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5 Mental Filters That Are Making Your Child Anxious

2018 Sanford Convo6On a typical school day, students are required to interact with peers and adults, assess situations, and decide upon action steps. A clear frame of mind allows students to effectively manage and reason through stressors in a positive, healthy way.

Sometimes, a child’s frame of mind is unclear or even completely clouded. What’s clouding their thinking and what can we do about it? Below are some examples of common mental filters that, despite being invisible to onlookers, color a student’s world in a way that significantly impacts their school day. Understanding what these filters are and how to combat them is imperative in knowing how to help and support children through their anxiety.

1. Catastrophizing

I wasn’t able to study for math last night because I had so much other work to do. Now, I’m going to fail my math test. That means I’ll probably fail the class, and with an F on my transcript, there’s no college that will want me.

When students catastrophize, they take one instance and turn it into a disaster. Thoughts snowball as they imagine the terrible things around the corner. To challenge this type of thinking, students need to bring themselves back to the present moment and acknowledge that unpleasant things sometimes happen. To see if the “snowball effect” is at work, they can gauge whether the size of the problem matches the size of the reaction. While they may have a tendency to fear the worst, they will be better equipped to cope if they can recognize their thought process in action and remind themselves that there are actually many possible (and more realistic) outcomes.

2. "Should"-ing

I really should stop watching Netflix and start my homework. I’m so lazy for procrastinating on my school work.

When students tell themselves what they should or shouldn’t do and tie it to their self-worth, they are engaging in unhealthy “shoulds.” These shoulds can build up and add more and more guilt to a student’s already-full plate of emotions. By rephrasing thoughts in a way that removes self-criticism, students can maintain a more positive, judgment-free frame of mind. In the example above, a student could say, “I will feel happier if I get my homework done early; plus, it will give me time later on to relax.” This would still result in the desired action-step without the feelings of stress and inadequacy.

3. Black And White Thinking

Sarah will always be able to make friends because she’s outgoing and friendly. I wish I weren’t an introvert. Quiet people can’t make friends so I know I’ll never have them.

Some students have a hard time seeing shades of grey and form the habit of categorizing things as good or bad, right or wrong, true or false, with no space for anything in between. Oversimplifying life into extremes takes a toll on student emotions. Once students can recognize this type of thinking, they can begin to mentally challenge themselves to find the grey. There is often a more specific feeling or truth that falls somewhere in the middle. Can you list, for example, some (more specific) grey areas that lie between “always makes friends” and “never makes friends?” What about, “has trouble starting conversations, but gets along well once feeling more comfortable?”

4. Overgeneralization

I always get in trouble. It’s like the teachers only pay attention to what I’m doing.

When one teacher corrects behavior, an overgeneralizing student may feel like the whole faculty is against him or her. This faulty conclusion is based on just one fact, and yet a student may feel true insecurity and fear. When they believe this artificial situation actually exists in the real world, they act accordingly. To recognize overgeneralization, watch out for absolutes like  “always,” “never,” and “only.” Instead, consider using phrases like “sometimes” or “occasionally.” When their wording becomes more realistic, students can override faulty thinking and take control over their thoughts and emotions.

5. Mind Reading

I saw his face when the teacher partnered us together for the project. He hates me. He’s going to be annoyed with me the whole time we’re working together.

Mind reading occurs when students believe they know what other people are thinking; unfortunately, those perceptions can be very inaccurate, as students often assume that others believe something negative about them. If this destructive thought process is happening, students should ask themselves, “Do I have proof?” “Are there other explanations?” “Is this about what I’m feeling or what they’re feeling?” In the example above, the peer might just be disappointed that he didn’t get partnered with his best friend. Or, maybe he isn’t feeling well. There’s no way to know. Students have to remember that it’s impossible to know what someone else is truly thinking without conversation.

Helping Your Child

Negative thinking patterns are very common and can lead to increased anxiety and difficulty managing stress. Maybe you have a child who always seems to be adding unhealthy filters or maybe you’re realizing that it’s your thinking that is often clouded. Take some time to identify these irrational thoughts, challenge them, and replace them with reality. Doing this can be freeing, as it allows us to view the world with a new set of eyes. At Sanford, our teachers and school counselors support our children's growth. We provide a nurturing environment and supportive counseling program that helps children cope through their challenges.

Sarah Satinsky is the Upper School Counselor at Sanford School. To learn more about our counseling program, go to Sanford School's School Counseling page.

Suzanne Humphreys and Kelley Seravalli are former counselors at Sanford. 

See Also: Healthy Minds, Happy Kids  and Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds

Topics: Education, Parenting Tips, School Counseling