The realisation that our negative thoughts are not necessarily accurate or true can be a powerful ally in building and sustaining positive mental health. I still remember the feeling of surprise and freedom I got when I read about the concept a number of years back. So, instead of accepting and acting on these thoughts, we have a choice … the simple act of checking whether these thoughts are accurate can help to stop a spiral of negative feelings and behaviours which can easily become overwhelming.
Without this realisation and mind-training, pessimistic thinking can go unchallenged. It can so easily become a habit. We all see the kids in our classes who exhibit this tendency from an early age. In his book The Optimistic Child, Professor Martin Seligman clearly shows the links between pessimistic thinking in early childhood and the onset of depression and poor achievement. This book outlines a proven programme designed for children from around age ten, who are deemed to be at risk for developing depression, as predicted by their pessimistic thinking (The Penn Prevention Programme).
Knowing the importance of this skill, I began to introduce this concept to the children in my class in a simple and child-centred way. I wanted all the children to learn about thought-challenging at an early age, so that they would be armed with this powerful tool. The question was how to explain it so that they could understand and use it when required.
Eventually, I came up with the idea of explaining this concept through linking it to the image of the Helpful Thinking Helmet. In our lesson on thought-challenging, we first learn that our mind generates thousands of thoughts every day, that’s just want what minds do. Some thoughts are positive. But many are negative - we examine our own minds and see what thoughts are being generated. Then we learn that many of these thoughts are often inaccurate or untrue, yet we accept them and that leads to negative feelings and behaviours. We discuss this and the children readily give examples.
I then introduce the children to their Resilience Tool of the Helpful Thinking Helmet. The Helpful Thinking Helmet reminds the children to ask themselves three questions about a negative thought before they decide to believe it and act on it:
- Is this thought true? (Can I be sure that it is completely true?)
- Is this thought helpful?
- Is this thought kind?
The children evaluate the thought, and decide whether they want to replace it with a more accurate, kind and helpful thought. We work through many different scenarios and get lots of practise in thought-challenging.
Of course, the next question was whether or not the children could transfer this skill to real-life situations. The answer was yes - they soon started to use their new tool and report back on their successes. Once again, I was amazed and delighted at their ability to understand and apply such a vital concept to their everyday lives.
Some examples include: One boy used his Helpful Thinking Helmet during a game of rugby. He was tackled and knocked to the ground. He felt angry and upset, and immediately had the thought ‘I’m not good at rugby. I should just quit’. He then remembered to use his new tool, and asked himself the three questions. He realised immediately that the thought was not true - he knew deep down that he was good at rugby. He also realised that the thought was neither kind nor helpful. He replaced it with a new thought, that he could keep trying and not give up. He told us that he got up, dusted himself off and went on to score two tries, and win the game.
A girl in my class told us how she used her Helpful Thinking Helmet to overcome her recurrent anxiety at night-time that there was a burglar in the house. She had got into the habit of convincing herself that every little sound meant that an intruder was in her home. Then she decided to use her new tool and ask herself the three questions. She was able to accept that the thought that every noise could be a sign of an intruder was not necessarily true. She decided that the thought was not helpful or kind. To take her mind away from the thought, she decided to use another Tool of Resilience which I had taught the class about – her Lucky Dip of Distraction. She began to think about her holidays and soon feel asleep.
The children now use their Helpful Thinking Helmet regularly to help them challenge their automatic negative thoughts. They seem to find it easy to use and remember, and regularly remind each other to use it. I look forward to further researching its effectiveness as my studies progress. The Weaving Well-Being programme will also teach the children how to expand and develop thought-challenging techniques as they get older. The Helpful Thinking Helmet definitely appears to be a practical and useful introduction!