Let Your Thoughts Be: An Effective Way to Help Kids Deal with Their Thoughts

By Tamar D. Black, PhD, author of The ACT Workbook for Kids

Many people spend a lot of time trying to deal with unwanted thoughts. They try to distract themselves, or try to get rid of them by replacing them with pleasant thoughts, or try to work out the cause of their thoughts. For most people, none of these strategies actually stop the thoughts—they keep coming back again and again.

Let’s face it, no one likes thoughts that make them worried, sad, angry, or other similar feelings. If there was a truly effective way to get rid of your thoughts, someone would have discovered it by now!

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) (Hayes, Strosahl, et al., 1999, 2012) has demonstrated effectiveness for use with adults, adolescents, and kids. ACT has loads of helpful strategies for dealing with thoughts that can be adapted for use with kids.

Here are three tips based on ACT that you can teach to kids to help them deal with their thoughts.

1) Thoughts aren’t harmful.

When kids are taught that they need to try to do something with their unwanted thoughts, they may feel afraid, worried, sad, angry, etc. when unwanted thoughts show up. They may also feel that they can’t manage these thoughts themselves.

You can validate how kids are feeling when their unwanted thoughts show up, and encourage them to allow their mind to think of whatever it wants to. Reassure them that their thoughts won’t hurt them.

2) Don’t distract yourself from your thoughts or try to get rid of them.

While activities such as watching TV, listening to music, or going out might provide temporary relief from your thoughts, for most people, it’s usually hard to stop thoughts from returning.

Encouraging distraction promotes the use of avoidance, which can create even more problems. For example, when kids rely on distraction to cope, they might not go to school when they experience difficulties with their school work—this can lead to falling behind, making things worse.

3) Thoughts don’t have to stop you from doing things.

It’s common for kids, adolescents, and adults to not to want to do things when unwanted thoughts show up. But not doing things, and waiting until you feel better, can take up a lot of valuable time and lead to feeling worse.

You can teach kids that they don’t have to miss out on doing things that they need to do, or that are important to them. They can do things like going to school, visiting family and friends, and attending activities, etc., even when unwanted thoughts show up.

When kids let their thoughts be, they often bounce back quickly and are able to cope. This helps them believe in their own ability to deal with their thoughts, and become more resilient.

Tamar D. Black, PhD, is an educational and developmental psychologist in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. She runs a private practice working with children, adolescents, young adults, and parents. Tamar has extensive experience providing clinical supervision to early-career and highly experienced psychologists. She also provides training in acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) to clinicians and teachers. She is author of the professional guide, ACT for Treating Children.

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