I can’t do anything right.
Nothing ever works out for me.
No one likes me.
Teens often have negative thoughts and self-judgments like these playing on a loop inside their heads. That’s understandable, because adolescence is hard. Teens are striving to build self-worth, shape an independent identity, and form relationships outside of the family. It’s inevitable that they will face challenges and doubt themselves during this tumultuous period of growth.
It’s natural to have negative thoughts—in fact, it’s a survival mechanism. So-called “negativity bias” is an evolutionary mechanism that dates back to our earliest ancestors. People who paid close attention to signs of danger were more likely to escape a tiger attack or a tornado. As a result, teens are hardwired to focus on the bad stuff, like a failed test, a critical comment, or a missed soccer goal, rather than the good things that also happened, like receiving a compliment, laughing with a friend, or a hug from a loved one. That’s where the stereotype of a negative teenager comes from.
Over time, however, these patterns of negative thinking can lead to feelings of anger and hopelessness, and eventually to mental health issues like anxiety and depression. That’s why reframing negative thoughts is so important for supporting teen mental health. Reframing can help teens to break the habit of negativity and see the world, and themselves, in new and more positive ways.
What Is Reframing?
Reframing, sometimes called cognitive reframing or cognitive restructuring, is one of the most effective Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques for adolescents. The foundational concept of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is that the way we think influences how we feel, and how we feel influences the way we act. Thus, changing our thoughts also changes our emotions and behavior.
Hence, cognitive reframing can help teens shift their mindset and point of view, allowing them to see a situation, person, or relationship from a healthier perspective. Reframing negative thoughts can help adolescents change the way they think about a given situation, and thus change how they feel and behave in response to it.
Through reframing negative thoughts, teens are able to:
- Shift their focus to the positives rather than negatives of a given situation
- Change distorted thinking about situations or people
- Better comprehend and analyze what they’re experiencing
- Become aware of their thought patterns
- Question the truth of their negative beliefs.
How Reframing Negative Thoughts Impacts Mental Health
Clearly, negativity bias no longer serves our best interests. In fact, constantly thinking about what might go wrong—what’s known as catastrophizing—undermines our health and well-being.
Cognitive reframing can help teens to break the habit of negativity and see the world in new and more positive ways. For example, one study found that teens who received positive training were able to more easily reframe social situations. Researchers believed this could be particularly helpful for teens with social anxiety.
Reframing can also be an effective approach for teens who are struggling with:
- Anxiety disorder
- Low self-esteem
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse
- Conversion disorder
- Chronic stress.
The Benefits of Cognitive Reframing and Positive Self-Talk for Teenagers
For teens, negative thinking is often focused inward as negative self-talk. Rather than being compassionate advocates for themselves, teens tend to judge themselves harshly, and imagine that others do, too.
Learning to talk to themselves with kindness and compassion is a type of cognitive reframing. Practicing these Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques for adolescents can enhance self-esteem and self-confidence. Positive self-talk for teenagers also trains the brain to look for strengths and opportunities rather than flaws and problems. For example, with positive self-talk, a teen can reframe “I’m bad at X” into “I’m still learning how to do X.” Or, “I messed everything up” might be reframed as “I see what didn’t work well and I can do it differently next time.”
One cognitive restructuring technique is known as ABCDE method:
- A = the Activating event associated with negative thoughts
- C= the Consequences or feelings related to the activating event
- B= the Beliefs that lead to negative emotions
- D = the process of Disputing or confronting these negative beliefs
- E= Effecting a change in one’s beliefs and feelings surrounding the activating event
6 Ways to Help Teens Practice Reframing Negative Thoughts
Reframing negative thoughts and situations can help struggling teens feel more empowered and hopeful. Here are some ways to help teens learn to practice cognitive reframing on a daily basis.
Support them to become more aware of their thoughts. Often negative thinking has become so habitual that teens don’t realize that they are automatically defaulting to the worst outcome or judgment. Along with talking about their thoughts, journaling and meditation can help teens notice their habits and tendencies. Recognizing negative thought patterns is the first step in reframing them.
Ask questions. A method known as Socratic questioning uses logic to help in reframing negative thoughts. Try asking a teen questions such as “What are some other ways you could look at this situation?” and “What facts or evidence do you have to support your beliefs?” Thinking about these questions can help teens realize that they may be misinterpreting or catastrophizing.
Help them see the bigger picture. When a teen is making negative or unjustified conclusions, remind them about the bigger picture. For example, failure can be reframed as an opportunity for learning and growth.
Discourage black or white thinking. Teenagers often see the world as either bad or good, right or wrong, with nothing in between. Cognitive reframing can help them recognize the complexity and gray areas in any given situation.
Remind them it’s not always about them. Teens tend to overthink things and to blame themselves for events that are outside their control. It can be a huge relief for them to understand that much of what goes on around them has nothing to do with them.
Focus on positive outcomes. Teens often endure a lot of suffering by predicting what other people will think or assuming a particular situation will go the worst possible way. Looking at the positive outcomes rather than predicting the worst can help a negative teenager look at things more optimistically.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Teens at Newport Academy
At Newport Academy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques for adolescents are an important part of our integrative approach to teen treatment. In addition, our clinical model includes DBT, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Attachment-Based Family Therapy, and experiential modalities like art, music, and Adventure Therapy. Through this whole-person philosophy of care, teens and families find long-term, sustainable healing, as validated by our treatment outcomes.
If your teen needs support for anxiety, depression, or another mental health concern, of if you are a behavioral health professional with a client who needs a higher level of care, contact Newport Academy today. Our Admissions experts will help you to explore options and determine the most effective path to positive transformation and healing.
Springer Science+Business Media. ScienceDaily, 2011 July.
Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am. 2011 Apr; 20(2): 191–204.