“Awfulizing” and Wishful Thinking: How Faulty Thinking Can Lead Kids Astray


While walking my dog around dawn one morning, I realized that the way James Lehman describes faulty thinking in children describes what I do on a regular basis.  Instead of focusing on the color of the new leaves on the trees or looking for hawks, I was suddenly aware that I was missing it all by obsessing about upcoming bills, family issues and memories. I was walking blindly, focusing on negative thoughts that were causing me more stress.  I’ve seen my children exhibit the same faulty thinking; if just one bad thing happened at school, the whole day was then terrible — but now I’m seeing that I do the same thing myself at times.

Someone told me once that animals experience things only one time, while human beings relive an episode hundreds of times. (As if it wasn’t bad enough the first time!) While I was walking in the yard this morning, I became aware that I had just formulated an entire conversation with my mechanic and heard him say I’d need a whole new transmission. It was like watching a movie. I was projecting a negative outcome with expensive consequences, or “awfulizing,” as James Lehman says. This means that you take a thought or worry to “the bad place” and assume the worst. (And guess what? The problem turned out to be an inexpensive fan belt.)

You also might hear your child engaging in Wishful thinking–the other side of the coin. This is when you’ll hear your child say, “I don’t have to study. I’m going to test video games for a living.” Or, “I’m going to be a Rock Star and hire a maid some day — I don’t need to learn how to do laundry.”

False self-perceptions, awfulizing and wishful thinking are all incredibly easy to do. We have resources to help us avoid these pitfalls as adults, but we can still quickly fall into these thinking errors ourselves. So, how can we help teach our children how to find a more productive and forgiving way to “think” as they grow?

Related: Does Your Child Rely on Wishful Thinking? How to Motivate Him toward Attainable Goals

It’s important to support your child’s dreams, but also to hold them accountable for family expectations and goals.  Becoming an NBA basketball star is not going to happen while dreaming about it on the couch. Having a real talent does not guarantee fame and fortune. Researching, planning, and practicing are required to reach any goal. Expecting success without doing the work is a false self-perception.

In the same way that teenagers say “I’ll just do better next semester” I can say, “I’ll just lose weight by eating right.”  What does that entail?  Wishful thinking is just so, easy! It works for every situation that we fall short in.

So as a parent, to counter this kind of “wishing without putting in the work” we can:

1.  Model reality-based plans. Instead of allowing your child to think she can become an Oscar winning actress because she loves to dress up, emphasize how to become one.  Suggest taking classes, trying out for the school play, and practicing public speaking.

2. Be specific about how get extra help if your child’s grades are slipping. They can usually stay after school and get help from teachers, ask parents for help, or maybe get a tutor. Structuring quiet study time is also pro-active.

3. Do the research.  As a dieting adult, it’s not enough to say, “OK, I won’t eat anymore high-fat delicious food.”  Model HOW you will find out what food is high in fat. Where are you going to find delicious low fat food? If you aren’t going to exercise as well, you’re pretty much back to “wishful thinking.”

4. Discuss the outcomes of investing in a goal, the negative and positive. Ask what they think will happen if they practice basketball every day? Will they have a better chance of making the NBA practicing daily versus just going to school basketball practices? What kinds of things do you think Paul Pierce of the Celtics did to help him become one of the best basketball players? Maybe even show them how to research that information.

Most importantly, try to teach and model how to live in the present, not dwell on past failures or stressful issues we have no control over.


Holly Fields has worked with children with emotional and physical disabilities for more than 15 years in the home, at school, and in rehabilitation settings, as well as therapeutic riding programs. She was with Legacy Publishing Company as a 1-on-1 Coach for two years. Holly has a Masters Degree in Special Education. She has two adult children, two rescue dogs and one cat.

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