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.

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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