Fixing Teenage Thinking Errors
Do you have a teenager who is never at fault, or refuses to take responsibility for her actions always, blaming someone else? Or maybe your teen gets angry and storms off at the drop of hat, acting like he is a helpless victim? Is your teenager one of those kids who is constantly anxious or upset, with every little incident becoming a drama that is bigger than Ben Hur? Chances are you have an adolescent who is struggling with common phenomena known as “thinking errors.”
Thinking errors, also called Cognitive Distortions, are mistaken patterns of thinking that cause us to distort how we view certain situations. By exaggerating or taking an irrational approach to certain events, thinking errors cause unjustified, and unhelpful, thoughts and emotions to dominate our response to life. When left unchecked thinking errors can cause people to spiral into ever-increasing patterns of negative emotions and behaviour.
Thinking errors are repeated patterns of thinking that create distorted views of reality. A thinking error is not a one-off mistake where we just get confused, misunderstand, or miscalculate. Thinking errors are habitual. It is the cognitive equivalent of always committing the same typing error, or spelling the same word incorrectly; it is a repeatable mistake that has become a habit.
Thinking Errors and Parents
The truth is we all commit thinking errors nearly every day, as we twist things in our minds to justify self-defeating or unwise behaviours. Most of the time the damage is relatively limited. Like when you tell yourself during a diet that you deserve that extra piece of cake because you have been so good lately. Or you worry that you have offended your friend because they didn’t wave back at you when you passed them on the street.
Our thinking errors usually don’t cause any issues because they are over relatively minor matters, or we have learned to intervene and interrupt our errors when we catch ourselves in the act. In some cases, persistent thinking errors do become problematic for adults, and are very common in people who suffer from anxiety or depressive-related conditions.
The reason thinking errors impact teenagers are that they have not yet developed the capacity and knowledge how to spot and manage their own thinking errors. This is compounded by teenagers being wired to experience strong overwhelming emotions which they struggle to manage and keep in check.
Parents can play a significant role in assisting their adolescent kids to identify and overcome their thinking errors.
Being able to spot your teen’s thinking errors will save you, and your teen, a whole lot of energy and angst. So many arguments with teenagers are fueled by thinking errors. Many teenage dramas and emotional outbursts have thinking errors sitting behind them. And lots of parental hurt and anxiety is created by unchecked teen thinking errors – and some parental thinking errors along the way.
So in this post we are going to look at 7 common thinking errors teenagers exhibit and what you can do when your teen gets stuck in an unhelpful mental malaise.
When a teenager catastrophises they perceive a potentially unfavorable outcome to an event and then conclude that if this outcome does happen, the consequences will be disastrous. Needless to say the outcome is always far less dramatic than originally believed.
“If I fail this exam, my school results will be a disaster, and I will never be able to do what I want to do in life.”
“If my boyfriend leaves me, I will never find true love anywhere else, and I will be alone forever”
“If I don’t check my social media soon, then I will miss out on the biggest thing to happen this century, and I won’t be able to talk to anyone!”
Catastrophising is also called magnifying because it focuses on magnifying things way out of proportion. Scenarios are created that are ridiculous in how unlikely they are, but the adolescent see’s them as being highly probable.
When a young person catastrophises they will likely turn little problems into big ones. The danger is they anticipate issues so much that can actually end up creating them.
How to Deal With Catastrophising
- Wait Until the Peak Emotion Has Settled: Trying to be calm or logical with a teenager who is in the middle of an emotional meltdown is completely counterproductive, and will jeopardise your chances of being able to speak into the situation when they have calmed down. When they are expressing how they feel focus on showing that you appreciate what is must be like for them to be going through that experience.
