Last Modified: November 25, 2023 | Published: April 11, 2023

What is Cognitive Restructuring?

Cognitive restructuring is a way to teach someone to challenge negative thoughts that are not true.

Our thoughts affect how we feel about ourselves. Negative thoughts can make us feel bad. Cognitive restructuring is a way to challenge negative thoughts that aren’t based on reality. Once we realize they are not true, we often feel better about ourselves. 

A caring adult can teach a child to use cognitive restructuring. Cognitive restructuring is most often used to address issues like anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem

How Cognitive Restructuring Can Help Your Child

Cognitive restructuring can help your child improve their self-esteem and mental health.

Cognitive restructuring helps your child see the connection between their thoughts and feelings. They can learn to challenge negative thoughts that aren’t true. The technique comes from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is an evidence-based therapy method. 

Help your child out of thinking traps

Thinking traps are negative thoughts that aren’t true but cause a lot of distress.

Also called cognitive distortions, these negative thoughts are not based on reality. An example would be a child failing a school test and thinking that this one failure means they will never succeed.

Cognitive distortions are completely normal. Everyone has these thinking patterns. However, it is well worth the effort to work on them because these thoughts can do a lot of damage to your child’s self-esteem and mental health. 

How to Use Cognitive Restructuring at Home

Cognitive restructuring can be done at home. You can help your child understand their own thinking patterns and evaluate them more effectively. The time to use cognitive restructuring at home is when your child has a self-esteem problem or mild anxiety. Use HelpMe Cadey to explore how cognitive restructuring can help your specific situation with your child.

Here is an example of how to help your child with cognitive restructuring at home.

Identify and challenge negative thoughts

Help your child recognize when they are having negative thoughts that contribute to their anxiety. Encourage them to question the accuracy of these thoughts and come up with more realistic and positive alternatives.

Three ways to identify and challenge negative thoughts

  1. Cognitive distortions: Teach your child to identify “thinking traps” such as catastrophizing, black-and-white thinking, and overgeneralization.
  2. Examine the evidence: Help your child reframe negative thoughts by asking questions such as “Is this thought really true?” or “What evidence do we have to support this thought?”
  3. Balance the thoughts: Encourage your child to come up with more balanced and positive thoughts to replace negative ones.

Now, let’s dig deeper into each section of that answer.

1. Work through cognitive distortions with your child

In the above example, ‘thinking traps’ refers to cognitive distortions.

Three cognitive distortions are mentioned here: catastrophizing, black-and-white thinking, and overgeneralization.

Think briefly about whether your child has any of these going on in their thinking. Here’s what they look like in real life.

  • Catastrophizing: this thinking pattern is like ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’. It is the tendency to blow problems out of proportion and predict the worst possible outcome. The child might say, “this is the most embarrassing thing ever! I’m never going to be able to show my face in school again!”
  • Black-and-white thinking: this thinking pattern is an extreme way of looking at events or situations. The child may say, ‘this always happens!’ or ‘things never go my way’
  • Overgeneralization: this thinking pattern is the tendency to see one small example as the way it always goes. The child might say, “I failed one test, therefore I’m a terrible student.” 

To challenge cognitive distortions…you can try this 3 R strategy. 

  • Resonate – First just listen to your child and get curious about what emotion or belief may be provoking this thought
  • Relate – Next, let your child know that negative thoughts like this are very normal. Everyone struggles with these at times.
  • Redirect– Finally, help your child redirect their thinking in the search of evidence and a more balanced perspective. To learn how to do this, read the next section.

2. Examine the evidence about the negative thoughts

The next strategy from cognitive restructuring you may want to try is ‘examining the evidence.’

Think for a moment about your child’s tendency to jump to certain conclusions without facts or evidence. Here’s what it would look like in real life.

  • Extreme thoughts: your child may say something like, “I’m the worst player on the whole team!” Or, “I did worse than everyone else on that test.” 

To examine the evidence, you would want your child to think for a moment about how to know if this is indeed a fact. If others actually scored worse in the game or on the test, this thought is untrue.

  • Shame thoughts: your child may say something like, “Nobody likes me.” Or “My whole class is mad at me now.” 

