How To Help Kids & Teens Manage Intrusive Thoughts & Feelings

Author and child care expert By Caroline Maguire, M.Ed.
Author and child care expert
Caroline Maguire, M.Ed., is an author of Why Will No One Play with Me?: The Play Better Plan to Help Children of All Ages Make Friends and Thrive and child care expert who primarily works with ADHD children and families.
Mother and Daughter Talking in home

Are intrusive thoughts dominating your child's thinking? Does he rehash the same thing for months? Does your teenage daughter ruminate about something someone said to her and stomp around angry, lashing out at everyone? 

When our children scrape their knees, the wound is visible and the remedy—often a Band-Aid—is obvious. We quickly try to ease their discomfort and fix the problem. But what about the internal, more complex pain related to the heart and mind that isn't in plain sight? We can't bandage hurt feelings or a broken heart—but we can be present, offer guidance, and model how to overcome social and emotional challenges.

But first: Build your child's relationship skills. 

Our children are going to have their feelings hurt, purposefully or inadvertently, as we all have experienced. Help them navigate the pain—and learn new life skills—allowing them to watch you interact in your friendships, interactions, and relationships. Work with them to recognize that words are only a small part of our communication. Body language, facial expressions, gesticulation, and energy also express our intentions. We must be authentic in our thoughts as well as our actions.

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5 strategies to help your child manage thoughts:

1. Recognize the signs of rumination.

Some people are more prone to rumination due to an overactive cingulate gyrus—the gear shifter in the brain. If this gets "stuck," cycling from thought to thought or activity to activity can be difficult. Help your child get unstuck by showing them how to do an emotional temperature body scan to see what they are feeling in their body and mind. Encourage your child to ask themselves, "Am I ruminating?" "Am I stuck?" If the answer is yes, engage in mindfulness practices to de-escalate the effects of rumination.

2. Review perception versus facts.

Help your child better understand the context of the situation and look at the story they are telling themselves as they ruminate. Show your child how to double-check their reasoning. Maybe they didn't fully understand the comment, intention, or act? "What evidence is there that this story is true? What else could it be?" Now, work with them to alter their inner story by replacing negative thoughts with neutral thoughts. Instead of "I know she read my text yet won't respond," consider, "She may not have read it, or she did read it but is busy and can't respond right away."

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3. Use data to interpret the situation.

Your child may be ruminating because he doesn't have important information. When we ruminate, we often ask "why" as in, "Why did my friend look the other way?" We know that why questions are ineffective because we are asking why without the data from other people. Without his friend, or other information, he may continue to ruminate because he is unable to interpret the situation—or find the truth.

4. Make positive choices.

Work with your child to create strategies to interrupt a rumination loop: Alter your physical circumstances with a "pattern interrupt." Modify your thoughts with prearranged strategies intended to halt the negative ruminative cycle. This may be changing your environment, listening to music, engaging in physical activity, practicing mindfulness, or seeking out a pleasurable activity. By flooding your brain with positive chemicals such as oxytocin, you make it more difficult for negative thinking to take the main stage.

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5. Develop strategies to break the cycle.

The primitive parts of our brain will naturally jump into fight, flight, or flee mode—the instinctual response to threats. The better we are able to fend off the runaway reaction cycle, the better we can access the thinking parts of our brain. Work together now to review what worked in the past and what new strategies may work in the future. Research tells us that exercise, deep breathing, mindfulness, and yoga are proven, effective ways to stop the devastating effects of rumination.

The Band-Aid for internal wounds is self-awareness.

Our response determines how long we suffer. When our hand touches the flame, the pain instantaneously sends a signal to the brain and we remove our hand. This imagery is helpful when we think about invisible wounds and intrusive thoughts. The initial pain is the lesson, but continued suffering is optional. When we learn coping strategies, our pain is lessened significantly as it reduces counterproductive energy and thoughts of anger, frustration, resentment, and revenge.

This journey must begin within you in order to extend to your child. As parents, the greatest gift we can give our kids is to personify healing and resilience. There is no way around it; pain is inevitable. Helping your child build self-management and self-awareness skills is like showing your child how to take a pair of scissors and cut the cord that attaches them to the source of the pain. This is a great start but might take many deep breaths and recommitments.

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