As a clinical psychologist, I see a lot of kids (and adults for that matter) get “stuck.” Through experiences, the words of others, or just by temperament, they become stuck in their thoughts about themselves, others, and the world. A lot of prevalent clinical presentations (think anxiety, depression, and oppositional/defiant behavior) come down to this type of “sticky” thinking.
Psychologists have long used the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) idea of “thought challenging” to “get rid of” these types of thoughts. After explaining an “unhelpful” or “negative” thought to a psychologist, one may be met with a barrage of questions: “How likely is that to happen?” “Is that a helpful thought?” or “Is it true?” While helpful for some, CBT can place a lot of attention on our less helpful thoughts, even while trying to eliminate them. The more we push them away, the tougher they get.
I think of it like a garden: A seed that is watered grows into a tree, right? It grows bigger, stronger, and more permanent. That's also what happens when we “water” (pay attention to) our thoughts. The neural pathway associated with the thought grows in strength, accessibility, and permanency. So, what if by engaging in CBT, the very act of challenging our thoughts to try to reduce them, is actually watering them instead?
Cue mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy. Mindfulness is really growing in popularity, but it is often seen as a bit of a minefield, perhaps even a bit flakey or “hippie.” It can be especially hard to explain it to young people. Basically, mindfulness is about being in the present moment, becoming aware of what's happening in your mind (and body), but not judging your thoughts or trying to “get rid of them.” It’s about not “fusing” too strongly with them.
An example of being fused with a thought is this: I have a good friend who has a seven-year-old son. This kid is a complete champ. The top reader in his class, popular, and an absolute flipping expert on dinosaurs. But he doesn’t try anything new. Like, ever. He is so fused with the idea that he is good at everything, that something inside him doesn’t want to change that idea, so he doesn’t try anything that he may not be immediately good at. This type of fusion can cause kids to become “stuck.” Not only is he stuck on the idea that he needs to be good at everything all the time, but he's also stuck in life, unable to enjoy new and exciting activities.
Enter defusion! Defusion can be next to impossible to explain without just doing it, especially to kids. Rather than go too scientifically into what it is, I’m just going to list some activities to practice it with your kids. By hearing about the activities, I think you'll then know exactly what defusion is. In short, it's the act of becoming less attached (fused) with your thoughts. Noticing them, but having them mean less, and thus not watering them into big, strong, hard-to-move trees.
Here we go!
Set a timer and have your kid write down whatever comes to mind in this time. No checking for spelling or grammar or worrying about handwriting. It’s best to handwrite and not type if possible. This stream of consciousness activity is a real winner. Writing down everything you think of in a minute can be hilarious and surprising. It also serves to help us to see that we can move past thoughts that we have and not get stuck in them.
In reading back what your kid has written with her, you'll hopefully be able to identify positive thoughts (I can’t wait to go to the zoo tomorrow), neutral thoughts (that curtain is green), and negative thoughts (I hate my sister). We can teach our kids that when any of these thoughts come up, it's possible to notice them, be aware what we're thinking, and then move on to another aspect of our lives . We can then move in a valued direction, rather than watering the thoughts that we don’t want to grow.
We can teach them that it's not only possible, but that they have already done it through the writing exercise. This exercise is the first step towards learning to accept thoughts without becoming fused with them. Older kids may move on to “Mindfulness Meditation” in time.
When you notice a specific pattern in your kid’s thinking (whether this be through the writing exercise or just in general conversation), it may be a good idea to put a name to it. Does he often talk about how he is “hopeless” or “no-one loves me”? That may be his “not good enough” story. This helps separate his thoughts (story) from who he is. It also stops both him and you from becoming fused with the thought.
I bet you've found yourself fused with your kid’s thoughts before, right? This might have looked like a long argument, such as: “Lots of people love you. I love you. Daddy loves you. Mr Biggles the cat loves you.” Or trying to convince him that the rollercoaster ride is not that scary with: “Look how much fun everyone else is having on it.” This is you stuck on his sticky thoughts, on his story. This arguing is similar to a CBT practice.
Rather than engaging in an argument and trying to convince him that his thoughts are not true, next time why not try giving the thought a name, and asking him, “Wow, here's your ‘I’m not good enough’ story again – what do you want to do with it?” and see how that goes? You may just find that when the seed stops being watered, it shrinks.
Kids can get stuck on their “I am” stories, like my seven-year-old buddy. “I am good at everything; I am an achiever,” or “I am anxious” or “I am naughty.” An idea to move past these sticky “I am” thoughts is to have your child write out on some poster paper all of the “I am” statements she can think of. I am a friend, I am an animal lover, I am a good basketball player, I am cheeky, I am scared sometimes. She can even draw pictures that go with each “I am.” Then explain: “I worry sometimes that you are getting a bit ‘stuck’ on this ‘I am.’"
It may be that she's stuck on having to be good at everything, or it may be that she's stuck on being anxious and generalizes this to being “just who she is.” Learning to let go of stuck “I ams” is such a valuable life skill.
Mindfulness people would say that it's important not to fuse too strongly to any particular thought or any particular aspect of who we are. It’s important to be flexible in our thinking and in our lives, to not water the seeds of unhelpful thoughts, and hopefully to see them shrink!