I am concerned that a whole new generation of children are being taught the same unhelpful thought-stopping strategies that we were. You know, the ‘throw the bad thought away” one. Or the updated version “delete that thought”. Some people are taught to wear a rubber band and snap it when they have upsetting thoughts to remind them to get rid of that erroneous, irrational thought.
These strategies have actually been shown to increase rumination (excessive dwelling on unhelpful thoughts) and perpetuate the unhelpful belief that people can control their minds and feelings. It is more helpful to understand that while we cannot control the thoughts or feelings that arise, we can manage them well and we can learn how to cope, how to relate to our thoughts and feelings differently. It is actually the illusion of control that contributes to anxiety and depression; we feel like failures when we can’t stop those illogical thoughts and feelings.
We need to teach our children ways to feel safe when upsetting thoughts and feelings pop up. Give them the security and skills to allow the thoughts and feelings to float (hang around) or do whatever they want to do, while they -the children- practise calming and relaxing themselves even in the presence of such thoughts and feelings.
The outdated approach sends the message that we can only feel ok/relaxed/coping when our upset has gone. It teaches that we can only attempt difficult tasks once the fear has gone. Obviously such beliefs can really hold us back. Such beliefs also send the message that distress is so awful, so horrible that we must avoid it at all costs. We must stop that thought before it harms us! This only increases children’s anxiety. We need to teach that all feelings and thoughts are safe, they are only stories, and we can calm ourselves and re-engage with what’s important to us even when these thoughts and feelings are still hanging around.
Thought-stopping also invalidates our experiences. Telling someone to “think positive” or “throw that thought away” dismisses what is being experienced by that person and can send the message that the person is perceived as irrational, petty, or a “drama queen” . But the topic of invalidation is a whole other essay which I’d best leave for now.
I have had to sit with children and remind them that we cannot stop thoughts or control feelings. We can manage how we deal with them and how we relate to them. I do the old “do not think of a white bear” exercise with them. Of course she found that you can’t not think about something, or that if you manage to stop the thought for a while it is only by using a lot of energy in chasing distractions and that is not a long-term solution. (See http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~wegner/ts.htm for a more succinct explanation and http://www.spring.org.uk/2009/05/why-thought-suppression-is-counter-productive.php for a more detailed one.)
I hope this has given you food for thought. It might be difficult to accept at first because believing that we can get rid of distressing thoughts has become second-nature to us Westerners. In reality, however, this “new wave” of psychology has found scientifically measured evidence for the ancient teachings of many cultures. There’s plenty to read about it to further your understanding. You could start at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-wyaP6xXwE
All the best,