Parenting

Catastrophic Thinking

April 29, 2014

Father comforts a sad childHow many times do parents hear from their children:

“I had the worst day ever!”

“Sara is so mean to me! She did not give me her snack! She hates me!”

“My teacher is the worst teacher. She gives tons of homework!

This is called “catastrophic thinking.” Children are egocentric and don’t have the perspective that adults have. This can put them in a bad mood and they are unable to problem solve or be realistic about their problems, making everything in their life seem worse than it actually is. We all know adults who indulge in this type of thought process.

There are ways to help children retrain their brains to think more optimistically and help them interpret life’s bumps in more positive ways. We can teach children to “decatastrophize.” According to Martin Seligman, the father of the positive psychology movement, this is one of the most critical parts of learning to be optimistic (and to ultimately prevent childhood depression). He states that children can learn to ask themselves the following questions:

  • What is the worst thing that could happen?
  • What is the one thing you can do to help stop the worst thing from happening?
  • What is the best thing that might happen?
  • What is one thing you can do to help make the best thing happen?
  • What is the most likely thing that will happen?
  • 
What can you do to handle the most likely thing if it happens?

In his book, “The Optimistic Child” (p. 219), Seligman documents a conversation with his client and how he helped his client work through the problem and decatastrophize:

“Carly is my best friend and she lent me this really cool sweater she has. It has many different colors in it and pieces of leather and other stuff too. I wore it to the party and Molly and Marcus even said it was nice. But somehow, I don’t know how, I got icing all over the front and the sleeve. It was bad, like the chocolate smushed into the sweater. I couldn’t brush it off or anything. My mom says I ought to just dress in plastic because I am always spilling things on my clothes. I was really scared to tell Carly. I knew she was going to be way mad.”

What is the worst thing that could happen?


The very worst is that Carly will get so mad that she’ll tell me she doesn’t want to be best friends anymore. She’ll tell Joanie and Heather too, and they will be mad at me.

What is the one thing you can do to help stop the worst thing from happening?

I can use my allowance money to buy Carly another sweater

What is the best thing that might happen?

She will tell me she is not mad at all

What is one thing you can do to help make the best thing happen?

I can say I am really sorry. And I can give her one of my favorite sweaters.

What is the most likely thing that will happen?

I think she will be kind of mad at me and she won’t talk to me for a bit.

What can you do to handle the most likely thing if it happens?


I can tell her I’m sorry. I can be super nice. I can play with Lisa more.

Can we try this at home with our kids? I certainly am going to try!