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Helping Kids Identify Where Their Negative Behaviors Are Coming From

How often do our kids act out without realizing why they’re doing it or where it’s coming from? If your kids are anything like mine, it’s pretty much every time.

(Or maybe you have one of those magical children who come to you when they’re upset and say, “Mom, I know I’m throwing a fit right now because I’m tired and hungry, but I can’t seem to get myself under control. Can you help?”)

It’s usually easy for us, as caretakers, to identify what the root issue is behind our kids’ behaviors, but how do we explain it to them? How do we simplify things enough for them to see it? For them to change the cycle?

After sitting through a therapy session with my foster daughter a few weeks ago, I learned a valuable tool in teaching this concept to kids. It’s not a theory from my own repertoire, but it was so useful that I feel like shouting it from the rooftops.

Every parent (especially parents of kids who have behavioral concerns) should know this!

It starts with something called the cognitive triangle, which is pictured to the right.

Here’s how our therapist explained it to us. First, she asked my daughter to draw a triangle on a poster. As soon as my daughter drew it, she said, “Oh, wow. That’s a horrible triangle.”

The therapist immediately caught her and asked, “Was that negative self talk I just heard?” (Negative self talk is a behavior they’ve been working on for quite a while.)

My girl sheepishly said yes, but the therapist said, “It’s okay! We’re going to use this triangle to help you stop talking badly about yourself.”

The first thing they wrote on their triangle was the bottom left corner – the behavior. Her behavior in that moment was talking negatively about herself.

Then they went backwards to the thought that had caused the behavior. When her therapist asked what she’d been thinking before she said that, my daughter said, “I was thinking that everything I do is bad.”

The therapist said, “Yes. And that thought made you say something out loud that was bad about yourself. The thought led to the action.”

Then she asked my girl how she was feeling after she talked badly about herself. My daughter said, “I was feeling stupid. I feel like that a lot.”

So on the top of the triangle, where the word “thought” is, they wrote, “Everything I do is bad.” And on the bottom right of the triangle, where the word “emotions” is, they wrote, “Feeling stupid.”

The therapist explained how a negative thought had led her to do something negative in her behavior, which had led her to have a negative feeling. And then she took it a step further to explain that the negative feeling my daughter had would keep pushing the cycle around and around and around because that feeling would lead to a negative thought again.

My daughter said, “Oh, like after I felt stupid, I would think that no one likes me… and then that thought would make me be mean to people because I think they don’t like me.”

The therapist said, “YES! Exactly! Negative thoughts and feelings can cause a never-ending cycle of yuckiness if we let them. Our job is to stop the negativity where it’s at and not let it go any further.”

Having her explain that out loud was so clarifying for me, even though all of those points were things I already knew. I just needed someone to break it down with a visual so that I could help my kid understand it.

The best part of the session, though, was when the therapist helped my daughter understand that positive thought patterns can also be cyclical. We can overcome our bad thoughts by replacing them with good ones, and then letting the good ones start a happy cycle.

Here’s how that went.

She asked my daughter, “What’s a happy thought you had today?”

My girl said, “I was thinking while I was at school today that I’m happy I live with Whitney and Garrett.” (Yeah, you know I was sniffling in the corner.)

The therapist said, “Okay, so write that on the corner that says ‘thought.’ And then tell me, what was the feeling that thought gave you.”

“Loved,” she answered.

“Okay, write that on ‘feelings.’ And if you’re feeling loved, what behavior might that cause you to have?”

My girl thought for a second, and then she said, “It would make me nicer to other people because I feel good about myself. I would believe that they could love me or like me so I would be nicer.” And then she got excited because she realized she was walking herself through the triangle. “And if I was nicer to them, that would give me the thought that I’m a good person, and if I thought that I’m a good person, I would feel confident! And if I feel confident, then I can have all kinds of good behaviors from that!”

Guys, it was a moment of beauty and understanding that I never expected. When we left that week, I knew I would be able to use the triangle, very practically, in our everyday lives. And I have.

I’ve even used it to stop my own crappy thought process a few times.

Try sitting down with your kids this week and walking them through it. Do it during an emotionally neutral time so they can actually listen and HEAR you. Ask lots of questions and help them sort through their own thoughts.

And then come back to let me know if it helped! Happy parenting, folks.

Helping Kids Identify Where Their Negative Behaviors Are Coming From

W. R. Cummings

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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2019). Helping Kids Identify Where Their Negative Behaviors Are Coming From. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 3, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 May 2019
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