Our minds are powerful. They help us make plans and solve problems.
But just like any tool, they can sometimes work against us.
For example, negative thoughts can act like stumbling blocks on our path, tripping us up and preventing us from moving forward. These problematic thinking patterns can trap us in a cycle of negative self-talk and prevent us from enjoying life.1
By reframing thoughts, we can escape this mental maze and have a more balanced thinking.
However, teaching this technique or assisting others in adopting it can be tricky. Common mistakes can undermine the effectiveness of this method, making it less appealing to those who are in distress and could greatly benefit from it.
What is reframing thoughts
Reframing thoughts is an emotion regulation strategy which involves intentionally changing your perspective or thought process about a particular situation. It shifts your mindset from a negative or limiting perspective to a more positive, empowering one.
For example, if you failed a test, instead of thinking “I’m stupid and bad at tests,” you could reframe it as “I struggled with this one, but I have the ability to improve with more studying.”
Reframing allows you to view setbacks as temporary and changeable rather than permanent defeat.
In cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), mental health professionals use a similar technique called cognitive reframing to help patients turn self-defeating perspectives into positive ones to reduce anxiety, depression, and stress.2
The ultimate goal of reframing is to develop more helpful narratives about yourself, others, and events in your everyday life. It helps you avoid falling into unproductive thinking traps that can hold you back from growth.
5 Pitfalls when using reframing
When used properly, reframing thoughts can be a powerful stress coping strategy. However, research suggests that individuals can be worse off if the application is unsuccessful.7
This negative result is often observed when people try to help their friends or parents attempt to guide their children with this technique. They don’t always see the positive outcomes they’re hoping for.
Some pitfalls can be found in this strategy.
Forcing positive thoughts
This is also known as “toxic positivity.” Toxic positivity happens when one is pushed to keep a positive attitude constantly and to deny reality. It is commonly observed when parents attempt to assist their children in managing stress.
For instance, a child says, “I’m bleeding. It hurts.”
In response, the parent says, “It’s okay. It’s just a small scratch. It doesn’t hurt much.”
In this scenario, the parent is forcing the child to suppress their genuine feelings of pain and adopt a positive thinking instead. Often, saying it doesn’t hurt won’t stop the child from crying, since just saying it doesn’t hurt won’t make the pain go away.
Saying things to deny reality doesn’t make it real. It only makes the person receiving help feel that they are not understood or supported.
Another mistake in using reframing is oversimplifying complex issues.
For example, telling someone struggling with depression to “just pull yourself together and you’ll be fine” overlooks the complexity of depression as a mental illness.
Depression involves a chemical imbalance in the brain and needs medical intervention. It’s a complicated health issue that can’t be resolved merely by changing one’s mindset.
Oversimplifying a challenging time can make one feel trivialized and unseen. If a person with depression tries to adopt this oversimplified mindset and still cannot alleviate their symptoms, it can lead to a sense of failure, which exacerbates their depression.
Telling someone “you shouldn’t feel that way” when they share challenging emotions is another way where reframing does more harm than good.
This kind of response invalidates the person’s feelings, essentially judging their inner experience as “wrong,” while also trivializing their actual experience as insignificant.
Saying “it’s not that bad” is contrary to demonstrating empathy for someone’s challenging emotions.
Downplaying the situation doesn’t make it disappear; instead, it conveys a degree of insensitivity on the part of the speaker.
When the phrase “Look on the bright side” is said without appropriate empathy, it comes across as a dismissal of the person’s feelings. It implies a person’s feelings are not worthy of attention or discussion.
Statements like this essentially negate and brush aside someone’s feelings and experiences making them feel worthless and unheard.
10 Types of Negative Thoughts
Negative thought patterns are called cognitive distortions in psychology. These patterns of thinking are incorrect or flawed thoughts, perceptions, or beliefs that can distort our understanding.3
Here are ten common distortions, where some may overlap.4
- Black and white thinking – Also known as polarized, dichotomous, or all-or-nothing thinking. It involves only seeing extremes, no middle ground. Can make you feel like it’s all good or all bad.
- Overgeneralizing – Taking one negative situation and believing it will apply to all situations. A failure feels like you’ll always fail.
- Minimizing – Making things seem unimportant or insignificant. May miss the full picture. Often minimizing positives.
- Mind reading – Believing others think negatively of you.
- Catastrophizing – Predicting the worst outcome with little evidence.
- Emotional reasoning – Believing something is true based only on emotions, not facts.
- Labeling – Calling yourself negative names if something bad happens.
- Mental filtering – Only focusing on negatives, ignoring positives.
- Personalization – Blaming yourself for negative events.
- Should statements – Thinking you or others must be a certain way.
Benefits of reframing negative thoughts
When applied successfully, reframing is found to be associated with the following benefits.
