Dealing with negative thoughts… so you can have more adventures and do the things you care about

[Grown-ups! If you are reading this, welcome! Do you have a flashlight and a blanket handy? If so, now is a perfect time to whip up a quick blanket fort and read this with your child.]

Kids! This is for you. In your life, there are things you treasure. Maybe you value your friendships, your talents, your family, or you just love exploring. Sometimes things get in the way, like worried thoughts. If sad or scared feelings are making your quest feel impossible, if you have ever felt stuck on thoughts like “I can’t do it,” or “I’m not the right person for this,” then this guide was written especially for you. 

Whenever you are distracted, discouraged, or stuck, you can find a way to keep going. You don’t have to let thoughts stop you.

Try using your imagination for a moment. If you have a real flashlight, go ahead and grab one! Pretend you are a treasure hunter. You’re on a quest to find amazing riches, and maybe face some monsters along the way. What will help you succeed? What does a treasure hunter need?

Does it matter if the treasure chest contains 100 gold coins or 500? Does it matter if the dragons are fire-breathing or not? Yes, it matters a little, but it’s not the reward or the danger that makes you a great treasure-hunter. It’s your ability to stay focused on your goal, so you can find the clues and avoid the traps. (It helps to have a strong flashlight too!) 

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Your mind is like a flashlight

So, you’ve packed up and set out on your treasure hunt. You have made your way into a huge, dark cavern. You can’t see very far in front of you. It’s dark, but you have a flashlight to light your way. 

The cavern is full of moss, stalactites, rocks, shadows and little creatures with too many legs. You can’t possibly look at every different colour and texture, so you scan for a little glint of gold or a flash of red. You ignore the puddles and the crevices. You skim over anything that’s green or grey. You’re focused on finding that treasure.

Our minds are the same way. When we pay attention, it’s like shining a flashlight. We can only see a little bit of the world at a time. When we are looking for something in particular, we ignore everything else.

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    Now imagine you’re even deeper into the cavern. You’ve heard stories about this dark place. Your friends warned you about a giant three-headed snake who lives here. It might be nearby. Maybe it’s right behind you.

    You try to bring your focus to finding that treasure, but your hands start to shake. Every time you hear the drip of cave slime or the tiny rustle of a bat wing, you swing your flashlight all around the cavern, hoping to catch that nasty snake before she catches you. If you could only stop thinking about that snake, you could find the treasure and hurry home!

    You try to be brave and ignore the noises. You tell yourself: “Real treasure-hunters don’t pay attention to little noises. Come on now. There’s probably no snakes in here at all. Just focus!” Drip drip. Rustle rustle. As soon as you hear these sounds again, you imagine that snake’s prickly hot breath on back of your neck, and you feel very very far from brave. 

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    What do we do when our thoughts are scary and we can’t ignore them?

    “Stop that dripping!” you yell. An echo bounces around the cave: “Dripping… dripping… dripping…” You wave your arms around to try to scare the bats away. Nope, can’t get rid of them.

    When you are worried, your thoughts can be distracting. They can pull your attention away from your goals. 

    Sometimes we worry about the future. What’s around that corner? Our flashlight can’t shine a light around a corner, and we can’t see into the future, but we keep wondering. What will tomorrow be like? 

    Sometimes our minds feel pulled back to the past. We think about a hurtful comment we heard or a mistake we wish we could fix. When our flashlight is shining behind us, we can’t see where we are now. 

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     Drip drip. Rustle rustle. You can’t stop the noises. You keep hearing them. You keep imagining that snake. What can you do? 

    You remember a trick you learned from Old Goldie the Master Treasure Hunter, and you decide to try it out. In the darkness, you start to sing: “Oh, hello snakey my friend! I’m here for a visit, just here for a minute, please don’t mind me…” You make up a silly song that only you can hear, in a croaky voice at first. You start to smile as you hear the steady drip… drip… drip-drip-drip… and you sing along to the rhythm. 

    You sing your song as you shine your flashlight into the darkness, and a sudden gleam catches your eye. The treasure chest! Your arms ache as you drag the heavy chest back to the cave entrance, but your heart is bursting with pride.

    Using tricks and tools to stay focused on your quest

    If you are having thoughts that bother you, and you feel your attention being pulled away from where you are right now, there are ways to re-focus. These thoughts might still flutter through your mind, just like a treasure-hunter might still hear little noises while searching that cave, but you’ll be able to keep your attention on what you care about most.

    Even if you notice negative thoughts, you don’t have to chase them away completely. Chasing negative thoughts can pull your attention away from the things you value. You can choose to pay attention to the things you treasure instead, and just say “Oh hello, thoughts! I hear you there. Flutter on by!”

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    Who invented these ways of getting our thoughts unstuck?

    Where did these tricks and ideas come from in real life? These ideas come from a practice called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (you can call it ACT for short.) ACT was designed to help people stay on their most important quests, no matter what kind of challenges or distractions they face. 

     Sometimes, what’s happening in our hearts and minds is even more important than what happens around us. We can’t always choose our thoughts, but we don’t have to fight with them or block them out. We can get unstuck and keep moving forward toward the things we care about.  

    Scientists have found that ACT really works, for both grown-ups and kids, but it takes some practice. Stephen C. Hayes created some activities for you to try in his book A Liberated Mind: How To Pivot Toward What Really Matters. If you’re a grown-up, you might really like this book. If you’re a kid, you might just want to try the activities on these cards:

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