- Ask How Realistic The Outcome Is: Once your teen is calmer, help your teen confront the erroneous thought pattern by getting them to consider how likely their feared outcome really is. Questions like “Has every person who failed an exam dropped out of school?” “Isn’t it possible that other people have been dumped and still found happiness later in life?””Has something like this happened before, did it turn out as bad as you are imaging this time”
- Bad Stuff Happens in Life: Teenagers are susceptible to irrational thinking partly because they lack the life experience to contradict the faulty thought patterns. Communicate to your teen that life consists of good days and bad days. One bad day doesn’t mean every day will be awful, just as one good day doesn’t mean every day will be great.
- Encourage Alternative Outcomes: Get your teen to consider possible alternative outcomes that have more positive connotations. Don’t oversell the potential positives, sometimes just focusing on more probable outcomes is helpful and can interrupt the faulty thinking cycle.
- Identify the Pattern: Teens who catastrophise are likely to do so repeatedly. Teaching your teen to identify the pattern can help them choose to think differently when they become aware it is happening. Help your teen understand what occurs i.e. Negative experience, is followed by unpleasant feelings, then thoughts that the feelings will never go away, so therefore life will be miserable. If a young person learns to spot the pattern they can interrupt the thought process and choose to se the situation differently.
All Or Nothing Thinking
All-or-nothing thinking occurs when your teenager reverts to thinking in extremes. She considers herself as either totally good or totally bad. If she hasn’t succeed to her standard then she has failed. If he hasn’t done a perfect job then he considers himself useless.
This type of thinking is common in kids who a perfectionists or who have a strong need to feel in control.
The talented straight A student who gets a B one day considers the result makes her a complete failure.
The musician who plays on wrong note in a performance (that 99% of the audience did not notice) comes away mortified and embarrassed about how badly he has performed
The young guy trying to eat a healthy diet feels like a failure and wants to give up because he had a piece of cake at a party
The teenage student who has been working hard at maths become despondent and says he will “never be any good at maths” because he only 75% on his math test
Teenagers who suffer from all or nothing thinking, think in absolutes, where everything they do is considered in terms of being either black or white – they don’t consider the shades of grey. They can only think of themselves in terms of absolute success or total failure.
How to Deal With All or Nothing Thinking
- Help Acknowledge Shades of Grey: Talk to your teenager in non-binary language by suggesting that there is usually more than 2 possible outcomes. “I don’t think a B is a failure – it is less than an A, but it is a long way from being a failure” or “I understand you are disappointed about the B, but how many A’s have you got this semester, and how many D’s? Doesn’t really sound like you are failing or a failure.”
- Recall the positives Experiences: The other direct challenge to the logical flaw in all-or-nothing thinking is to recall the opposite examples that contradict the “nothing” conclusion. “How many A’s have you got this semester? Is that normal for people who are failing” Or “What marks were you getting a year ago in Maths? How many times have you got more than that since you started really focusing on it?” The other even more powerful antidote is to get your teen to make a list of the positives over a period of time. This both works as a means of retraining their brain to think differently, but is also handy to pull out next time they feel like a hopeless failure.
- Would everyone else see it the way you do: Encouraging your teen to take a different view point can be another way of helping them confront the thinking distortion. To the mortified musician some questions like “Would anyone else at the performance think you played terribly or have no talent? Did anyone comment on how terrible the wrong note sounded?” Or for the teen on a health kick you might try “So if someone else was to look at what you have eaten in the last 2 weeks, would they say you are failing to eat healthily? Has anyone commented that you look less healthy since you had that piece of cake?”
- Create a Culture of Acceptance: The other more general, but equally important way to combat all-or-nothing thinking, is to create a culture of acceptance that is not linked to performance. That is, try to establish habits of affirming your teen and their importance to you and the family is ways that aren’t linked to specific achievement or success. Particularly in families which have high preforming or over achieving parents and siblings, it can be hard for a teenager to feel okay unless they are overachieving. Consequently, if they don’t achieve a super high standard they can feel like a failure.
Minimisation is just as it sounds, a teenager unrealistically minimises the impact of an event and/or the impact of her own role in the event. Essentially is the error occurs when a young person tries to make something seem less significant than it was.
