The internal dialogue you or your child has is called self-talk. It is important to identify that internal conversation because how you respond to your worries is largely determined by that self-talk. Cognitive therapists, among others like Buddhists, believe that anxious self-talk leads to anxious thoughts, which lead to anxious feelings, which lead to anxious behaviors.
Yes, this internal companion that you have created talks to you continuously, literally nonstop; even subconsciously when you are sleeping! You can choose to guide yourself, criticize yourself, make fun of yourself, support yourself, be relaxed, lost, happy, sad, or anxious. You are what you believe yourself to be … what you tell yourself you are.
Children or adults with anxiety are sometimes called worrywarts. Worrywarts have a tendency to talk to themselves in ways that can bring on anxiety and leave them feeling scared and unable to trust themselves. Small mistakes become big mistakes and everything can get picked apart relentlessly.
Unfortunately, uncertainty and self-doubt rule a worrywart's thought process and can create a constant state of anxiety and dread. The key is to stop the thoughts that lead to anxiety and replace them with thoughts that are more rational, realistic, and self-supportive.
Thought-Stopping for Older Children, Teens, and Adults
You or your child might have difficulty controlling your negative self-talk and worry, so thought-stopping may be a good technique to use to end that vicious cycle. It works because it interrupts the worry response before it turns into high anxiety, giving you an opportunity to recover with positive self-talk.
The idea is that as soon as you notice the first negative thought in your head silently yell “Stop, stop thinking about that,” or, “Stop, I am not going to do this,” and then replace the negative worrisome comment with a more positive one. Some people find visualizing a stop sign or red light helpful.
You may need to tell yourself to stop multiple times in a situation, and each time you need to follow up with a positive statement. Augment this technique by using deep breathing.
According to the Web site AnxietyBC, for an older child or teen it may work well to ask these three questions when you notice your child has been struggling: What is making you scared? What do you worry will happen? and What bad things do you expect will happen? By doing this you help your child break the fear into more manageable elements.
Armed with positive coping statements, you have an opportunity to deal with the worry before it becomes anxiety, and help your child be successful. Each time you or your child uses thought-stopping and makes a rational, realistic, positive statement instead, you are rewiring and reworking your brain, and these positive changes have an additive effect.
First say, “Stop.” Then add a positive coping statement that you want to believe, such as:
I expect to feel some worry over this, but I know I will cope though it.
This may seem hard now, but it will become easier and easier over time.
When this is over, I will be glad that I did it.
I have more control over these thoughts and feelings than I once imagined.
Right now, I have feelings I do not like. They will be over with soon and I will be fine.
I have stopped my negative thoughts before and I am going to do it again. I am better and better at challenging my worry and anxiety.
Remember, when you or your child are deciding about the list of positive coping statements, keep in mind that these statements are like affirmations. The objective is to reprogram the computer in your head to fit the life you want, and create the momentum needed to be the person you know is hiding inside.
Who Am I?
If you or your child are not sure who that person is, make a list of what you “wish” you could be, or look at someone you respect and make a list of his or her personality traits you would like to incorporate into your own life. Then, “fake it until you make it” and gear your positive statements toward your list.
However, beware: If you try to incorporate positive statements that you could not believe in a million years, it won't work. This approach will be most effective when you choose statements that are reasonable and believable. Saying “I know I will sing the song perfectly tonight,” is unrealistic if 1) you have never sung it perfectly in the past and/or 2) you are like most people and make mistakes at times. A more realistic positive statement, such as “I'm going to give it my best and feel good about my effort” will have a much better result.
Thought-Stopping with Young Children
Young children may find it hard to understand what you mean by “creating your own anxious thoughts,” and therefore will not be able to understand how to use thought-stopping. A fun approach to try would be to play “the question game.” As you read a book with pictures together, stop and ask with each picture, “Humm, I wonder what he is thinking, what would be your guess?”
If your child struggles at the beginning, help her work it through like this “Well, let's see if we can tell by her eyes, or her face,” then move to her body, “what do you think her arms are saying crossed like that?” This allows you the opportunity to help your child identify possibilities, positive ones as well, in an effort to understand his own feelings better.
Then talk about how to say “Stop” and replace the thought with something like this: “Yes, her eyes do looked worried, do you think she is worried her dad will miss her game? Maybe she can say “Stop” to herself and remember that he has never missed a game yet and he helps her practice all the time, so he either is on his way or has a very good reason if he does not show. What else do you think she can say to herself?”
This approach is also a great way to help children identify feelings and separate out the difference between a thought and a feeling, which can be difficult for younger children. Another option would be to have your child say “Stop” and then imagine locking up her fears or worry in an imaginary box. She might actually feel better if she knows she can come back to it at another time when it does not interfere with moving forward.
It is difficult for a young child to understand the difference between a thought and a feeling. An explanation of that difference might sound like: “A thought is something that happens in your head, like all of a sudden when you see your toothbrush and you are thinking ‘Oh, mommy said to brush my teeth!’ A feeling is something that might happen in your stomach or heart. That would be like the feeling of butterflies in your belly because you forgot, and you think I will be upset.”
Questions You Can Ask Yourself
When addressing your negative self-talk or that of your child, it is important to refute the automatic negative mindset, as noted earlier. A great way to make this happen is to ask these questions when you start to worry:
What makes me think this is true?
If a friend told me this what would I say to them?
How many times has this happened before?
What is the worst that could happen if it were true?
If it happened, how would I cope through it?
Another trick to stop old patterns or negative talk is to concentrate on what you say about the worrisome situation and how you say it. You can use this approach yourself, or with older children. Imagine telling this worry to your best friend. Notice the exact words you use. What would that friend say to be caring and validating? What might this person say to help you feel better about yourself, and how would she say it? What you imagine this friend would say or do for you is what you need to do for yourself; that is, to be compassionate with yourself, which increases confidence and decreases the impact of negative thinking.