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Author says 'Catch, challenge and change negative thinking'

As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, UK director of Care for the Family Katharine Hill explores one of the themes in her new book A Mind of Their Own – how to help teenagers develop mental strength and resilience

Leah and Maria are spending Saturday afternoon in town shopping. They squeeze into the changing room together to try on jeans and a top, and they both take a selfie. Later, they post the pictures on social media. They both gets lots of likes. Then a comment comes about Maria’s picture saying that she’d better do something about her tummy. Maria laughs to herself and takes a closer look at her photo: “Hmmm, maybe they’re right …” In only a few seconds, though, her thoughts have moved on in a different direction: “It’s brilliant that this top was in the sale. It looks really good on me.”

Just as Maria is looking at her photo and feeling upbeat about her new top, Leah is sneaking a look at her phone. She sees that someone has commented that she has “scrawny arms”. She can’t get it out of her mind and soon her thoughts are in free fall, her inner voice giving her a running commentary on her looks: ‘My arms are really scrawny. I’ll never have a good body. I’m so ugly.’ Suddenly, after a fun day trying on clothes with her friend, the power of her negative thinking has taken the joy away completely. Now she feels bad about herself and demoralised.

It’s not easy to hear our child express negative thoughts about themselves.

It’s true, of course, that no one is positive 100% of the time, but for many parents hearing our children say things that reflect feelings of insignificance, sadness or rejection are all too common.

And if they are getting stuck in a cycle of negative thinking, we would do well not to overlook this because their wellbeing can be seriously affected. Automatic negative thoughts can cause stress, anxiousness and lack of self-esteem and stop them fulfilling their potential and trying new things. 

But even if we and our children tend to negative thinking, it’s important to realise that it’s possible to train our brains to think more positively. Scientists used to believe that the brain’s ability to change and grow was only possible in early childhood and that after this, thought patterns became fixed.

However, research shows that the brain continues to change throughout our lives and can be trained to be more emotionally resilient. Scientists call this the “plasticity of the brain” (and the Bible calls it “the renewing of our minds”).

Every time we do or respond to something, different areas of our brain are activated in a particular order, creating a pathway between the parts of our brain that are involved. The more we use that pathway, the stronger it becomes. The brain remembers what we’ve done previously and does it again.

It’s why negative thoughts become so automatic. 

For our child to develop a pattern of positive rather than negative thinking, we can help them to teach their brain to use a different pathway in the same situation. The more this new ‘positive’ pathway is used, the more automatically the brain will use it. 

So how can we help our children to develop positive thinking? One helpful and effective method is to teach them to ‘Catch, Challenge and Change’ negative thoughts. 

Catch 

Get them to notice or write down when they think something bad about themselves eg. “Dave didn’t invite me to his party. No one likes me” or “I failed my English test. I’ll never pass any exams.”

Challenge 

Ask themselves whether or not it is true, or the situation could be interpreted differently, e.g. “Dave doesn’t really know me yet’” or “I’m not as good at writing essays as some people, but I’m really brilliant at IT and I’ve been improving a lot in Maths.”

                                              Katharine Hill

Change

Think about it differently, e.g. “Jane liked me enough to invite me round to her house last week along with some of the others” or “I probably won’t get loads of As, but I can work as hard as possible to get decent results, and I’ll do some work experience with an IT firm.”

Nurturing positive rather than negative thinking isn’t about pretending everything in the garden is rosy when it clearly isn’t, but it’s wise to be aware of the danger of constant negative thinking.

The good news is that, with practice, this is a challenge to wellbeing that they – and we – can meet head on. And as we do so we will be helping them build that important quality of emotional wellbeing in their lives. 

To buy a copy of A Mind of Their Own, click here

Editor's note: This is a really helpful, encouraging and practical book that I wish I'd had when I was parenting teenagers!

Meticulously researched and referenced, it manages to be both thoughtful, perceptive and up to the minute yet accessible and realistic too. Yes, there's plenty of research referred to but there's plenty of personal experience and examples from ordinary life too. You'll find helpful activities and action points, and a light touch through the cartoons and writing style.

And the title makes it clear that this is written for the time we're all walking through now, in a tentatively post-pandemic world, where so many certainties have been challenged and there has been plenty of opportunity for fears and anxieties to run riot. 

There are Christian principles and values undergirding the book, but faith is implicit rather than explicit, and it's certainly a book you could give to non-Christian friends and neighbours.

Highly recommended, and likely to become a much valued resource.

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