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“Everything is Awful!” How To Deal With Negativity In Teens

“There’s no point in participating. Ms. Graber can’t stand me, and besides, she never calls on me,” 12-year-old Kelly told me.

With Kelly’s permission, and as her school counselor, I dropped in on the class a few times, expecting to observe some negativity.

“I really didn’t see any signs of favoritism,” I told her afterward. “Is it possible your perception is off?”

Kelly paused. “Well, we got off to a bad start,” she said. “She was annoyed with me because I asked for an extra point on the first quiz.”

As a school counselor and therapist, I know some kids are prone to “Eeyore Syndrome.” If they get in one fight with a friend, the relationship is dead. If they flub a line, they’ll never get another part in a play. If they’re excluded from a group chat, it’s because everyone is gossiping about them.

“Optimistic thinkers view a negative event, like failing a test, as temporary,” explains psychologist Mary Alvord, author of Conquer Negative Thinking. “Pessimists say, ‘I did poorly on the math test, and I will suck at math and never be able to do it.’ Some of it may be modeling of parents or others, some might be a biological tendency for mood fluctuation, but I think most is learned habits that can be changed.”

These strategies can help your tween recognize and change negative thinking patterns.

4 Ways To Change Negative Thinking In Teenagers:

1. Take them on an imaginary hot air balloon ride.

Visual imagery can help restore your child’s perspective. Ask them to imagine that they’re sitting in a hot air balloon lifting them high into the sky. From this new vantage point, can they see the situation more clearly? Can they imagine other outcomes? Use the word “maybe” as a prompt. Your child might come up with, “Maybe Maia didn’t mean to leave me off the invite list,” or “Maybe my teacher didn’t realize I was raising my hand.”

If they need even more distance, ask them how they’d advise a friend in a similar scenario.

2. Flip it.

Psychotherapist Katie Hurley, the author of No More Mean Girls, suggests an exercise she calls “Flip It.” Ask your child to state the negative thought, such as, “I’m terrible at math,” and to verbalize how that thought feels, such as frustrating or embarrassing.

Next, have them come up with three possible alternative thoughts. “Maybe that’s, ‘I enjoy my math class,’ or ‘I worked hard and got a B on a previous math test,’” Hurley said.

Then have them come up with a plan, such as getting extra help from a teacher. The last step is to flip the initial comment into a positive reminder, such as, “If I work hard and ask for help, I can learn the math.”

3. Validate their worries.

Parents instinctively want to reassure their child. If they say, “Everyone hates me,” or “I’m stupid,” it’s natural to respond with, “You have so many friends,” or, “That’s not true—you got all A’s last year!” You run the risk, however, of coming across as inauthentic or dismissive.

Instead, try saying, “If I thought everyone hated me, I’d feel terrible too. I’m really sorry you feel that way.” Validating doesn’t mean you agree—it means you empathize.

Then normalize their emotion. “Say, ‘I feel that way sometimes too, and it’s scary and uncomfortable,’” suggests social worker Amy Morin, the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Women Don’t Do.

Once your child feels heard, they’ll be more open to alternate perspectives. “Instead of giving them the answer and saying, ‘Oh no, you’re fine,’ ask, ‘What’s the evidence that you’ll fail, and what’s the evidence that you won’t fail? Do you think the emotion is helpful, or getting in your way?’” Morin adds.

4. Keep a “Daily Three” journal.

Journaling can help kids process difficult emotions, particularly in middle school, when they feel tremendous pressure to fit in and perform well in every domain. Hurley recommends that kids keep a “Daily Three” journal.

“Encourage your tween or teen to vent the three hardest parts of the day and follow it up with three good things that happened,” she said. “The positive can be small, like ‘ate lunch with a friend.’ When we get in the habit of writing out both our roses and our thorns, we see that the bumps in the road are just that—bumps we encounter along the path to something better.”

Writing may also protect your child’s friendships, especially if their peers have grown tired of their constant complaints.

As for Kelly, she agreed to meet with Ms. Graber to reset their relationship. Kelly explained that she liked the class, but worried she’d developed a reputation as a grade grubber. Ms. Graber was surprised; she admired Kelly’s work ethic and had no memory of discussing grades with her.

The conversation helped Kelly understand that assuming the worst can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now, when she finds herself stuck in a defeatist thought pattern, she looks for evidence to support her view. If she still can’t shake her insecurity, she seeks out positive interactions. “I might ask the teacher for help, or stop by to say hi,” she told me, adding, “I always end up feeling better.”

Phyllis Fagell, LCPC

Phyllis L. Fagell is the counselor at Sheridan School in Washington, D.C. and the author of Middle School Matters (Da Capo Press, forthcoming 2019). She writes columns on parenting and education for the Washington Post.