it in the most minute detail and are thrown into a tailspin. Trying to “just be positive and hopeful” doesn’t work either. (It’s like applying paint to a poorly prepared surface: No matter how beautiful the paint, it simply won’t stick.) 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; they just don’t know what else to do.
The goal is not to airlift your child off the unhappy track to the happy track. Rather, it’s to work smarter, not harder—to learn the nuts and bolts of how your child’s thinking got her there in the first place, and to teach her how to be analytical and critical of that negative track so that she will choose to airlift herself to a different track, one that will lead to contentment and satisfaction. But you also need to be a tour guide, directing your child out of unhappy or challenging times: Just because your child (or you at times yourself) can’t see a way out of a problem doesn’t mean there aren’t several directions waiting to be discovered. And you need to be in the know about the path to happiness, which researchers are finding over and over again is not paved with the GPAs, SAT scores, salaries, or big houses that we might expect. Instead, research tells us (and we will look at this research closely later in the book) that it is paved with engaging in meaningful and satisfying activities, staying connected to others, and feeling gratitude for what one has.
BECOMING EXPERTS IN NEGATIVE THINKING
The purpose of this book is to make you experts on how negative thinking gets built, so that you can teach your children how to handle disappointment and adversity in the same matter-of-fact way that you would teach them to look both ways before crossing the street. These skills include what to do with the intense feelings negative thinking creates, how to dismantle the logic of faulty wiring, and how to rewire and rebuild a more solid and accurate system of interpreting events. In addition you will learn how to create a framework to detect and appreciate positive, fulfilling experiences in your child’s daily life. When you have a crystal-clear behind-the-scenes understanding of why your child is behaving in a certain way, you also become a more credible tour guide to your child. If you want him to explore new territory in his thinking and behavior, you need to be very familiar with it yourself.
As you read this book, you will have your ear tuned to such negative buzz words as always, never, no one, and everyone. You will come to know with an engineer’s precision how your child’s faulty conclusions were constructed, and you will have the tools to help your child dismantle them and rebuild a more accurate (realistic) perspective. You will also learn to highlight the positive moments to help your kids methodically reconstruct how they contributed to things going well, so that they can do it again. You will learn a new language and create a communication system with your child to unpack disappointments, unhappiness, or blues. Rather than saying things like “That’s not so bad,” or, “Why are you always thinking the worst?” you will find yourself “relabeling” negativity in a way that helps your child get distance rather than getting defensive. For instance, you will be saying to your young child, “I’ll bet your negative brain is saying that striking out today at the plate is a forever thing.” Maybe you’ll even have your child sing his negative thoughts like Elvis, to get some levity and distance from the tyranny of negative thinking.
NEGATIVE THOUGHTS: SEEDLINGS OF DEPRESSION
When we moved into our first home, we had to literally see past the enormous, overgrown yew tree that had taken over much of the front yard and entirely blocked the view from the sun-porch. It was a monstrosity. It was ugly. It had to come down. When I was showing my father-in-law, an esteemed man of science, the problem, I said, “And to think it probably just started out as a little seedling.” He chuckled and said patiently, “Yes, dear, everything does.” What I had meant to emphasize was I imagined that the intention of those who planted what had now become a behemoth bush was to keep it small—a manageable pruned hedge—but clearly things had gotten out of control. We wouldn’t want to scare our kids off by being the “negativity police,” reacting to every sigh, rolling of the eyes, or unpleasant comment, but we do need to be vigilant in catching these seedlings when they are small, before they take over. And to make sure that if our children’s negativity blocks their view, they are able to prune back their thoughts and let the light of reality in.