By depreciating the significance of an event or an action a teenager is able to minimise either their agency or more specifically, their accountability for a particular event.
Minimising usually occurs when a teen seeks to downplay their involvement in an particular situation. Sometimes to avoid accountability for a negative action, such as minimising his poor treatment of someone else “I didn’t push him that hard.” “I didn’t say much, it was mostly other people teasing her.” Or it could be in a self-effacing way seeking to redirect positive feedback “I didn’t really help much, it was mostly others.” “The rest of the team have all the talent, they don’t really need me.”
The other common form of minimisation teenagers engage in is when it is used to mask the impact of a discouraging event “It wasn’t that important to me.” “I didn’t really care anyway.”
How to Deal With Minimising
- Hold Your Teen Accountable: When your teen is trying to downplay their part in a negative event, keep them accountable by removing any minimising adjectives. Focus on the simple “did you?” or “didn’t you?” Remove relativity from the equation, either they did something unhelpful or they didn’t. Then hold your teen to account for their action. This is also the approach for the young person who downplays the positive contribution they make. When your teen deflects and gives credit to everyone else redirect the conversation to focusing on what he actually did do “I am sure you did something, what were some of the things you did?” Encourage your teen to share, even if they consider it nothing. Once they do admit to doing something talk through what the outcomes of their actions were and how these actions contributed to the overall outcome.
- Keep Focus On individual Behaviour: Minimising often entails deflecting responsibility to others. It is important to keep the focus of the conversation on what your teenager was responsible for doing. Your teen is trying to reduce his culpability by magnifying others, your task is to turn the magnifying glass on to your teenager and reduce the focus on others. “We are not talking about what other people did or didn’t do, we are discussing what you did.”
- Re-frame the Impact: If your teen is using minimising to avoid admitting disappointment or hurt, gently re-frame the outcome in the form of empathy. “If that had happened to me I think I would have been pretty upset. Does part of you feel sad about what happened?” By acknowledging your capacity to feel unpleasant emotions, you give your teens permission and safety to admit the real impact of what has happened.
We probably all know someone who suffers from this type of thinking error – it is never their fault, others are always out to get them, and if only they had the same good fortune as others they would be a in a far better spot.
The Victim Mentality – or blaming – is one of the most common thinking errors in teenagers. It is most commonly used when a teen wants to avoid taking responsibility for a task they perceive to be boring, difficult, or just inconvenient.
Victim Mentality flourishes among teenagers because of the adolescent preoccupation with justice, or more accurately perceived injustice. When a teenager adopts a victim mentality they feel that others are responsible for all their misfortune and the negative outcomes they have experienced.
This type of thinking is very convenient as it enables a teenager to avoid admitting that they have made mistakes or are in any way responsible for their circumstances. The ultimate benefit for the individual who think like this is they never have to change. Life becomes about making excuses not making changes or making an effort.
If left unchecked the victim stance in teenagers can lead to increased levels of hostility, entitlement and a distinct lack of gratitude and respect towards others. It can also contribute to a young person developing a negative identity and becoming a self fulfilling failure because they never try. Some adolescents even develop a sense of pleasure in always feeling sorry for themselves or angry at the world.
How to Deal With Victim Thinking:
- Value Accountability: Taking personal responsibility for actions is the key to reducing victim thinking. You want your home to be a place where each person learns to own his or her words and actions. If you, your partner, or your kids are in the habit of blaming, making excuses, or making the problem someone else, then you are not valuing accountability. When your teen starts making like a victim redirect the conversation by saying “We are not talking about what your sister did, we are talking about what you did…” or “I’m not talking about your teacher, I am talking to you about what stopped you getting your homework getting done” The focus of the conversation is to be on what your teen did or didn’t do – don’t let her take you down the path of talking about someone else actions.
