What are Cognitive Distortions in Childhood?
Cognitive distortions in childhood are patterns of thinking about things in an inaccurate way that makes the child feel depressed, anxious, or have a lowered self-esteem.
This kind of thinking is often called ‘automatic thoughts’ and involves rigidity. Your child might not see how situations may have some good and some bad aspects. They may seem stubborn. When a peer makes one mistake, your child may say, “Well, that kid is not my friend anymore.” There is no wiggle room. Friends and family may feel like they are walking on eggshells.
Cognitive distortions were introduced by psychologist Aaron Beck years ago to explain patterns of thinking that contribute to anxiety and depression [1, 2]. Understanding these distortions and thought patterns are considered essential in treating these conditions.
It is important to consider different possibilities and have the confidence and energy to try new approaches. By taking an all-or-nothing stance like, “I am a bad person,” your child has little room left for change. Thinking “I had a bad day,” though, implies that tomorrow can be better.
Symptoms of Cognitive Distortions in Children
These behaviors indicate that your child may have cognitive distortions.
- Thinking in “black-and-white”: there is no “in the middle”
- Absolutes: saying, “Math is evil,” “Everyone hates me,” or “This is the worst day of my life”
- Often acting stubborn: giving others only one chance to act the way they want
- Jumping from one extreme to the other: If the store is out of bubblegum ice cream, your child says, “Well, then I don’t want any! This place is stupid!”
- Uses a negative filter: almost always sees the glass as half empty, refuses to look on the bright side, and mentally filters the negative while ignoring the positive.
- Exaggerates: severely exaggerating problems. In other words, “making a mountain out of a molehill.”
- Is dramatic in reactions and interpretation: a conflict with a friend leads to sobbing and declaring the end of the world, or going to a busy restaurant is an automatic ‘no, it’ll sound like the walls are caving in on me’
- Acts like they are on an emotional roller coaster: one moment things are great, and their friends are wonderful. In the next moment, no one likes them, and they are a social outcast.
Types of Cognitive Distortions in Childhood
Here is a list of the types of faulty thinking that we refer to as cognitive distortions.
- Black-and-white thinking: all or nothing, seeing the world in extreme viewpoints. Things are either great or awful, and they struggle to see shades of gray in other people and situations. Examples include “I am a terrible person” or “I like to do everything perfectly.” Black-and-white thinking is neither realistic nor helpful for your child.
- Catastrophizing: seeing small problems as big problems. Jumping to the conclusion that the worst possible thing will always happen, often without facts and evidence. Making a mountain out of a molehill. In the delightful children’s story, Big Dog, Little Dog , the bird asks the dogs at the end, “Why make big problems out of little problems?” This sentiment helps kids fight against the urge to catastrophize.
- Minimizing: the opposite of catastrophizing. This distortion reduces the importance of good things that happen, like awards, recognition, and accolades, while usually giving more value to the negative.
- Overgeneralizing: one small situation is generalized to all situations. Frequent use of words like “never” and “always.” “I made one mistake. I’m an idiot who always makes mistakes.”
- Blaming: focused on blaming others. Refusing to take ownership for mistakes.
- Disqualifying the positive: finding reasons to reject positive information
- Jumping to conclusions: thinking that you know what another person is thinking and jumping to a negative interpretation right away
- Emotional reasoning: using our emotions to drive facts instead of logic and reason
- Fortune telling: jumping automatically to a negative outcome
- Personalizing: the tendency to see everything as somehow related to the self. If someone is quiet and sad one day, they assume, “I must have done something.”
What to Do About Cognitive Distortions in Childhood
As children learn to look at negative occurrences as singular and specific instead of global and general, their outlook can be more positive because they have the confidence to try again or to do things differently [1, 2, 3, 4]. Recognizing negative thought patterns is the first step to making change. If a child can see this negative thinking, they may be able to reframe it.
DO listen to your child and hear what they say. Echo or reframe what was said. “I will never win student council president” can be reframed as “It feels like things just never go your way.”
DO offer understanding that the particular issue shared is a bummer. Then say, “I wonder if there are a few things you could try?”
Take the belief, and introduce hope or introduce an alternative. Try not to say something completely contrary like, “Yes, you will; you are brilliant.” Try to get at your child’s emotion and gently guide them to see other sides. For example, “I understand that you are nervous about how you will do on the test. What can we do to help you feel better?
Remember to hear your child. If you quickly discount a statement or feeling, you will get resistance back.
DO meet your child where they are at that moment. Help them gently move to a less extreme position. You want your child to get there on their own and shift their thought to a more optimistic position of “Maybe I’ll win if I share my ideas.”
In the inspirational children’s book, What Do You Do With A Problem , the author (Mae Besom) provides a brilliant example of how children can turn little issues into large ones. She writes, “And the more I avoided my problem, the more I saw it everywhere. I thought about it all the time. I didn’t feel good at all. I couldn’t take it anymore. ‘This has to stop!’ I declared. Maybe I was making my problem bigger and scarier than it actually was. After all, my problem hadn’t really swallowed me up or attacked me” .
The idea illustrated here is that the child feels miserable and trapped when worries and the tendency to catastrophize take hold. They do not realize that a potential solution to the problem could be just around the corner or that maybe the problem isn’t so big after all.
