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Is Your Kid “Looping” On a Negative Thought?

As a family therapist, I often hear parents complain of a child who cannot move beyond an interaction, incident or situation, even when it has been addressed. In fact, the parent may have already listened, empathized with the emotion, and talked the issue out.

An apology happened.

Reassurance was provided.

However, the child just cannot  let it go, looping round and round, like a hula-hoop stuck in motion. This is a typical situation for children as they navigate how to manage anxiety in relationships and situations.

Parents and those who work with children may get the constant update about “that” person, or situation on which the child is looping.

This kind of looping often triggers avoidable arguments between a caregiver and child. A parent can coach a child when the child is anxious and stuck on a negative thought.

The key to helping is to avoid getting emotionally upset when one addresses anxiety with kids. If kids see their parents’ emotional response escalate, their own anxiety will increase.

It’s important to start with a calm conversation.

If the child is seven or older (younger children need may need a varied approach, but this approach can work if made developmentally appropriate), have a calm conversation with her regarding what you have noticed about a certain topic that seems to come repeatedly or often.

Model confidence for her in your conversation, by telling her you are going to help her “catch herself” when she is stuck, looping or replaying aloud the thing that bothers her.  You want her to feel less frustrated and better able to handle a situation.

Engage in reflective listening with your child by restating both the problem and the feeling(s) you see in the child.

For example, “Sam, I’ve noticed that when you come home from school, you always report to me what Lane did wrong throughout the day. You sound frustrated. You and Lane do not get along.  We have already spoken with the teacher and Lane.  It is time to help you move beyond this.”  

Or, “Sam, I know that you do not like your homework (music class, coach, teacher, etc.).  I understand, and am helping to handle the situation. I want to help you move beyond complaining about your homework. Here is an idea that will help.”

Or, “Sam, I know you are afraid that your friend will be deported, but right now your friend is at school and safe. Adults are working towards positive solutions. The best thing you can do is be a good friend and focus on enjoying playtime together. I promise to keep you informed of any changes, to the best of my ability. It’s okay to worry, but you also need to stay hopeful – you can have both feelings at the same time.”

Use a replacement phrase: Provide the tool for a solution.

Introduce the idea of a replacement phrase to the child. Say to the child, “Instead of complaining about Lane, it would be helpful for you to say something such as, ‘I don’t like Lane, but I can learn how to focus on myself and my own behavior,’ or ‘I  don’t like it when kids don’t follow rules in class, but the teacher will handle it. I can talk about a better moment from today.’”

Engage your child by asking her to help come up with her own helpful thought replacement or affirmation: one that would be meaningful to her.

Put it into action by coaching in the moment.

When you hear her complaining again, invite her to share her feeling(s). “How are you feeling about this?” She may say she is frustrated or anxious. Then say, “Please remind me, what is your helpful strategy?” When she says it, affirm her with, “Great effort! Let’s move on.”

Role-play and practice your positive affirmation. Write it down somewhere visible in your house or your child’s room. Remind your child that it will take repetitive practice to form a new habit. This exercise will help a child become more resilient in handling frustrating situations and be able to move forward.

Practicing with a child can help a parent’s negative looping thoughts, too! We all get stuck at times. So, the more tools we have, and positive affirmations in our parenting toolbox, the better we can bounce back and stop the hula-hoop of looping in a negative thought!

Maryellen Mullin

Maryellen Mullin

Maryellen P. Mullin is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (MFC45966) in San Francisco and runs Messy Parenting: providing workshops, strategies and methods for those who bravely parent to make family life less muddled and more joy-filled!

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