Intrusive Thoughts: 5 Ways to Help Your Child Take Back Control (by Carla Buck)

Intrusive Thoughts: 5 Ways to Help Your Child Take Back Control

Your teenager has confided in you this week. She told you that she can’t stop thinking that she’ll fail her next set of exams. The thoughts won’t leave her and the longer they go on, the more convincing they become. ‘This isn’t the first time this has happened’, she says. 

She talks through her tears about how overwhelming it is to live like this. She keeps having these thoughts – that her friends won’t like her, or that something might happen to you when she isn’t with you, and now she wants you to know. When this happens, it can feel as if you are watching your life from afar. As if it isn’t even yours anymore.

As a parent, the desire to control your world can feel overwhelming. Especially, if your child struggles with unwanted thoughts. In the same way you try to control your world, so does your child. This need your child has to control their world is the birthplace of a vicious cycle of unwanted thoughts. Here are five ways to help your child manage any intrusive thoughts that might be pushing a little too hard for attention:

  1. Training our thoughts is like training a puppy.

    Explain intrusive thoughts in a simple way. Try this:

    ‘…unwanted thoughts are like that puppy that keeps dropping his ball at your feet. The more you throw that ball, the more he chases after it and brings it back each time with more energy. As you start to ignore him, he won’t go away immediately. But soon he’ll lose interest and leave you alone. When you want to wash your hands for the 5th time in one hour, remind yourself that it will only feel good in the moment. You will keep needing to do it over and over again. Do your best to ignore the thought, and not act on your need to get reassurance by washing your hands one more time.

    Alternatively, put a limit on it. Make yourself the deal that you’ll only wash your hands say, twice, instead of every time you get the pushy thought. This way, you’ll be doing what you need to do to feel safe, but you’ll be training your mind to stop the worry loop.’

  2. One step at a time.

    Create a ladder of upsetting thoughts together. Ask your child or teen to, ‘start at the bottom of the ladder with the thought that is least disturbing to you. Work your way up the ladder to the thought at the top that is most scary to you. Practice thinking about each thought while not turning to [insert compulsion or obsession here] to be in control.’ This will help your child to take back the reigns, and reclaim the power back from their intrusive thoughts.

  3. Your child’s “bad thoughts” do not make him or her a “bad person”.

    According to researchers Clark and Radomsky ‘… unwanted intrusive thoughts are reported by the majority of individuals in all countries.’ Not being in control feels chaotic and overwhelming, and everyone has felt this way before… I am here to tell you that your child is not a hot mess and *newsflash* nor are you. Everyone ~parents and children alike~ feel like this from time to time. The opposite of needing to be in control of your world, is feeling content in your own skin. So what can you do with your child today that makes you and your child really feel content? Try getting outdoors – perhaps meet at the park or even walk along the beach. See if your child has some ideas for what you can do together to help them feel more comfortable in their own shoes.

  4. Say it out loud.

    Encourage your child to say bold words out loud: “I am smart. I am brave. I am strong.” Having someone who genuinely listens to your child and cares about them is such a relief for you and your child. This can be a parent, teacher, therapist, or all the above. Voicing intrusive thoughts can be very powerful. The same thoughts that feel so real and self-defining, will crumble when said out loud. Your child will realize how worthless each unwanted thought is. This way, she will learn to separate her own self-worth from her unwanted thoughts. Remember parents: your job is only to listen here. Not fix, nor react – only listen. This will help create space for your child to say more positive beliefs about herself.

  5. Focus on What You Can Do

    Remind your child: ‘By focusing on what is in your control and what you can do, you allow yourself to be in charge. Try to focus on the small things that make you smile. What is it that makes you happy more than anything?’ This can be a good question for parents too. If you can’t think, go back to basics: Have you rested well? Have you been eating food from your own kitchen or take out instead? When last did you go for a walk and get some sunshine and fresh air? Getting back to basics will help you both do more of the things you love, and worry less about the things that you have no control over.

Helping your child or teen get rid of their unwanted thoughts can be challenging. The short-term relief of giving in to a certain behavior can make your child feel like it’s easier than the hard work needed for a long-term reward. What keeps obsessive and compulsive thoughts and behaviors thriving? It is not the experience of the intrusive thought but your child’s reaction to it.

