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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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