Change Your Child’s Negative Thinking Habits; Switch Their Brain’s Channels

Weeding the Three P’s

Some children seem to be stuck in the kvetch cycle. Neutral situations become worst-case scenarios, sullied by murky “what-if” questions and worries. What if something goes wrong? What if they don’t like it? What if I fail? They are programmed to expect the worse – and visualize that as fact. Small setbacks are viewed as major catastrophes. Minor disappointments call for major tantrums. Life is tough, and it’s bound to become tougher. They feel helpless and hopeless.

These children are not clinically depressed. Rather, their negative thinking writes a depressing thought script. They do not enjoy being pessimists and would love to be different. However, they do not know how to switch their brain’s channels.

Negative thinking is inaccurate, exaggerated, and severe. Think back to your last mistake. If your reaction was “it’s okay. I can fix this,” you bounced back well. If your response was, “how silly of me! I always mess things up. What a disaster,” try to recall how long this thought lasted. Did it fade out quickly, or was it like a scratched CD, replaying in your mind, engraving itself into your psyche? Negative thinkers are constantly flooded by these depreciating thoughts. As the thoughts rerun over and over, they gain momentum and credibility; the person starts to believe and internalize them.

Parents often wonder, “Why is my child consistently pessimistic? Why does the slightest tremor cause my child to crumble while most children remain unaffected? Is it possible to prevent negativity, or is this sour attitude permanent?”

Let’s peak inside a human brain. After every experience, the brain lays down tracks connecting point A and point B. These are called neural transmitters, and they are the memory tracks. For children stuck in the kvetch cycle, negative experience’s tracks are cemented in place…permanently. Their thoughts travel back and forth across these tracks, predicting the future as a repeat of all previous bad events, impacting one and all, and, worst of all, being their fault.

For children with a pessimistic style, negative events are processed using the three P’s: permanent, pervasive, and personal. These thought processes bring about feelings of overwhelmed helplessness (Martin Seligman).

They think that nothing bad is temporary, occasional, or manageable. The opposite! The worst is permanently here to stay. My teacher scowled at me today. She will never like me.

They use a single bad event as an overarching, pervasive indicator for everything else. I failed my math quiz. I will flunk all tests in fourth grade.

They think that it’s their personal fault. Our class did not win the raffle campaign because I did not bring in enough booklets.

  Event: Permanent Pervasive Personal
Negative Thinker “I failed my math test. I will never do well on any test. I am just not smart.”
Positive Thinker “I failed my math test. Next time I’ll study harder and do okay.”


The more often children explain events with the three P’s, the more this thinking pattern becomes a matter of habit, their automatic response to every life situation. As more events are viewed through the prism of the three P’s, life becomes one problematic story.

These children’s brains work on overdrive to concoct the creative, improbable P-explanations. However, since they are so used to these thoughts, even when logically convinced to think differently, the P-thought will still be the first one to pop up.

So, how can this cycle be stopped?

Train children to ride another track – often. After all, the most frequently traveled neural tracks become the brain’s favorite highways. The more a person thinks a certain way, the more he is bound to continue thinking along those lines.  So, if children jog along the pessimistic track, explaining events according to the three P’s, they will become more and more skilled at P-thinking. However, if these children are taught to create new tracks – and use them frequently –they will counter their negative cycle.

To teach children how to answer back the three P’s, train them to specific-size problems to reality, instead of distorting them to overblown proportions. When problems are globalized, they seem overwhelming, but when problems are narrowed down, they become manageable.

Try this hands-on experiment together. Examine a leaf under a microscope, and see how unrecognizable it becomes. Explain that monstrous problems often begin as tiny buds. However, when viewed under the magnifying glass, they become unrecognizable, monstrous blobs of green.  The next time your child exaggerates one of life’s bumps, concluding, “I’m dumb. Nothing good happens to me. I deserve it,” remind him about magnified leaves. Ask him to identify this issue’s specific triggers and delimitations, so that he can paint a more accurate picture of the problem. This realistic perspective curbs his pessimism; once his problem has shrunk to a manageable size, he thinks and feels more positively about it.

When talking to your child, listen out for “extreme words” because they are red flags for the cognitive misconceptions of the permanent/pervasive thinker. These “extreme words” include nothing, everything, always, and never. Teach your child to substitute these absolutes with more accurate expressions, such as sometimes, some things, and some ways (to undo pervasive thinking) and sometimes, temporary, right now, occasionally, not yet,  and at this moment (to undo permanent thinking.) These modified word choices train your child to think more accurately. For example, your daughter complains, “I am never going to be the Teachers Monitor.” First, validate her frustration. Then, ask her, “Was Stacey already the Teachers Monitor? And Kim? And Dorothy? So how many girls were already chosen to be the Teachers Monitor? And how many girls were not the Teachers Monitor yet? Do you think that the girls that didn’t get a turn won’t ever be chosen? Oh, so do you think you’re going to get your chance, too? You just didn’t get a turn yet…”

A creative game that teaches your child to speak up against the “pessimistic permanent voice” is the Pencil or Pen Game. Write down ten negative and positive scenarios. Have your child comment on every scenario. Then, decide whether the comment should be written in pen because it is permanent or in pencil because it is not an absolute.

For example, your child’s scenario reads “I missed the bus.” If he responds, “I always miss the bus,” or, “The bus always come early,” write his responses in pencil because they do not hold true always. Your child’s scenario is “I baked a delicious cake.” She might say, “I am a good baker. I follow directions carefully.” Since these are all-time truths – despite the fact that she may occasionally mess up a cake, these qualities remain – write them in pen.

This game counteracts pessimistic children’s mantra that the bad is here to stay and the good happened randomly. (Response to negative: I lost the race. I will never win a race. vs. Response to positive: I won the ballgame. The other players did not play well. I just got lucky.) This game helps your child see that negative external factors are often temporary, but positive internal qualities are permanent. This gives your child the ability to view the negative and positive more accurately.

For children who are stuck with pervasive thinking and assume that every mishap has lifelong repercussions, you may use a tree analogy. Ask your child, “What part of the tree is this situation? A branch? A leaf? A root?” This helps your child zoom out and think how this isolated incident is really impacting the bigger picture. For example, when your child says, “I laughed during my solo. Now I will never sing in a choir again. I will never get a job when I graduate. I will never have any friends,” ask your child, “Is this one choir performance like a trunk or a leaf? Does five minutes of less-than-perfect performance cause a lifetime of failure?”

While you teach your child to view negative situations more realistically, help your child focus on the rosy parts of life. Highlight positive moments. Harp on how the child made things go well. Train him to build new tracks and to travel on those tracks often, so that this should become his brain’s primary route.

Of course, emphasize a hard work ethic, the importance of perseverance, overcoming disappointment, and being the best they can. Optimistically speaking, I am positive that your child can learn a new upbeat modus operandi – and that’s a realistic, unexaggerated prediction.

Sources: Freeing your Child from Negative Thinking by Tamar E. Chansy

One of the symptoms that anxious children and perfectionists contend with is crippling “what-if” thoughts. These negative thoughts cause them to despair of managing their lives and sap their ability to fight their core challenges. Teach children how to respond to the three P’s in the “what-if” statements. Then, they will have the courage to overcome their anxiety/perfectionism.


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