“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”
When your child is spiraling out of control with negative thinking it can feel like there is no way to stop them, no way to intervene, that everyone has lost control. The most important thing to remember is that you are the parent, you are in control and they cannot make you lose control or ruin your day unless you allow them. Before you can expect a child to manage their emotional reactivity you must get a hold of your own. If your child’s spiral is a trigger for you find a coping strategy and manage your reactions so that you can be as calm and controlled as possible when teaching them how to manage theirs.
The second most important thing to do is accept that they are not doing this on purpose – instead, they are reacting to uncomfortable and, at times, scary feelings. They need your loving, calm and firm support as they work through their emotions.
Below are four steps to help guide your child through a negative thought spiral. The hope in this intervention is that they will begin to learn to isolate the initial negative thought, call it what it is and let it go before it takes over and claims their whole thinking. As they learn to let these thoughts and feelings go they will be accumulating coping skills that will be useful to them forever- such a gift!
These strategies work best if you can catch your child in a negative pattern before it becomes “stuck”. With observation and your own parenting intuition you will begin to notice when they are entering into that negative thinking space. Often it starts when they are disappointed, anxious, have had their feelings hurt…or maybe something hasn’t gone their way or they are having to transition and stop doing something they want to do? If you catch it early enough they will still have some energy for logical thinking and these steps will work more smoothly.
If after you have attempted these steps and your child is still spiraling or they are already out of control, they will need to go to their calm space. They will need little interaction, so it’s best to avoid engaging with them when they are out of control because they are not thinking rationally. It is most beneficial that they stay in the calm space until they are able to verbalize their feeling without yelling or negativity. You can then reengage with these four steps:
- Empathize or sit in it with them: ex: “I see that you are really upset about this.” This gives them an opportunity to see that you are not mad but compassionate and want to help them.
- Narrow it down and blame the culprit; they are likely catastrophizing so attempt to help them to bring it into smaller more manageable thoughts: ex: “I know this feels really big. Let’s try to figure out when the ‘worry bully’ got ahold of your thinking? What is the hardest part of this for you?” Negative thoughts become the only line of thinking when a child is in this spiral. When you help the child narrow it down to one thing, you shrink the size of the overwhelming problem to a more manageable task/goal.
- Switch perspectives: ex: “Since the ‘worry bully’ is a liar and we can’t trust what he says, let’s think of what Jesus would do or say? What would (someone they respect or their counselor) say?” *Some positive affirming answers: Turn the other cheek, Forgive, Take a deep breath, Stretch, Everything will be ok, God is in control, I will have another chance. Also using unfortunately vs fortunately : “Unfortunately I didn’t get to play with my friends today, but fortunately I get to go with them this weekend to the park.”
- Normalize: ex: “I know what it is like to be disappointed. When I feel disappointed it helps me to picture placing my sad feelings in a beautiful golden box and giving the box to God. I know he will take my sad feelings and give me His peace.”