Understanding How Your Kids Think

Most of us can agree that kids are not just little adults.  Part of that difference is the way they think.  They use different assumptions than healthy adults to make sense of the world.

As a parent, the better you understand how your kids are making sense of their world, the better you can help them to consider other more productive ways of responding to it.

Common Cognitive Distortions: An Introduction

Mental health counselors call these problematic assumptions COMMON COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS (CCD’S).  Because this wording can sound so technical and ominous, I prefer to call them problematic assumptions.

Different problematic assumptions are likely to trigger different kinds of distress (symptoms).  When you are able to see and understand the underlying assumptions that your child is making about the world, you will be better able to understand your child’s responses to it.     You will discover more empathy and you will be better able to offer more reasonable and more accurate alternatives for them to consider.

My Sandwich is Ruined!  A story about cognitive distortions

When I was about about five or six years old my grandmother served me a baloney sandwich on marbled rye bread.  One of the slices of bread had a hole in it, a natural air pocket that was the result of the baking process.  I became despondent and hysterical and refused to eat the sandwich.  My grandmother couldn’t figure out why I was so upset, and I was unable at five years old to articulate the cause of my deep despair.  To put it simply, I was in despair because the hole in the bread made it “broken, bad, imperfect,” and therefore inedible.  The hole in the bread ruined the entire sandwich in my five-year-old brain.  In the same way, a small change in plans can seem to ruin a whole day, or a small stain on an unseen part of a shirt can make it unwearable.

The above is an example of two common cognitive distortions, BLACK/WHITE and CATASTROPHIC thinking.  Something is either all good or it’s all bad (black/white)…and if it’s bad it feels intolerable…a catastrophe. Five year olds do it all the time, and teens do too. 

The more I work with kids and families, the more I see the value in understanding cognitive distortions and how they influence your child’s thoughts and actions.  I have also come to accept them as a normal part of childhood.  They are something to be accepted, anticipated, and worked through.

Knowing what I know now, it’s easy for me to see that my five year old self was struggling with two PA’’s, Black/White Thinking (Perfectionism), AND Catastrophizing (Turning a small problem into a big one).   My deep dive into despair was organized around these two thought distortions but was probably triggered by hunger and the long ride to grandma’s house.   When you understand what thinking tools your child is using to make sense of their world it sometimes makes it easier to help them solve their problems.  The solutions in this case could have included offering a different way of making sense of the situation (also called a cognitive reframe) that the hole in the bread was “different” (not bad) or even that it was a “cool window into the sandwich.”   Understanding that it was the hole in one slice of bread, not the whole sandwich, another quick solution might have included switching out that slice of bread.  And always, the conversation would include a gentle conversation around the differences between a real catastrophe, and just a problem that could use some fixing…and a reminder that many things (and people) can be truly wonderful without ever being perfect.


Dr. Andrew RIchlin, Licensed Psychologist
Dr. Andrew Richlin writes for Teens, 
Young Adults and Parents on the challenges and opportunities in relationships… etc. and for parents and adults 


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