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Paper Napkin Mental Health Challenge #5: Accurate Thinking

If your children are anxious, it’s likely they do something I like to call What Iffing. This is the tendency to ponder possible future scenarios and then worry about them excessively in the form of ‘what if’ questions. 

“What if I have no one to sit with at lunch?”

“What if I study for the test and still get a bad grade?”

“What if we get robbed?”

“What if… [insert your child’s anxious thought here]?”

Every one of us has the uncanny ability to travel within our own minds to the future. However, studies show that we tend to overestimate the uncertainty of the future. Why is uncertainty a problem? Dr. Dan Grupe of The Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behavior and Center for Healthy Minds explains, “In other animals, unpredictability or uncertainty can lead to heightened vigilance, but I think what’s unique about humans is the ability to reflect on the fact that these future events are unknown or unpredictable. Uncertainty itself can lead to a lot of distress for humans in particular.” 

This effect is compounded by the fact that anxious thinkers inflate the level of risk associated with future events. The result is that anxious thoughts about the future are painfully blown out of proportion, and kids are often left avoiding routine social situations or daily activities. Kids might feel like they are not sure what to do, what’s going to happen, and what other people are feeling–this type of anxiety can become intolerable.

Now, what can we do to help our kids manage their What Iffing? Start by teaching them that stress can actually have benefits. So the goal is not to be stress-free, but rather to stress better. Next, let them know they don’t have to be a positive thinker, but rather a more accurate thinker. To do this, they can practice some exercises that kick their rational mind into gear. Our Paper Napkin Challenge of the week is one of the exercises they can try!

Paper Napkin Mental Health Challenge #5: Accurate Thinking

  1. Grab a paper napkin.
  2. On the top of the napkin write “Worry =” and then write out something you’re worried about happening in the future.
  3. Create three columns underneath the worry and label the columns from left to right: Best Case, Worst Case, Most Likely Outcome.
  4. Fill out the columns. Describe each scenario as you imagine it.
  5. As a bonus, you can assign probability (as a percentage) to show how likely it is that each scenario will occur.
  6. After you do the challenge, teach it to someone else!

Have anxious children? Get tons of research-based techniques to help them at


Paper Napkin Mental Health Challenge #5: Accurate Thinking

Renee Jain, MAPP

Renee Jain is an award-winning tech entrepreneur turned speaker and certified life coach. She also holds a masters in applied positive psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. Renee specializes in cultivating skills of resilience in both adults and children. Her passion is taking research-based concepts and transforming them into fun and digestible learning modules. For children, she has created one-of-a-kind anxiety relief programs at GoZen! delivered via engaging animated shorts.

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APA Reference
Jain, R. (2017). Paper Napkin Mental Health Challenge #5: Accurate Thinking. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 18 Nov 2017
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