Exterminate the ANTs

How to help your kid(s) overcome their automatic negative thoughts (ANTs)

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Your kid has negative thoughts? Good! That means they’re human.

Your kid is dwelling in their negative thoughts? Sounds about right! Just like adults, kids have an in-built negativity bias during their social-emotional development, which places more emphasis and focus on these negative thoughts.1

All humans are neurobiologically hardwired for survival, which involves assessing the environment, social interactions, and life experiences for negative information to protect oneself.

According to the National Science Foundation, 80% of our thousands of thoughts per day are negative and 95% of them are repetitive.

We call these automatic negative thoughts “ANTs” because not only is it an acronym, but just like real ants, these negative thoughts come in large numbers, are hard to catch, and require “mental extermination” in order to manage them.

We often think the goal is for kids to change all negative thoughts into positive ones, but this perspective sets your kid up to fail because it’s impossible to rid oneself of all negative thoughts. Our ANTs are self-protective and here to stay. But accepting and dwelling in negativity doesn’t sound like the right thing to do, so what’s the deal?

Well, mental extermination of ANTs is less about getting rid of the thoughts for good and more about changing how we react to and manage them. Anyone living in Southern California, for example, knows that there’s no use in wishing for real ants to disappear. They’re here to stay. Instead, it’s best to have the right extermination process to keep the ants from interfering with their daily lives and homes.

The same perspective can be applied to our “mental homes,” which are our minds. For example, thinking “I’m not good enough” is a very common negative thought in the human experience, but when we don’t manage that thought and allow it to grow into persistent self-doubt, inaction, and emotional turmoil, it becomes problematic and limits our ability to thrive.

The goal for all people, including your kid, is to learn how to recognize, accept, and neutralize ANTs so they don’t overrun the mind. This process helps them embrace that negative thoughts are inevitable, but also stops the ANTs from controlling their emotions and behaviors. So when it comes to ANTs, we want to teach kids how to “catch ‘em and squish ‘em”.

Catch ‘em & squish ‘em process:

Catch ‘em: Improve self-awareness

  1. Help your kid become aware of their ANTs by bringing their attention to them when they arise. You can also proactively discuss what ANTs sound like by giving examples, such as “I always mess things up” or “I’m not as cool as them.”
  2. When your kid is experiencing negative emotions, help them identify the ANT that is associated with their feelings to improve self-awareness.
  3. Teach your kid the difference between a FACT and an ANT. A fact being objective information that’s proven to be true and an ANT being subjective information that’s not proven to be true as it’s opinion-based. When they have an ANT, help them see how this information is not a FACT, so they don’t have to believe it to be true.

Squish ‘em: Improve self-regulation

  1. Encourage and model the use of self-regulation techniques to de-escalate the mental and/or emotional experience around the ANT. In order for your kid to be receptive to changing their experience with the ANT, they must reach a state of emotional regulation. For example, your kid can use breathing techniques2 (e.g., box breathing, rainbow breathing, bumble bee breaths), body scanning3, or movement4 (yoga moves, going for a walk, swinging on a swing) to regulate their emotions. Be sure to introduce these techniques outside of an emotionally charged situation.
  2. Once regulated, help your kid neutralize their relationship with the ANT with one of the following strategies:
    1. Reframing: Help them reframe their perspective on the given situation so they realize they don’t have to believe their ANT.
    2. Lesson learned: Help them discover the lesson to be learned through the negative experience they’re having so they realize negative experiences have value.
    3. Debate: Help them collect and share all of the evidence they have to show their negative thought isn’t true so they realize their ANT is not a FACT.
  3. Continue to help your kid change their relationship to their ANTs by modeling these practices and having conversations where you share your personal experiences with ANTs so they feel less alone.

Every kid deserves to learn how to successfully navigate and neutralize their negative thoughts so they no longer suffer through their inevitable ANTs. If you help your kid apply even one of these steps above, they will be well on their way to becoming more resilient, confident, and equipped to thrive.


1Vaish, A., Grossmann, T., & Woodward, A. (2008). Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychological Bulletin, 134(3), 383–403. doi: 0.1037/0033-2909.134.3.383

2Hopper, S. I., Murray, S. L., Ferrara, L. R., & Singleton, J. K. (2019). Effectiveness of diaphragmatic breathing for reducing physiological and psychological stress in adults: a quantitative systematic review. JBI Database of Systematic Reviews and Implementation Reports, 17(9), 1855–1876. doi: 0.11124/JBISRIR-2017-003848

3Schultchen, D., Messner, M., Karabatsiakis, A. et al. Effects of an 8-Week Body Scan Intervention on Individually Perceived Psychological Stress and Related Steroid Hormones in Hair. Mindfulness 10, 2532–2543 (2019). doi: 10.1007/s12671-019-01222-74Shafir, Tal. (2016). Using movement to regulate emotion: Neurophysiological findings and their application in psychotherapy. Frontiers in Psychology. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01451

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