I spend a great deal of time with clients working on identifying and challenging unhelpful thoughts. Teens and adults alike can really benefit from understanding how their thinking affects their moods and their behaviours. Children can also benefit from this type or work. However, working with little people on the “C” part of cognitive behavioural therapy can be challenging. Young children can struggle with understanding the intangible concept of “thoughts”. They may not be able to identify what they are thinking in a given situation or understand the idea that their thinking may not be an accurate perception of a given situation.
Here is a therapy activity that will help to make the concept of self-talk a little more concrete for the children see in our therapy sessions.
You will need:
- A happy looking cartoon character (animal or human). Personally, I really like this image from clipartuse.com.
- A sad, angry, or grumpy looking animal like this image of a grumpy cat, also from clipartuse.com.
However, here are some other images taken from pixabay.com that could also work depending on the client’s interests and presenting problem.
- Pictures of thought and speech bubbles – I used the shapes function in Microsoft Word to create and print mine.
- Comic strips that are kid-friendly and show characters both talking and thinking
1) Begin with some comic strips. Go through a newspaper or find some online and print them. Look for comics that have a good mix of speaking and thinking. Read through the comics with the child and start by asking what the difference is between the thinking and speaking bubbles.
Most comics will have speech bubbles that look like this:
And thought bubbles that look like this:
If the child doesn’t know the difference, you can explain that the thought bubbles show things that the character says in his or her head and the speaking bubbles are things that we say out loud. You can practice saying words or phrases out loud and just thinking them in session (e.g. “Think about your favourite place” versus “Tell me about your favourite place”).
2) Explain to the child that we say all kinds of things to ourselves all the time. Again, you can come up with some examples of the kinds of things we might think to ourselves in a day. Have some fun with the child with this and don’t be afraid to be a little silly. Next you can explain that some thoughts have special powers, because they can change how we feel. Give some examples of some thoughts that might make one feel happy, some that might make one feel sad, some that might make one feel angry
Some examples of these kinds of thoughts include: “I never get to do what I want to do,” “No one likes me,” or “I’ll never be good at math”.
3) Once the child has an understanding of what negative self-talk is, you can switch to talking about more positive self-talk and how it can help them feel better when they are angry, sad, or scared.
4) Prior to your session with the child, search for an image you like for your “grumpy” character (or sad, angry, or anxious, depending on the goals of your specific client). I chose to use the grumpy cat shown above, as his expression is relatable for clients who are dealing with a range of issues, including anger, depression, or anxiety. Then find a character to represent your “happy” (or peaceful, calm, content, etc.) character. Print and laminate your characters if you wish to re-use this exercise with other clients.
5) Come up with a range of situations your client could relate to and identify negative and positive thoughts that a person might have in response to those situations. Print these thoughts out on your thought bubbles and laminate them. Print the situations out as well.
6) If you would like some examples, here is a pdf of various situations and thoughts that I created for use with my own clients. I have also included blank situation boxes and thought bubbles to add in situations that are more specific to each client.
7) In session, present the situations to the child and ask him or her to pick out which of the thoughts the grumpy cat and happy puppy might each have in response to the situation.
8) End by coming up with some client-specific situations and then come up with a grumpy cat and happy puppy thought for each situation. You can also send some thought bubbles with some specific positive or coping thoughts home with your client to practice through the week. Encourage the child’s parent or guardian to help them identify whether they are thinking like the “grumpy cat” or the “happy puppy” through the week and to choose to replace negative thoughts with more positive ones.
As with any intervention, you will need to adjust or simplify this activity to the developmental level of the client. For younger children it may be more effective to simply come up with some general positive things they can say to themselves when they get upset, as they may struggle to identify their specific negative thoughts they experience. Younger children may also struggle due to the reading involved with the thought bubbles exercise. Late primary, junior, and preteen-aged children would be most likely to benefit from this activity as I’ve written it.
Let us know how this exercise goes with your clients. Feel free to share any other strategies you use to work with children’s self-talk.
Also, please join our email list if you are interested in receiving notifications of new blog posts.