- Call it as it is: When you hear your teen adopt a victim stance then call them out on it. “It sounds to me like you are blaming your brother for you not completing your chores…” or “Are saying that it is your father’s fault you didn’t get organised to get out of the house on time? Sounds like you are making your dad responsible for your actions”
- Hold Your Teen Responsible: Your teenager will continue to use victim thinking until it stops working for him. It will stop working for him when he is made to take responsibility for his actions – even if he thinks others are to blame. If he has failed to act i.e. complete homework or do chores, or has chosen to act inappropriately i.e. hitting his brother, or swearing at a teacher, then you need to ensure that he experiences the approprite consequences for his actions.
Any of the above approaches are liable to cause your teen to argue, call you names, and generally over react. This is good, it means you are confronting the reality distortion. It is crucial you don’t back down, or get sucked into a phony argument. Stay calm, call out the thinking error, and hold your teen to account.
This thinking error is particularly prevalent in teenagers. Most adolescents go through a phase of believing they are different to everyone else in a special kind of way. This thinking results in feelings of being destined for greatness, deserving some sort of privilege, or thinking they are more invincible than others and hence increased risk-taking.
When it becomes particularly problematic is when it results in a teenager thinking he or she isn’t bound by the normal rules or expectations that others are bound by.
“I don’t need to go bed, because I don’t need as much sleep as other people”
“I don’t need to study for that test as I can pass okay without study”
“I am not like my friends I hang out with, so I won’t be influenced to take drugs like they do”
Essentially this thinking error is yet another way teenagers avoid taking responsibility or ignore potential consequences that would require effort on their part to avoid. It can all lead to really bad judgement calls by a teenager.
How to Deal With Absolute Uniqueness
The most effective way to deal with this type of thinking error is to confront them with some of the likely situations that could occur based on their current reasoning
“So then I can expect no complaining or tardiness when its time to get up for school in the morning, and if you are snappy and irritable I’ll assume it is not because you are tired” You could even let this play out once or twice, and then if such claims persist in the future remind your teen of evidence to the contrary..
“So if you just pass are you going to be okay with that? What ifs you don’t pass, how will that make you feel?” Or if something similar has happened before and there was a negative consequence saying something like “Remember when you failed that science assessment last term? You didn’t think you needed to study for that either.”
“How will you feel if everyone else is doing something and you are the only one not doing it? What will you say when they offer you some drugs? How do you think that will go down with your new friends?
Generalising is when a teenager takes a single negative event and uses it as the basis to form an overarching theory about how life works. Basically because one bad things happened, similar bad things will happen over and over again.
Your daughter gets in trouble at school and concludes the teacher has it in for her and she is always getting in trouble.
A boy gets turned down by a girl he has had a crush on and he concludes that girls don’t like him and he will never get a girlfriend.
A teen hears a girl at school say something mean about her and concludes that all the girls at school hate her and she has no real friends.
Generalising, also known as over-generalisation, is common among young people because it is a simple way to categorise reality. It makes everything black and white and removes shades of grey and the resulting ambiguity. Unfortunately, life is rarely black and white, and not acknowledging ambiguity or nuance results in a faulty outlook on life.
How to Deal With Generalising
- Test the Logic: Get your over generalising teenager to summarise their argument i.e. “Because you failed one math test you hopeless at math” Then help them stress test their logic “Is one math test really proof that you can’t do math at all? Have you failed every math test you have ever done?”
- Challenge the Conclusion: Ask your teen if every one would come to the same conclusion if presented with the same amount of facts “Because you got in trouble of a teacher yesterday, do you think everyone else concludes that teacher now has it in for you?” “Does getting in trouble once really support the idea that you are “always” in trouble?”
What Would You Tell a Friend: Encourage your teen to take a different perspective. Say something like “If a friend came and told you the same thing happened to him, what would your advice be? What would say is going on? Is what you would say to your friend different to what you are saying to yourself?”
Teenagers are more likely than most to commit the Mind Reading thinking error. The mind-reading thinking error is essentially coming to a conclusion about some else thoughts by interpreting their actions. Because teenagers are highly aware of what others do or don’t think of them, they are more susceptible to committing this type of cognitive error.
