How to Help Kids and Teens Avoid the Trap of Overgeneralizing

(This goes for grownups too)

“I can’t ever remember not wearing a mask to school!” my second-grader interjected as we began explaining what to expect in the upcoming school year. It made sense, given that his kindergarten year was interrupted by COVID-19 and he had been online or in a mask ever since. Apparently undisturbed by this persistent reality, he went on to ask if we knew who his teacher would be yet.

My oldest had a bit more of a fatalistic view. “Yeah, we will probably never go back to being inside like normal,” he commented as he pulled his headphones over his ears to indicate he wasn’t in the mood to talk about the pandemic right now.

I took a deep breath, careful not to dive into my son’s low mood and eager to adopt his younger brother’s radical acceptance. We went on to talk about teachers and somehow I managed to avoid voicing my fear “What if it is ALWAYS like this?”

Student wearing a yellow t-shirt and a blue backpack going to school with a mask on during COVID-19 pandemic

Watch out for the alls, nothings, nevers, always, and forevers

We human beings like to think of ourselves as rational and measured. But this past year alone has taken many of us on a highly experiential tour of the detours and distortions in our thinking that make it more difficult to cope. While we are always vulnerable to cognitive distortions, stress can quickly hijack our thinking brain.

Based on our family conversations about COVID-19 safety and school, it was clear that we would need to keep our eyes on one particularly tempting but wildly unhelpful cognitive distortion: overgeneralization.

Overgeneralization is when we take an experience and we decide that things will always or never be a certain way based on that experience. In other words, we learn that masks are required again for school and decide that we will never be inside unmasked again.

This doesn’t just show up around COVID-19 worries. Far from it. You might notice that your child has a difficult first day at school and they come home convinced that they will, “Never make friends this year.” Or your teenager might try to convince you that, “Nothing you do will ever help me feel better.”

Now here is one fairly accurate generalization: every single one of those “always, nothings, alls, and nevers” is likely to activate our nervous systems and make it more difficult to manage our stress.

Pay attention to the needs, feelings, maybes, sometimeses, parts, and pieces instead

It’s not that there isn’t some reality to our observations – especially when things seem to be repeating themselves. We all remember what back-to-school felt like last year. Then as we look at rising COVID cases today, it’s not surprising when we start to think, “See! It will always be this way!”

Overgeneralizing, however, can obscure the ways that some things are or might be different than what we perceive. For example, as opposed to last school year, my kids’ grandparents are now vaccinated which means that the terrifying prospect of them going to the hospital is significantly reduced this fall. We know that outdoor activities with appropriate distancing are safe and essential to mental health. Some things feel the same. Some things feel worse. Some things feel significantly better. Overgeneralizations erase our learning, stamp out curiosity and diminish possibility. Needless to say, it doesn’t feel good.

The good news is that we do have some strategies to protect against overgeneralized thinking.

Try building a toolkit that challenges overgeneralizing:

    • Avoid the debate. It is tempting to get pulled into a debate with our kids, partners, or ourselves in the face of overgeneralized thinking. For example, if my kid says, “It will always be this way,” I am immediately tempted to point out all the reasons that it won’t be. Soon we are in a “yes it will, no it won’t” argument that nobody can win.
    • Externalize the thinking pattern. When it comes to thinking patterns, we are better able to handle them if we can externalize them. Identifying the distortion reduces its power and allows us to consciously challenge it. For example, anxiety expert Dr. Lynn Lyons recommends creating family language like, “Dropping an ‘always or never bomb’ makes it harder to see what is actually happening.” You might also consider giving overgeneralization a name such as, “Never Ned is showing up again. I want to be sure not to take him too seriously.” Think this is cheesy? It is. But it is way better than accelerating anxiety.
    • Turn your focus to the current feeling or the current need. Rather than debating the accuracy of the overgeneralization in the moment, turn your attention to the real feeling or need that is igniting the overgeneralization. For example, “It sounds like you are saying that it is really hard that you can’t hang out unmasked with your friends today.” Or you might say to yourself, “I can feel that this news is making me really anxious right now. I know what to do when I feel anxious.”
    • Come back to it and break it up. Return to an overgeneralization when everyone is fairly calm and your thinking brains are online. Engage in a conversation or reflection that challenges the thinking pattern and breaks the “always, all, never, and none” into diverse parts and pieces. For example, “Today was hard. I don’t know how tomorrow will be.” Or, “When I couldn’t find someone to play with at recess it felt awful. Specialist class was better when I got to sit by a kid I knew from online school.” Or, “I am so tired of masking. I am so grateful that I can hug my grandparents.”
    • Don’t ignore real patterns where they exist. Let’s remember that not every ‘”all or never” piece of feedback is a result of distorted thinking. For example, if kids come home from school reporting that they are always getting picked on we would be wise to learn more. Likewise, if our kids tell us that we are always on our phones, we should be willing to reflect on our own behavior.

Perhaps some days you will experience the radical acceptance of my youngest in the face of the “forevers or nevers.” On other days, when you start to paint the future with giant, overgeneralized brushstrokes, know that you aren’t alone. And that, with a little patience and practice, it won’t always feel this way.