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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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