To examine the evidence, your child may want to ask one of the other kids if they are mad or not. Your child may also want to think about how many friends they have in the class. If they have at least one friend, then it is untrue that “nobody likes them.” 

  • Future thoughts: your child may say something like, “I was the last one picked for softball today. Now, I will always be the last one picked and end up on the bench for the rest of the season.” 

To examine this thought, look around at other kids on the team. Is it true that they never got to play again after being the last one picked? 

3. Help your child balance their thoughts

The final strategy you may want to try within cognitive restructuring is ‘balancing the thoughts.’ This is the idea that a child will want to examine all of their negative experiences right next to the positive experiences. 

For example, your child may say, “I always suck at math” after failing one quiz. If you secretly know that your child is generally good at math, you might try this.

To balance the thought, say, remember what you said last week after you did so well on the big test?”  It could be that just last week your child said something like, “I am so good at math! I rocked that test.” 

In this way, you can help your child see that there may be just as many positive examples as negative examples. It is generally true that it’s your child’s perspective that is the issue, not the event that happened.

Just like with adults, the same event can be seen by one person as a positive and another as a negative.

You can help your child look at both sides of the coin. In what ways is this a bad experience? In what ways could it be good?

Allow your child to come up with negative answers. Then, press them for some positive examples as well.

Three Common Pitfalls with Cognitive Restructuring

Here are some common pitfalls to avoid when using Cognitive Restructuring with your child.

Cognitive distortions can have a very strong pull on your child’s thinking and emotions. Even if you are trying to be helpful, you may accidentally be ‘squashing’ their experience with your response. 

1. You may interrupt your child 

When your child comes in the door, saying something like, “Everyone hates me,” it can be natural to respond, “Oh, please don’t say that. Everyone loves you.”

This approach does not help for a couple reasons. For one, you haven’t really listened. Secondly, it is not true that everyone loves your child. You want to respond with empathy and honesty.

Instead, do this…Give your child a chance to ‘air that thought out.’ You want your child to feel heard. Get curious about these thoughts.

When your child says, “Everyone hates me” try to really listen. Then, you can say, “Oh, you must feel pretty bummed out.” Or, you might say, “Oh, did something happen today that got you thinking this way?” 

2. You may lose your patience

When your child says something extremely nonsensical, it may be natural to quickly lose your patience. You might find yourself saying something like, “Oh, c’mon now. You know that’s not true.” Try to resist the urge to do that.

Instead, do this…You want to let your child spend a little more time thinking things out. If the child says, “You always push my sister on the swings first. I never get a turn,” try to wait a minute.

Sit quietly with your child and say, “Oh, it seems like you feel frustrated by waiting for a turn.” If the child nods or looks interested, you can help them begin to shift. You can say, “I know it is hard to wait. What could we do?”

If the child can’t think of anything, you could say, “Let’s count how many turns your sister gets and how many turns you get, okay?” 

3. You may underestimate the impact

As a parent, you may start to feel your child is just too sensitive. You may be frustrated as they melt down over the smallest thing that happens. You might catch yourself saying, “This is no big deal. You just need to get over it.” 

Instead, do this…when your child is melting down, simply sit nearby and wait it out. You might model deep breathing for your child. Sit there breathing for a minute or two before you start talking. You might say, “You seem to get really upset when your sister doesn’t want to play.” 

For an older child, you might say, “It seems like it’s really hard for you to feel your friends left you out of an event.” Often, if you just let the child be upset about it, they will start to see that the situation is not as dire as they were thinking.

When to Seek Professional Help

You can be a great support to help your child improve their outlook and perspective. 

However, consider seeking professional help if your child continues to experience distress. A therapist would work directly with your child to help them realize that their cognitive distortions are unhelpful and untrue.

More importantly, once your child learns to identify unhealthy patterns, these negative thoughts have less control over their thinking and behavior. In time, new, more healthy patterns can emerge.

Try HelpMe Cadey 

Try HelpMe Cadey to learn specific ways you can help your child. Created by a team of child psychologists, HelpMe Cadey is for parents like you who want to help their children. From hyperactivity and impulsivity to sensory seeking and other concerns, ask a question and get an answer. 

Cadey is a new kind of child psychology: immediate, inexpensive, impactful.