Note that not all interpretation of behaviour is evidence of distorted thinking. We all engage in some form of mind reading every day. When we say something and someone laughs we are generally correct to interpret they found what we said funny. Or if we tell someone something and their mouth drops open, we can fairly assume they are shocked or surprised. Picking up on common cues is part of relating to others, and not a form of distorted thinking.
However mind reading becomes problematic when a person reads something, generally negative, into a behaviour that is ambiguous and could have multiple reasons and interpretations – most of which would be completely innocent and non-threatening.
A teenager waves to friend on the other side of the street and gets no response. Her conclusion – her friend hates her and wants nothing to do with her. The more likely scenario, her friend just didn’t see her on the other side of a busy street.
A teenage boy thinks his mother is angry at him because she walks into the house and doesn’t say hello to him straight away. More likely scenario, mum was rushing back to great something and didn’t even realise her son was in the house.
A young girl hears a group of friends laughing at the back of the classroom and instantly assumes they are laughing at her. More likely scenario, the girls were passing notes and making crude jokes that made them giggle.
These types of thinking errors can become problematic because they create a type of self fulfilling reality for the teenager. He reacts to what he perceives to be happening and in so doing makes something that wasn’t a problem into a problem. For instance the teenager might send a nasty message to her friend who didn’t wave back on the street, or tell her other friends not to talk to her because she is too “up herself”. Now there is a real problem to deal with, but it was literally created out of nothing, all because a teen committed a thinking error.
It is also very common for parents to experience a sudden spurt of negativity or rudeness from their teenager, and not because the parent has done anything wrong, but because the teenager has interpreted an innocent or unrelated action of the parent, as some personal slight against the teenager. The teenage mind creates drama and tension where there was none.
How to Deal With Mind Reading
- Does all the Evidence Support the Conclusion: Challenge your teenager to consider what else they have to support their conclusion about what a person might allegedly be thinking. “Has the friend who didn’t wave back indicated in any other way she does not want to be your friend, or that you have upset him in someway?” Or “Did your mother have a reason to be angry at you? Doesn’t your mum normally make it very clear if she is upset with something you have done?” Or “What reason would the girls have at laughing at you? Had you done something embarrassing recently that would be funny to them?”
- Encourage Consideration of Other Possibilities: Be the one who presents alternative interpretations of the facts. “Couldn’t the girls have been laughing at a joke one of them said, or laughing at something they were passing around?” “Isn’t possible that it was a busy street and she just didn’t see you? Maybe she had her earphones in and was focused on what she was listening to?” Or “Did your mother look like she was rushing? Is it possible she was thinking about something else that was urgent and just didn’t even notice you were in the house?” This approach doesn’t necessarily produce instant results, but it is worth doing to highlight to your teen there are other possibilities and they are making
- Act Against The Conclusion: Sometimes the mind reading is a function of the teenager projecting his fears or insecurities onto others. Your teenager feels like he is not as cool as everyone else, so he projects that thought onto everyone else and assumes they think the same thing. One way to challenge both the thinking error and the insecurity is to encourage your teen to act the opposite of what they feel like doing. So for the girl who thinks her friend ignored her and therefore doesn’t like her, encourage your teen to treat her as though nothing has happened and be friendly and chatty with her the next time she sees her. Or the boy who thinks mum is angry, encourage him to start a normal conversation next time he feels like she is angry with him. In doing this the teenager not only confronts their internal fear but also is testing their conclusion. While risky, such a process can have the most significant immediate impact on correcting a teenager’s thinking and assumptions.
So there are 7 thinking errors common in teenagers and what you as a parent can do to help your teen correct them. As with all things relating to managing teenage behaviour, lasting results take time, and the first attempt is not always successful. I encourage you to stick at it. Who knows, you might even overcome some of your own thinking errors along the way.