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Recognizing and Addressing Negative Thought Patterns in Children

Updated: Feb 8

Numerous parents face various behavioral challenges when dealing with their kids. Some of the behavior challenges encompass refusal to complete tasks, tantrums or meltdowns, taking toys from their siblings, yelling, and even harming others when they do not get their way. While we observe their outward behaviors, we often overlook the internal factors—thoughts and feelings—that might be influencing their behavior. Your child may be experiencing negative thoughts and emotions. Recognizing these negative thought patterns is crucial, as they can directly affect the behaviors you witness. This article aims to assist you in learning how to identify a negative thought pattern, understand the impact on behaviors, and learn effective strategies to help guide your child through those thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. 

Jump Ahead:

What is a Negative Thought?

A negative thought is often an incorrect assumption about oneself, how others perceive them, or the reality they experience. These repetitive patterns of thought, also known as ‘cognitive distortions’, can become engrained, forming internal behaviors that significantly affect a child’s behaviors and emotional well-being– a phenomenon called ‘cognitive fusion.’ Cognitive fusion is attaching, or getting 'stuck', to negative thoughts and having a difficult time separating oneself from those thoughts.  These negative thought patterns can lead to social anxiety, refusal to complete difficult tasks, isolation, meltdowns, and a diminished sense of self-worth, among other internal and external behaviors. 

Examples of Negative Thought Patterns: 

  • All-or-nothing thinking: “I never get anything that I want!” “I always fail my math tests" if they receive a poor grade. 

  • Overgeneralizing: “Everyone hates me.” “Nobody likes me.”

  • Emotional responding: “Nobody talked to me at the party, so that must mean no one likes me.”

  • Labeling or judgment of yourself or others: “I’m such a terrible person.”

  • Catastrophizing: “My teacher is the worst; I am never going to school again!,” because she did not let us go to recess today.

Recognizing these patterns early allows for timely intervention, setting children up for success! It’s easier said than done, as we cannot directly see the thought patterns. Therefore, it is crucial to be attentive to behaviors and signs that might indicate their presence. Some signs include avoidance of social interactions or challenging tasks, resisting daily living tasks, meltdowns, a strong reaction to being corrected, or outwardly expressing negative statements such as “I can’t do this!” or “I’m stupid!” 

While it can be easy to react when your child falls short of your expectations, the most effective approach to becoming more aware of your child’s thoughts and feelings is pausing and connecting with them, both during and outside of the behaviors. Creating a sense of connection allows your child to feel a sense of safety as they open up and express themselves. By showing curiosity when your child is engaging in behaviors, you are aiming to connect with them on their level, helping bring them back to the present moment. 

Causes of Negative Thought Patterns

There is no single cause or trigger for negative thought patterns in children. Both genetic and environmental factors, along with past experiences, may contribute to a child developing negative thought patterns. Genetic variables, such as predisposed mental health conditions like  depression, bipolar disorder, autism, and ADHD, can increase the likelihood of experiencing negative thoughts. 

Moreover, environmental variables play a pivotal role. Things children see, hear, or experience in their environment influence their thought patterns. Children quickly pick up phrases and behaviors from others—how peers or adults make negative statements, how peers and adults respond in challenging situations, etc.  When an adult makes negative statements towards a child, it can lead to the internalization of those statements, leading to the child believing those statements, thereby creating negative thought patterns. 

These are all various factors that may contribute to cognitive distortions in children. Again, it’s important to emphasize “may” because, as cognitive distortions are internal, the direct impact might not fully be understood unless the child is able to express it. Behaviors are so complex that it is not a “one-size-fits-all,” so it’s essential to delve deeper into internal factors, such as negative thought patterns, that might be influencing your child’s behavior. Reflecting on the potential causes and triggers is meant to help gain more insight into your child’s behavior. Ask yourself, what internal factors and external factors may be contributing in this moment? 

Examples of Genetic Variables: 

  • Mental health conditions

  • Other genetic health conditions.

Examples of Environmental Variables: 

  • Being surrounded by others who speak more negatively

  • An overstimulating environment.

  • A demanding environment. 

  • Feeling a lack of safety in the environment.  

Examples of Past Experiences:

  • Being directly told “nobody likes you.”

  • A child overhears a conversation between their parents about how they continue to make terrible decisions. 

Impact on Behavior and Emotional Wellbeing

Behaviors are complex, with many influencing variables, including negative thought patterns. These patterns often correlate with an increase in the likelihood of unwanted behaviors. If a child is focusing on those negative thoughts, it can directly impact the actions you see. For instance, if they are having the thought that “I’m a failure; I can’t do this homework,” you may see them avoiding their homework by not completing it or having an outburst while prompting them to complete their homework. 

This is where our language and actions play a pivotal role in how children internalize thoughts and feelings. Past experiences, such as being spanked or isolated, can contribute to a negative thought pattern of “I’m a bad child” or “nobody loves me.” 

