How To Help Kids Break The What-If Cycle From Two Psychology Experts

Contributing writers By Shefali Tsabary, Ph.D. & Renee Jain, MAPP
Contributing writers
Shefali Tsabary, Ph.D. and Renee Jain, MAPP are the co-authors of SUPERPOWERED: Transform Anxiety into Courage, Confidence, and Resilience. Dr. Shefali is a New York Times bestselling author and world-renowned clinical psychologist, and Renee is the founder of child-psychology start-up GoZen! and holds a masters in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.
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The following is adapted from Renee Jain, MAPP, and Shefali Tsabary, Ph.D.'s new book Superpowered, which helps kids with stress, anxiety, and other happenings in their daily lives. The book is written for young adults but contains plenty of information useful for all ages. Here, they discuss how to help your kid get over the "What-if" cycle.

Humans are typically considered the only species on Earth that can think ahead and make complex plans for the future. Thinking about the future has a lot of benefits, including helping us with decision-making, motivating us to reach goals, and allowing us to plan for emergencies. You think about the future constantly. You schedule time to do homework. You practice so you're ready for the game. You make a family plan in case of a fire. It's a skill you'll use your whole life.

Airplane pilots, for example, have to know how to handle certain situations. What if a bird hits the plane? What if an engine fails? What if lightning strikes the plane? When learning, pilots don't just read a book and take a written test. They actually get into a flight simulator and face dangerous situations to see what they'll do. The pilots practice how to react to future challenges.

Your brain does the same thing. It has a simulation feature that thinks about all of the possible futures and asks what-if questions to practice what to do in challenging situations. Your brain asks the questions, hoping to get a response like this: "If that challenge comes up, then I'll do this." Your brain is making plans. It's almost like practicing life before it happens! 

We know from scientists that worrying makes it harder for the logical part of your brain to think clearly—the part responsible for planning, organization, and decision-making. So, your brain still tries to simulate the future and asks what-if questions. But if you're worrying instead of creating plans, your brain can get stuck in a long loop of what-if questions. As we said earlier, we call this What-iffing.

Stuck in this cycle? What kids shouldn't do.

If you've been worrying a lot, you've probably been What-iffing. If you've been What-iffing, you already know that it's really hard to stop. Here's some tools and tricks to teach your kids to help them get out of this cycle.

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FAIL No. 1: Squishing.

Pushing the thoughts out of your mind or pretending they don't exist are all forms of thought squishing, and it doesn't work. (True story: Scientists call this thought suppression.) Do you do this to your thoughts sometimes? Does it work?

FAIL No. 2: Pacifying.

Sometimes we're told that "everything is going to be OK"; it's called reassurance. If you're stuck What-iffing and someone says this to you, it's because they care. However, while you may feel better for a few minutes, it usually doesn't stop the What-iffing.

FAIL No. 3: Bullying.

Getting mad at yourself for What-iffing is like kicking yourself when you're down. It feels terrible, and it also doesn't help the What-iffing go away. Do you feel you have an inner bully? What does your bully look like? What does it say to you? 

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How to help kids stop the cycle of What-iffing.

So, now that you know what not to do when it comes to What-iffing, we're going to give you some strategies that do work. Try these exercises!

1. Stop the What-iffing dominoes.

When one what-if question tips into another, and another, and eventually spirals into a disastrous story in your mind, you've got a case of the dominoes! The mind sometimes creates stories that are exaggerated and unrealistic. It's time to take your power back by reeling in your thoughts and creating more realistic endings to the story.

Unrealistic:

  • What if I do poorly on the test?
  • What if I fail the class?
  • What if I don't get into college?
  • What if I don't get a good job?

More realistic:

  • What if I do poorly on the test? I'll have to study harder or get a tutor.
  • My grade might be affected, but that's something I can handle.
  • I'll remember that grades are feedback on things I'm still learning.
  • If I feel bad about it, that's OK; the feeling will pass. 
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2. Plan for your mental road trips!

What do most people take with them on road trips? Some food, a phone with a mapping feature, some games, and usually emergency supplies, yeah? Emergency supplies are taken in case something goes wrong. Your brain likes to have supplies, too, in case there are future challenges. When you ask a what-if question, your brain is trying to plan ahead for future challenges to make sure you have the "supplies," or a plan. Sometimes your brain just needs a little help creating the plan. It's time to kick-start the planning process by writing down your what-if question and following up with if-then plans.

Example:

  • What if I raise my hand and say the wrong answer and everyone laughs?
  • IF I raise my hand and get the wrong answer and everyone laughs,
  • THEN I'll laugh along with them and remember that making mistakes helps my brain grow and we all make mistakes. 

3. Calculate risk!

When you worry, the part of your brain that figures out how risky something is might get a little foggy. That's why if you worry about going on an airplane and someone tells you that flying is less dangerous than driving, you might still worry. The exercise on the next page will help that tool in your brain wake up again so that you can be sure you're not over-worrying. 

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Key takeaways.

Humans spend half their time thinking about the past and the future. This can cause a form of worry that we call What-iffing. You can work on What-iffing by being proactive with your thoughts: by being realistic, by making if-then plans, and by assessing risk. 

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