To all the animal rights activists, you can relax; this is not to be taken literally. I know a few friends who wouldn’t dare step on an ant! Not anything like the tiny creature, ANTs, or Automatic Negative Thoughts, are just that – an immediate negative response to a situation or event and can become a much bigger problem than those little tiny rodents. These responses are often skewed, based on false or an exaggerated perception, and almost entirely based on feelings. Everyone has ANTs occasionally but, what happens when a child or teenager consistently goes directly to negative and self-defeating thoughts? Sadly, those ANTs lead to FEELINGS (such as depression, anxiety, anger, loneliness, hopelessness) and persistent negative FEELINGS lead to ACTIONS or BEHAVIOR (such as skipping school, recreational drugs, temper tantrums, isolating self, anorexia, acting out and so much more).
Here are a few examples of ANTs commonly shared by children and teens …
“I didn’t get picked to play kickball with them. Everyone thinks I’m no good.”
“I never get invited to parties. I’m such a nobody.”
“The teacher corrected me again. She hates me.”
“I forgot to do my homework. I am such a loser. I can’t ever get it right. I give up.”
There are many DIFFERENT types of ANTs as well. All of which are dysfunctional and can lead to continual unhealthy emotions and behaviors. Here are EIGHT common ways we perceive events in a dysfunctional manner:
- Jumping to conclusions (making quick assumptions)
- Mental filtering (picking out the negative details while ignoring the positive)
- Magnifying (magnifying the negative aspects of a situation)
- Minimizing (minimizing positive aspects of a situation)
- Personalizing (assuming the blame when you are not responsible)
- Externalizing (pushing the blame on to others when you are primarily responsible)
- Overgeneralizing (concluding that one bad outcome will result in a pattern of defeat)
- Emotional reasoning (responding to your feelings as factual)
How does a child or teen learn to SQUASH the ANTs? The word SQUASH means “to crush” or “to silence” according to dictionary.com (my favorite dictionary and thesaurus resource:). There is good news! There are steps a child can learn and practice in order to silence their ANTs. I created an acronym for SQUASH and I will take you through the process. I want to emphasize this takes mindful practice and often, extensive counseling.
S – STOP and recognize the ANT and the negative feelings those thoughts have produced. Often, the feeling is noticed first. For example, “I am feeling irritable all of the sudden. What is that about?” You may replace the word “irritable” with a plethora of feelings such as sad, angry, down, lonely, etc. Once you notice the feeling, you can trace back to an event that happened just before then.
Q- QUESTION the accuracy of the thought – what proof do you have FOR or AGAINST that thought? Challenge the validity of the thought and how sure are you that it is true and FACT. Also, question feelings that may be skewing your perception – fear? insecurity? lack of control? Or possibly a reminder of a past hurtful event?
U – URGE yourself to think like the most loving, understanding person you know. What would that person say to you? What would they recommend you do in this situation? How would they respond if it happened to them?
A – ACCEPT your new and more accurate thoughts and ACT accordingly. For example, if you have decided that Emily did not exclude you on purpose or to hurt you, then you would not harbor ill feelings towards her or act begrudgingly.
S – SELF-REGULATE your emotions by deep breathing, muscle relaxation, yoga, or another calming technique. This will require practice and forming new habits of coping.
H – HELP someone else by sharing your experiences with ANTs and learning to SQUASH them – this will not only help them but will help YOU build your “muscles” for SQUASHing. No one around to help or share with? Keep a journal of your SQUASHing. This step will reinforce your new habits and healthy thought processes.
A counselor is a valuable asset for teaching this process to your child or teen but, you can facilitate this process at home. Ask your child questions, without shaming or attacking, which will help them challenge their ANTs. Give other possibilities for why something may have happened like it did. For example, “You know a lot of parents give a limit to the number of people invited to a birthday party because it costs too much money or there is not enough room. This could have been a very hard decision for Emily.”
Above all, do not jump on the ANT train! Be understanding to your child’s feelings but don’t over sympathize, become angry, or take up the cause. Consider this response when your son comes home after being asked a question about the material in class in which he was not prepared, “That is so wrong of your teacher to call you out and humiliate you like that! I am going to give him a call tomorrow or better yet, I will call Principal Patterson.” If you do this, your son will be either rewarded by all the attention received or they will decide to NOT share with you in the future. Regardless, your son did not learn anything of value from his experience.
This has been a lengthy blog but, one of the more lifelong beneficial pieces I have written. I hope it will cause you to stop and respond differently next time your child (or you!) experiences a hurtful event. If your child or teen is showing persistent signs of depression, tearfulness, withdrawal, stress, or anxiety, please seek a professional counselor or physician’s assistance.