- Reduce symptoms in some mental health disorders, such as anxiety5 and depression
- Better health outcomes
- Improved quality of life
- Higher self-acceptance
- More positive emotion
- Closer social relations6
How to reframe thoughts
Reframing thoughts is not just about replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. It should acknowledge your feelings, and then use positive interpretation to choose a more empowering perspective.
It also doesn’t mean pretending that bad things have not happened. It’s about finding a new way to look at things that can help us feel better and react more positively.
Identifying negative thinking patterns is the first step to applying reframing strategies.
Mindfulness practice such as meditation and yoga can help you become more aware of your thoughts and interactions with others so that you can apply the following reframing strategies.
Here are 12 ways to apply reframing strategies.
- Use evidence – Gather evidence from the past and present to get a balanced view of your beliefs.
- Benefits vs cost analysis – Look at the short-term and long-term costs and benefits of the unhelpful belief. Does it help to hold onto negative beliefs when there are more beneficial ones?
- Catch bias – Recognize negative thinking traps like black-and-white thinking that impact your beliefs.
- Find alternative ways to interpret – Develop a more realistic and helpful way of viewing themselves or the challenging scenario.
- Accept and normalize – thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are common human experiences. It is not wrong to have them.
- Deal with catastrophic thinking head on – Imagine the worst case scenario, evaluate the likelihood and impact, and make a coping plan.
- Problem solving – Break down a problem, list pros and cons of solutions, pick one, and evaluate both positive outlooks and negative outcome.
- Practice – Repeatedly bring up and face unwanted thoughts, images, or feelings to build confidence.
- Objective thinking – Detach and view thoughts and feelings from a distance to avoid distorted thinking.
- Examine perspective – Put the challenging situation in the context of their whole life experience.
- Recognize outside causes – Identify external causes of difficulties to address self-blame.
- Turn to positive coping – Refocus on positive coping experiences that counter the unhelpful belief.
10 Reframing examples
Acknowledging is important in positive reframing.
Acknowledging a feeling does not mean endorsing it. Parents can acknowledge their children’s feelings, while also teaching them to identify inaccurate thinking and consider other perspectives, all without minimizing their emotions.
Here are 10 examples of reframing thoughts that parents can use with their children.
- Ineffective: Telling a child “you’re not really scared” when they express fear.
Effective: Validating the feeling, then reframing e.g. “It’s understandable to feel scared. Let’s think of this as excitement instead.”
- Ineffective: Saying “you shouldn’t be sad” when a child is upset.
Effective: Acknowledging the emotion, then reframing e.g. “I know you’re sad because you miss your friend. Let’s focus on how you’ll feel happy when you see her again soon.”
- Ineffective: Responding to failure with “you’re not good at this”
Effective: Encouragement to reframe failure as a learning opportunity e.g. “You’re still learning. Let’s look at how to improve for next time.”
- Ineffective: Dismissing anger as “you’re overreacting.”
Effective: Validating the feeling then reframing the difficult situation e.g. “It’s understandable you feel angry. Let’s take some deep breaths and rethink what happened.”
- Ineffective: Saying “don’t be jealous” of a sibling’s achievements.
Effective: Acknowledging the feeling then reframing e.g. “I know you feel jealous because you wish you could do that too. With time and practice, you can!”
- Ineffective: Criticizing worry as “there’s no need for that.”
Effective: Recognizing the worry, then reframing into problem-solving e.g. “I know you’re worried. Let’s talk through what’s making you anxious and come up with a plan.”
- Ineffective: Dismissing a lack of confidence as “don’t be so shy.”
Effective: Empathizing, then reframing the situation as an opportunity e.g. “I understand you feel shy about joining, but let’s reframe this as a chance to meet new friends.”
- Ineffective: Saying “stop complaining” about unfairness.
Effective: Hearing the complaint, then reframing perspectives e.g. “I understand you feel it’s unfair. Let’s try looking at it from their viewpoint too.”
- Ineffective: Criticizing “don’t be so dramatic” when a child is intense.
Effective: Recognizing the reaction, then reframing emotions into enthusiasm e.g. “I see you have big feelings about this. Let’s channel that energy into passion!”
- Ineffective: Dismissing recklessness as “you should know better.”
Effective: Discussing consequences then reframing risks as learning opportunities e.g. “I know you were excited but this was dangerous. I love you and don’t want to see you get hurt. Let’s talk through how to make wiser choices next time.”
Final thoughts about reframing thoughts for parents
Reframing our thoughts can be a useful coping tool for all, but it can be particularly powerful for parents. As the last example illustrates, reframing isn’t just about changing negative emotions – it can reshape how we view entire situations.
Take the perspective of “My child keeps pushing my buttons, they need more discipline.” Reframing this narrative to “My child must be craving more of my attention. How can I give them the connection they seek?” fundamentally shifts the parent’s mindset and approach.
Rather than reacting punitively, the parent can address the root need for connection. This type of reframing can transform parent-child relationships and family happiness. Skillful reframing empowers parents to break negative cycles and meet their child’s needs with empathy.
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