by Cathy Lumsden
“We have questions about the two-legged animals called humans. Why do children make up these stories that they’re unlovable, not good enough?”*
Meet Polly the bee and Joanne the dragonfly. They’re seeking answers about us humans. As insects, they are perplexed that humans think such negative thoughts: how they can do this to themselves and others?
Polly and Joanne are two characters that lead the way through my new children’s book, Debugging Those Bad Thoughts With The Bee and Me. Via this story, children and adults learn that our human minds are machine-like, spitting out thoughts automatically; and we believe both the good and bad ones.
When you believe those bad thoughts you feel sad, worried, angry and alone. Part of the journey in life is to debug the negative thoughts, leading you to be more joyful, happy and whole.
Rise in Youth Mental Health Issues
Recently the rates of depression, anxiety and stress have been increasing in youth. New research is demonstrating that males and females aged 15 to 25 are in crisis.
Dr. Jean Twenge and colleagues at San Diego State University discovered there is a link between the decline in youth’s sense of control over their lives and an increase in mental health issues.
She measured locus of control. An internal locus of control is when you believe your personal decisions and efforts influence your fate. An external locus of control is when you believe your life is controlled by external circumstances. When youth—or people of any age—believe they have limited control over their lives, they become anxious and helpless.
For instance, a young person with an internal sense of control will realize if they didn’t pass a test it was because they didn’t put in the effort or study enough; someone with an external outlook will blame outside factors: the teacher or the test.
Psychologist Peter Gray has another interesting theory. In his book, called Free To Learn, he states that the decline in play, whereby children learn to solve their own problems and control their lives, contributes to the incline of mental health issues. The significant increase in structure in children’s lives—school most of the day and organized activities after school and on weekends—has diminished their sense of control and their joy in exploring and discovering.
“As Polly the bee and Joanne the dragonfly search for answers, they consult the wise butterfly of the forest, Wynita, who can talk to children. They are battling Blackatron, the villain who wants children to think bad thoughts. Blackatron grows in size and power when they believe negative things about themselves.”*
Awareness is the key to unlocking your mind’s trap. When you’re aware of your negative thinking patterns, you can learn to control those powerful thoughts. Both your inner beauty and your children’s beauty become buried when negative thoughts take over.
A common negative thought for both parents and children is that they’re failing. When you think this thought, emotions such as shame, anger, anxiety and sadness increase. As a parent, your behaviour is influenced by this. You may become overly worried about your child or get extremely angry, saying things that do not fit the situation. The same process involving negative thoughts, feelings and behaviors occurs in children. In order to cope they may become perfectionistic to avoid feeling like failures, become pleasers to avoid conflict, or become discouraged and give up.
Buzz Off, Bad Thoughts
Wynita, the wise butterfly, and her companions teach children to see their bad thoughts through a different lens. These insects show both kids and adults that their bad thoughts are not true, and that they have more control than they realize.
Debugging bad thoughts increases children’s sense of control, so they feel less helpless, anxious and angry.
Tips to Get The Bugs Out
– Put your bad thought in a bubble. For example, write I’m not good enough in a thought bubble. Now scramble all the letters. Imagine if you saw mn Ig oo gu neo to in your thought bubble. Any feelings about this thought? Your bad thought is not a fact; it’s simply letters of the alphabet. Like a computer, your mind’s job is to generate thoughts; however, you don’t need to believe them all.
– Teach your children to challenge their negative thoughts. Ask them questions: “What is the worst thing that could happen if you’re not the best soccer player?” Or “What proof do you have that no one likes you?” Next, help them focus on times when this thought wasn’t true, times when they blocked a kick or played with friends all day.
– Give the bad thought a name. For instance, call it Blackatron or the angry voice. Distancing or separating the thoughts from the child often allows them to have more control over the thoughts and feelings. Create good “counterthoughts” such as:
I can handle this thought,
I’m stronger than it,
I’ll get through this.
– Don’t tell your kids they’re being silly for thinking bad thoughts. Minimizing their thoughts and feelings often stops them from sharing in the future. Instead, explain that you too have bad thoughts and give them examples of how you debug them.
When you and your children realize your feelings and behaviors result from these bad thoughts, you can gain more control over your actions. These bad thoughts not only cause bad feelings, they’re behind why kids are mean, why parents fight, why you tell lies, and why you’re ignored by friends.
Imagine how wonderful it will be when children stop personalizing the behaviour of others and start debugging their own pesky bad thoughts.
As Wynita the wise butterfly might remind you, you can’t control the bad thoughts and negative actions of others, but you can control you.
Cathy Lumsden is a psychotherapist, author and international speaker. For details about her new book, see www.thebestadviceyourmothernevergaveyou.com