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Managing Self Defeating Behaviour


Self defeating behaviour, also known as Negative Automatic Thoughts (NAT’s) or Unhelpful Thoughts are very common, particularly in teenagers as their emotional brains are not fully developed. It is likely that these thoughts and behaviours will be heightened at this time.

Categories of NAT’s include: catastrophising, mind reading, unrealistic expectations, negative comparisons, black and white thinking, over generalising and blaming others.

Here are some steps for managing self defeating behaviour:

VALIDATE: It is important that a young person feels they are being listened to and respected, so aim to validate their feelings (however much you disagree) and show that you understand, for example: ‘what I’m hearing is that you feel…’ or ‘I understand that you feel…’. As parents/carers it is tempting to wade in with solutions and fix the problem. It is also deeply unsettling to hear your child talk so negatively. Allow your child the space and time to share how they are feeling before you help them to manage it.

REFRAME THE THOUGHT: This is a method of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and takes a lot of time and effort. Young people will struggle to do this themselves and I would strongly advise doing it with them only if they want to. Reframing a thought might look something like this:

Write down the thought and emotion.

Is there any evidence that contradicts this thought?

How much do you really agree with it?

What are the pro’s and con’s for thinking this way?

How would you advise a friend if they said this to you?

Can we create a more balanced thought?

For younger children, it is worth exploring the ‘Growth Mindset’ idea – rather than saying ‘I can’t do it!’ you could reframe it as ‘I can’t do that…YET.’  A great story demonstrating this for younger children is ‘I Can’t Do That Yet’ by Esther Pia Cordova.

WRITE IT/EXPRESS IT: Talking, writing and expressing these strong negative feelings can be highly effective. Encourage your child to find way to do this in a healthy way that works for them.

The following free booklet by ‘Mood Juice’ contains clear details on the types of NAT’s and how to reframe them:


Recommended books for younger children on negative thinking and behaviours:

‘You’re a Star: A Guide to Self Esteem’ by Poppy O’Neill

‘My Hidden Chimp’ by Professor Steve Peters

For more information or questions about this topic or any others mentioned, please get in touch.

APCAM (Assisting Parents of Children Affected By Mental Health) is a charity based in Oxfordshire, who do amazing work to support families who are struggling with mental health and emotional difficulties. More information can be found at https://apcamgroup.org.uk

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