The more attention you and your child give to intrusive thoughts, the more frequent and more intense these thoughts become. Knowing this, doesn’t mean it will be an easy task to diminish intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are strong, but with your love, patience and guidance your child can be even stronger. It might take time, but providing your child with the information they need to understand and manage their intrusive thoughts can be a powerful step in the right direction. As Marsha Linehan said, ‘we do the best we can with what we have available, at any given time.’ Finally, be kind and fair to yourself as a parent and don’t judge yourself on your child’s ‘bad thoughts’. Intrusive thoughts can find their way into the strongest and healthiest young minds, but with you by their side, your child or teen can move forward with strength and courage and discover their own power over intrusive thoughts.


About the Author: Carla Buck

Carla Buck, M.A., is a writer, mental health therapist and global traveler having travelled to more than 75 countries worldwide. She has experience working with children and their parents all over the world, having lived, worked and volunteered in Africa, North America, Europe and the Middle East. Carla is the creator of Warrior Brain Parenting, helping moms and dads confidently raise their secure and calm children. 

You can visit her website and learn more at warriorbrain.com or join the Warrior Brain Parenting community on Facebook.

6 Comments

Ela

My daughter. Is avoiding me her mother. She was having Ocd ,bit afyrr baby born I can’t recognize her. She doesn’t like to get any help. It’s got so bad that she cut me off and hiding. She is paranoia. I can’t even see my grandson. What a tragedy !!! She list any empathy and affection. I don’t know what to do

Reply
Carla

I am sorry to hear that Ela. It can be so hard to not feel like you even recognize your own daughter! I hope you can get through to her with a lot of patience, listening and encouragement. Thinking of you Ela!

Reply
Corrine

Great tips! As someone who struggles with anxiety, a therapist helped me by encouraging me to really delve into the worst case scenario. So, you fail the test, and what happens next? Is failing really the worst thing in the world? Just acknowledging the worst outcome helped me realize that it wasn’t the end of the world. This helped me relax!

Reply
Carla

Such a great point, Corrine! Often times the “worst case scenario” is not as awful as we think it is. Thanks for sharing this helpful tip to relax.

Reply
Laurel von Syda

When a person discloses suicidal thoughts , it is time for a psychiatric eval!
Please advise readers of this.

Reply

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Growth doesn’t always announce itself in ways that feel safe or invited. Often, it can leave us exhausted and confused and with dirt in our pores from the fury of the battle. It is this way for all of us, our children too. 

The truth of it all is that we are all born with a profound and immense capacity to rise through challenges, changes and heartache. There is something else we are born with too, and it is the capacity to add softness, strength, and safety for each other when the movement towards growth feels too big. Not always by finding the answer, but by being it - just by being - safe, warm, vulnerable, real. As it turns out, sometimes, this is the richest source of growth for all of us.
When the world feel sunsettled, the ripple can reach the hearts, minds and spirits of kids and teens whether or not they are directly affected. As the important adult in the life of any child or teen, you have a profound capacity to give them what they need to steady their world again.

When their fears are really big, such as the death of a parent, being alone in the world, being separated from people they love, children might put this into something else. 

This can also happen because they can’t always articulate the fear. Emotional ‘experiences’ don’t lay in the brain as words, they lay down as images and sensory experiences. This is why smells and sounds can trigger anxiety, even if they aren’t connected to a scary experience. The ‘experiences’ also don’t need to be theirs. Hearing ‘about’ is enough.

The content of the fear might seem irrational but the feeling will be valid. Think of it as the feeling being the part that needs you. Their anxiety, sadness, anger (which happens to hold down other more vulnerable emotions) needs to be seen, held, contained and soothed, so they can feel safe again - and you have so much power to make that happen. 

‘I can see how worried you are. There are some big things happening in the world at the moment, but my darling, you are safe. I promise. You are so safe.’ 

If they have been through something big, the truth is that they have been through something frightening AND they are safe, ‘We’re going through some big things and it can be confusing and scary. We’ll get through this. It’s okay to feel scared or sad or angry. Whatever you feel is okay, and I’m here and I love you and we are safe. We can get through anything together.’
I love being a parent. I love it with every part of my being and more than I ever thought I could love anything. Honestly though, nothing has brought out my insecurities or vulnerabilities as much. This is so normal. Confusing, and normal. 