Not only do negative thoughts manifest in a child’s outward behaviors, but they can also take a toll on a child’s emotional well-being, potentially leading to increased anxiety, depression, and low-self esteem. When a child becomes stuck on negative thoughts, it can develop a pattern of negativity and increase cognitive distortions related to the events or activities those thoughts are developing around (i.e. homework, social situations, interactions with parents, community events). The longer they are fused with those negative thoughts, the more those thoughts influence their reality. They may begin to avoid certain situations, increasing outbursts because they may not understand how to process those internal emotions. 

Helpful Strategies

Validating a child’s feelings and emotions is crucial. I often hear invalidating statements like “You’re a big girl; you don’t need to cry." “You’re fine, get over it,” or “Just get it done!” All of these statements dismiss the child’s feelings. What might seem insignificant to adults might be overwhelming for a child. Instead, acknowledging their feelings and offering support is vital to helping them manage and regulate their feelings and emotions. Phrases like “I know this moment feels very scary; how can we get through it together?” or “I know that was really tough. I don’t like being told “no” either. What is something we can look forward to now?” can be very beneficial. Helping your child work through these big feelings will help teach them valuable life skills, including regulating and nurturing their emotional regulation and preventing long-term negative effects from internalizing emotions. 

Can we get rid of negative thoughts entirely? No, not really. Think of how many times you have experienced negative thoughts today—about work, frustrations, family, or interactions. Now reflect on what you did when those thoughts went through your mind—were you tense? Irritable? Did you yell? Become short on communication? It’s important to realize that we all experience negative thoughts and emotions that can impact our behaviors, even children. However, we can utilize strategies to help teach children to detach from those thoughts, create positive behavior change, and foster meaningful relationships with themselves and others. 

Strategies for addressing negative thought patterns: 

  1. Connection: Intentionally connecting with your child will help foster a positive relationship with your child. This will increase your child’s sense of safety and confidence with you, their parent/ caregiver. 

  2. Show curiosity: “Hmm,  I hear that you feel like this is too hard. I wonder how we can break this task down to make it feel easier?” Provide suggestions if your child is unsure. 

  3. Co-regulate: Your child needs your help. They are not able to regulate themselves. Helping them regulate their big feelings and emotions and validating those thoughts and feelings will encourage their body to regulate state to effectively work through the problem. 

  4. Model: Remember, children observe and imitate their environment. If you are making negative statements, they are likely to do the same. Modeling emotional regulation for your child is helpful in skill building. If you are feeling frustrated, express those feelings to teach your child that they are not alone. You can even invite them in to help YOU problem solve– “Mommy is feeling so frustrated right now, I cannot get this to work. Ugh! What do you think I should do?”

Fostering a nurturing, supportive environment for your children is beneficial to their development and success. Encouraging open and honest communication and attempting to understand their point of view can have a significant impact. As adults, we have the ability to take a step back and consider multiple perspectives on situations. Creating a safe space for children to express their thoughts and feelings will help them feel more comfortable expressing their emotions, as bottling up and suppressing emotions can lead to the undesired behaviors you may be seeing and experiencing with your children. Establishing a safe space can look like building connections without demands and allowing them time to speak while you listen. If there is a situation that happened, instead of immediately criticizing them or telling them what happened, be curious and ask their perspective. 

Seeking Additional Support 

Seeking professional help may be necessary at times, especially if your child is consistently expressing negative thoughts or experiencing behavior concerns. One form of therapy that can be helpful for those experiencing behavior concerns, potentially due to a negative thought pattern is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT is a branch of Clinical Behavior Analysis (CBA) that is empirically based psychological intervention to promote mindfulness, acceptance, and positive behavior change strategies to increase psychological flexibility. ACT focused on accepting the private events– negative thoughts and feelings that are occurring– and creating positive behavior change action, guided by your values. This approach is not for all children, adolescents, or even adults, but it has been proven to be an effective tool to address internal events and create positive behavior change. It’s important to do your research and find the best therapy fit for your child. 


Everyone experiences negative thoughts, including adults and children. Negative thoughts can have a significant impact on a person’s behavior and emotional wellbeing. They can be influenced by a person’s environment, genetics, and past experiences. As children are growing, learning, and developing, they imitate their surroundings and can often internalize negative thoughts and feelings, especially when their perspective, autonomy, thoughts, or feelings are invalidated. Children need connection with parents and caregivers and a sense of safety and security. As negative thoughts are internal, it can be difficult to know and understand what your child is feeling and/ or progressing through. I encourage you to approach your child with empathy and patience when they are engaging in undesirable behaviors. It is up to us to teach our children emotional resilience and foster positive thinking, as they are still developing and need to be taught these skills. If you feel like you need additional support, I also encourage you to reach out to professionals for support, as sometimes additional support for you and/ or your child is needed.  

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