TABLE FOR TWO, PLEASE! INTERACTIONAL OPTIMISM
Is your child ready? Are you? If you are deliberate in identifying and modeling these new ideas and strategies, you can lay them out—like stepping-stones. Then your child will be more likely to choose to take a walk down this path, rather than the path of great resistance. You may be able to dive in as a teacher, or you may need to introduce the concepts more subtly or just begin to work small signs into your own thinking and behavior. For example, you may catch yourself yelling at your child, “You never clean up your room!” and say, “Wait, that was too global; what I meant to say is that you rarely clean up your room.” Your kids will feel happy, vindicated, and intrigued—as if watching Haley’s comet—witnessing that rare and spectacular event of a parent correcting himself, and they’ll also start wondering what this whole global, specific, temporary thing is all about.
If, as you work through this book, you notice that you are using these strategies on yourself, good! This is what I call interactional optimism, and it is central to this book, which is about the upward spiral of optimistic thinking. You can’t really make someone change, but you can change yourself. So don’t be surprised if you start seeing unexpected possibilities in your own life popping up in the corner of your mind’s eye, or if you start hearing your own negative thinking as less than the final word. Who knows? You may even start singing those self-critical thoughts like Elvis. You will start to feel lighter, your communication with others will improve, and you will be more authentic when you work on these issues with your child—you are, after all, fellow travelers on the road of life.
Philip C. Kendall, Ph.D., ABPP, Professor of Psychology and Director, Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders Clinic, Temple University
"In a clearly readable fashion, Dr. Tamar Chansky combines clever phrasing (for adults) along with "kid speak" to communicate with youth. From her having worked with anxious youth who struggle with all of the possibilities (too many), Dr. Chansky shifts to the negative youth who see no future--the youth who mistake one thing for everything. She walks the reader through discussions that focus on how negative experiences happen to everyone, and that they are 'manageable' and 'temporary'. This book is not a review of the scientific literature, but it is a readable set of guidelines and understandings that are informed by it."
Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D., author of 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child
"For every parent who wants their child not to feel bad, here is an excellent book to feel great about. In Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking, Dr. Chansky abundantly gives parents powerful, easy to apply tools to ensure the emotional health and success of any child. I hope no parent trying to help their child to get ahead misses out on reading this wonderful book packed with valuable advice."
Robert Brooks, Ph.D., Faculty, Harvard Medical School and co-author of Raising Resilient Children and Raising a Self-Disciplined Child
"Many youngsters are burdened by self-doubt, negative feelings, and depression. Their lack of confidence and sadness typically trigger feelings of confusion and distress in their parents as the latter struggle to find the best approach to help their children develop a more optimistic, resilient outlook. Tamar Chansky's book Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking offers a wonderful resource for parents. In a very skillful manner, Dr. Chansky's explains the roots of negative thinking, but most importantly, she offers specific, realistic strategies with actual dialogue that parents can use to minimize their child's negativity. Her empathy and understanding for children and parents is evident on very page of this very readable, practical book. It is a book that parents of children of all ages will read and re-read as they seek to help their children perceive themselves in a more hopeful light."
Myrna Shure, Ph.D., author of Raising a Thinking Child and Thinking Parent, Thinking Child
"Tamar Chansky gives parents a dynamic approach to helping their children escape thinking badly about themselves and their world?thoughts ranging from mild negativism to clinical depression. Her insightful and creative techniques, based on scientifically grounded cognitive behavior therapy, are, on any given day, helpful not only for parents and their children but for all of us. Next time I want to blame myself for something that went wrong, or feel terrible about something I did, I will open this book and I know I will soon feel better."
"Tamar Chansky has distilled cutting-edge research on optimism, pessimism, depression, and resilience into an incredibly thoughtful guide for parents. Her book is full of suggestions about what to look for and what to do (and what not to do) that parents should find engaging and accessible. Reading this book should ease the worries of both parents and their children."
"Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., has done it again-written another incredibly helpful, practical book. Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking offers specific strategies for parents (or any adult) to use with children and describes variations on these strategies for younger children and older adolescents. Every parent who has a pessimistic, negativistic child should read this book! As parents use the thinking and behavioral strategies that Dr. Chansky recommends, they will undoubtedly find that they themselves are becoming more optimistic and positive, not only toward their child but also more generally in their own lives. I highly recommend this wonderful book."
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- Jan 14, 2020
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