However many children we have, and whatever age they are, each child and each new stage will bring something new for us to learn. It will always be this way. Our children will each do life differently, and along the way we will need to adapt and bend ourselves around their path to light their way as best we can. But we won't do this perfectly, because we can't always know what mountains they'll need to climb, or what dragons they'll need to slay. We won't always know what they’ll need, and we won't always be able to give it. We don't need to. But we'll want to. Sometimes we’ll ache because of this and we’ll blame ourselves for not being ‘enough’. Sometimes we won't. This is the vulnerability that comes with parenting. 

We love them so much, and that never changes, but the way we feel about parenting might change a thousand times before breakfast. Parenting is tough. It's worth every second - every second - but it's tough. Great parents can feel everything, and sometimes it can turn from moment to moment - loving, furious, resentful, compassionate, gentle, tough, joyful, selfish, confused and wise - all of it. Great parents can feel all of it.

Because parenting is pure joy, but not always. We are strong, nurturing, selfless, loving, but not always. Parents aren't perfect. Love isn't perfect. And it was meant to be. We’re raising humans - real ones, with feelings, who don't need to be perfect, and wont  need others to be perfect. Humans who can be kind to others, and to themselves first. But they will learn this from us. Parenting is the role which needs us to be our most human, beautifully imperfect, flawed, vulnerable selves. Let's not judge ourselves for our shortcomings and the imperfections, and the necessary human-ness of us.❤️
The behaviour that comes with separation anxiety is the symptom not the problem. To strengthen children against separation anxiety, we have to respond at the source – the felt sense of separation from you.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person, there will be always be anxiety unless there is at least one of 2 things: attachment with another trusted, adult; or a felt sense of you holding on to them, even when you aren’t beside them. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it needs more than an adult being present. Just because there is another adult in the room, doesn’t mean your child will experience a deep sense of safety with that adult. This doesn’t mean the adult isn’t safe - it’s about what the brain perceives, and that brain is looking for a deep, felt sense of safety. This will come from the presence of an adult who, through their strong, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for them, and their joy in doing so. The joy in caretaking is important. It lets the child rest from seeking the adult’s care because there will be a sense that the adult wants it enough for both.

This can be helped along by showing your young one that you trust the adult to love and care for your child and keep him or her safe in your absence: ‘I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.’ This doesn’t mean children will instantly feel the attachment, but the path towards that will be more illuminated.

To help them feel you holding on even when you aren’t with them, let them know you’ll be thinking of them and can’t wait to be with them again. I used to tell my daughter that every 15 seconds, my mind makes sure it knows where she is. Think of this as ‘taking over’ their worry. ‘You don’t have to worry about you or me because I’m taking care of both of us – every 15 seconds.’ This might also look like giving them something of yours to hold on to while you’re gone – a scarf, a note. You will always be their favourite way to safety, but you can’t be everywhere. Another loving adult or the felt presence of you will help them rest.
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say or whether to say anything at all. It doesn’t matter if the ‘right’ words aren’t there, because often there no right words. There are also no wrong ones. Often it’s not even about the words. Your presence, your attention, the sound of your voice - they all help to soften the hard edges of the world. Humans have been talking for as long as we’ve had heartbeats and there’s a reason for this. Talking heals. 

It helps to connect the emotional right brain with the logical left. This gives context and shape to feelings and helps them feel contained, which lets those feelings soften. 

You don’t need to fix anything and you don’t need to have all the answers. Even if the words land differently to the way you expected, you can clean it up once it’s out there. What’s important is opening the space for conversation, which opens the way to you. Try, ‘I’m wondering how you’re doing with everything. Would you like to talk?’ 

And let them take the lead. Some days they’ll want to talk about ‘it’ and some days they’ll want to talk about anything but. Whether it’s to distract from the mess of it all or to go deeper into it so they can carve their way through the feeling to the calm on the other side, healing will come. So ask, ‘Do you want to talk about ‘it’ or do you want to talk about something else? Because I’m here for both.’ ♥️
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