McNerney: Dealing with Anxiety by Focusing on Thoughts

By Neil McNerney, Parenting With Purpose

The field of psychotherapy has developed quite a bit in the past decade. Our understanding of mental health, depression, and anxiety is growing every year. As we learn more about the causes of mental health issues, it opens up more evidence-based approaches to help improve the lives of ourselves and our children. I would like to share a few techniques that I have found very helpful for children and teens dealing with anxiety.

Anxiety tends to originate in the amygdala part of the brain. It’s a small, almond-shaped section that processes emotion, especially threats. This section of our brain was very important when we lived in a more primitive time or a threatening location. When activated, it scans for threats and helps us decide whether we fight, flee, or freeze.

Based on recent research, we know that certain people have a larger and more active amygdala than others. These individuals tend to be more at risk of anxiety and depression. Since we, as parents, can’t decrease the size of our children’s amygdala, our goal is to decrease its effect on the rest of the brain. How do we do that? By helping our children focus on their thoughts.

Automatic Negative Thoughts

Our thoughts tend to drive our emotions. If we can help our children decide which thoughts to think, it increases the chances of becoming less anxious. Most of us tend to have automatic negative thoughts: Those thoughts that occur almost automatically. For instance, a quiz is coming up in a class and the first thought might be: “What if I get a bad grade?” This is the automatic, first thought that arises.

When a child shares with me an automatic negative thought, my first instinct is to try to reassure them: “I’m sure you’ll do fine. You’re a good student.” Rarely does this do any good. In fact, it often makes it worse. Instead of feeling understood, the child ends up feeling isolated and more anxious.

I try to teach them that we all have automatic negative thoughts, but we also have the choice of continuing to feed that negative thought, or instead think up other thoughts that might be more accurate. Instead of starting with a reassuring statement, I might ask a question that challenges their negative thought. “You’re worried you might fail the quiz. How many quizzes have you failed this year? Do you think you’ve studied well for this?” The goal of these questions is to get the child to do the reassuring instead of me doing it.


Red Thought, Blue Thought

Another very effective technique I use is what I call “Red Thought, Blue Thought.” A red thought is one that will tend to increase bad feelings, while a blue thought is one that increase good feelings (or at least doesn’t make it worse). Labeling thoughts as colors is a very effective way to help create a bit of distance from the thought, so that we can look at it and decide if the thought is helping us or hurting us.

I recently worked with a teen about attending an overnight trip. He was very anxious about it, and his automatic negative thought was: “I’m going to be miserable.” As we talked about this, I asked him to label each thought as red or blue. His red thoughts were the first to come to his mind: “I won’t get any sleep. My roommate will snore. I won’t have anyone to talk to. What if I get lost? What if I get sick?” I gently asked if there might also be some blue thoughts. It took him a bit, but he was able to find a few: “I have a few friends going. I’ll have my phone if I get lost. I don’t get sick very often. I might actually make some new friends.”

By the end of the session, he was feeling a bit better about the trip. Was he excited about going? No, but he was significantly less anxious. I didn’t make him less anxious. He made himself less anxious. By helping him identify his thoughts, he was able to control them.

Our goal should not be to get rid of all the anxiety; our goal should be to help our kids control their feelings so that the feelings don’t control them. By using some simple approaches, we can help our kids have better mastery over their emotions.

Neil McNerney

Neil McNerney is a licensed professional counselor and author of Homework–A Parent’s Guide To Helping Out Without Freaking Out!and The Don’t Freak Out Guide for Parenting Kids with Asperger’s. He can be reached at

Leave a Reply