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

Laurel von Syda

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

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
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

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Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
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Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.
"Be patient. We don’t know what we want to do or who we want to be. That feels really bad sometimes. Just keep reminding us that it’s okay that we don’t have it all figured out yet, and maybe remind yourself sometimes too."
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 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #neuronurtured #braindevelopment #adolescence  #neurodevelopment #parentingteens

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