DO read books on the issue with your child. At home, reading books like What Do You Do With A Problem , What to do if you worry too much , From Worrier to Warrior , and 12 Annoying Monsters  are all helpful ways to engage your child in a dialogue about their thinking patterns. These thoughts are maladaptive, which means they are ‘getting in the way’ of happiness and well-being. Tell your child, “Whether you are right or wrong, all of this negative thinking is not helping you. It’s getting in your way. Let’s see how we can ‘rethink’ it together.”
DO provide a safe space. Allow your child a place to go that is safe and quiet. Provide coping strategies they have identified in advance, such as music, drawing paper, crayons, fidget toys, a beanbag chair, soft pillows, noise-canceling earphones, etc. If a child or teen has a safe space, they can notice, label, and evaluate their thoughts.
DON’T tell your child how to feel or discredit or deny any emotions. Do validate and reframe. If your child says, “I hate my life.” Don’t say, “Your life is wonderful. Do you know how lucky you are? Children are starving in the world.” Say, “you feel awful right now.”
DO say, “It sounds like you had a terrible day. I’m here if you want to talk.” Encourage your child to find and engage in coping strategies, which are activities that they find relaxing or enjoyable. These strategies could be exercise, listening to music, reading a good book, drawing or writing, having a mug of tea, or cuddling with the cat.
When to Seek Help for Cognitive Distortions in Childhood
If your child is still struggling with extreme emotions, excessive worries, or depression, even with these supports at home, it is time to get help. First, reach out to the school counselor.
Let the counselor know that your child is struggling and could use some help at school. Then, it may be helpful to get a therapist or other mental health professional involved. Black-and-white thinking is often treated with cognitive therapy that includes examining thoughts and challenging beliefs that are negative or not grounded in evidence.
CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy [2, 3, 4, 5] includes challenging thinking and changing behaviors to move in the direction you want to go. If your child has very entrenched black and white thinking, consider CBT, which has research and evidence to support its effectiveness in combating this thinking style. Cognitive restructuring is the process of changing your thinking to be more realistic, evidence-based, and hopefully more positive. Many individuals find a great deal of relief from this type of therapy and often are able to overcome depression and anxiety through this approach.
Professional Resources for Cognitive Distortions
- Psychotherapist: to implement CBT strategies to treat cognitive distortions. This professional may be a psychologist, licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, or licensed social worker.
- Play therapist: to treat emotional symptoms and anxiety through play. This type of therapy is suitable for a very young child, up to age six approximately.
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to consider a full assessment looking at emotions as well as behavior, cognition, learning, and language. A testing psychologist can provide a comprehensive profile of your child’s strengths and weaknesses to help you understand the next steps
Similar Conditions to Cognitive Distortions
- Anxiety: excessive worry that has an impact on day-to-day functioning. Cognitive distortions may be related to generalized anxiety, separation anxiety, and social anxiety
- Depression: depressed mood, or, in children, irritability that is pervasive; decreased interest in activities that used to be enjoyable may stem from cognitive distortions
- Bipolar disorder: depressed mood, or, in children, irritability that is pervasive; alternating with periods of elevated mood, pressured speech, and goal-directed activity; in children, cycles tend to be less differentiated; may stem from cognitive distortions
- Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD): depressed mood, or, in children, irritability that is pervasive; this leads to behavioral outbursts or behavior challenges that are rooted in depression; may also show a cognitive distortions style thinking pattern
- Adjustment reaction (Trauma and Attachment Disorders): emotional symptoms stemming from adjustment to an event or situation; could be divorce, a change of schools, or death of a loved one; these hurting children may also have a maladaptive thinking pattern that includes cognitive distortions
- Personality symptoms: low distress tolerance and excessive emotionality
- Autism spectrum disorder: deficits in social communication and restricted interests or behaviors; children with ASD often have cognitive distortions
- Learning disabilities (Educationally Identified Disabilities): challenges with reading, mathematics, and writing may cause low self-esteem and may be associated with cognitive distortions that lead to increased anxiety and depression
References on Cognitive Distortions in Childhood
 Beck, Aaron T. (1972, 2009). Depression: Causes and Treatment: Second Edition.
 Beck, Judy, & Beck, Aaron T. (2011). Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Second Edition, Basics and Beyond
 Knaus, William J. & Albert Ellis, Albert (2012). The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Depression.
 Guest, Jennifer (2016). The CBT art activity book: 100 illustrated handouts for creative therapeutic work.
 Eastman, P.D. (2003) Big Dog…Little Dog. Random House Children’s Books.
 Yamada, Kobi & Besom, Mae (2016). What Do You Do With A Problem?
 Huebner, D. (2005). What to do when you worry too much: A kid’s guide to overcoming anxiety.
 Peters, D.B. (2013). From worrier to warrior: A guide to conquering your fears. Great Potential Press: Tucson, AZ
 Meredith, Dawn (2014). 12 Annoying Monsters: Self-talk for kids with anxiety.
Book for parents
Seligman, Ph.D., Martin E.P. (1995, 2007). The Optimistic Child: A proven program to safeguard children against depression and build lifelong resilience. Houghton Mifflin, New York.