Unwanted Thoughts: When Kids Have Intrusive Thoughts and How to Help Them

Intrusive thoughts are unwelcome and often distressing mental images or ideas that intrude into our awareness without invitation. They can be disturbing, irrational, or even violent, leaving us questioning our own sanity. Intrusive thoughts often involve content that goes against your personal values, beliefs, or moral code.

Since children are learning who they are, what they like, and how they belong in the world, they are in the process of developing their own personal values and morals. As a result, when children experience intrusive thoughts, it can be particularly disturbing for them.

Research shows that 8–9-year-old children experience intrusive thoughts most often, though it can happen at any age. When children do experience intrusive thoughts, it’s essential for parents and caregivers to provide support and guidance to help them work through it. Sometimes, with the right support from their caregivers, children can work through intrusive thoughts without professional help. This article on when to seek help can give some guidance on when anxiety/intrusive thoughts can be managed at home and when a professional is needed.

We have found these tips helpful in supporting children when they’re experiencing intrusive thoughts:

  • Open Communication
    Create a safe and open environment where the child feels comfortable discussing their thoughts. Encourage them to share their feelings and thoughts with you without fear of judgment. Remind them how brave they were to share these scary thoughts with you.
  • Normalize the Experience
    Explain that intrusive thoughts are a natural part of human thinking and don’t define who they are as a person. Compare these thoughts to passing clouds in the sky, they will come and go. Assure them that these thoughts won’t harm them.
  • Teach Coping Strategies
    Help the child learn age-appropriate coping strategies to manage their intrusive thoughts. These might include deep breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, or distracting activities like drawing or playing a favorite game.
  • Maintain Consistency
    Children need routine and structure. Creating consistency and predictability for children ensures they feel safe and secure. When children are safe and secure, they thrive. This includes having a consistent daily schedule that includes ample opportunities for play, rest, and relaxation.
  • Stay Calm and Reassuring
    Let the child know that it’s normal to have thoughts and that everyone experiences strange or unwanted thoughts from time to time. You might even want to acknowledge how hard it was for the child to say these scary things out loud.
  • Avoid Reassurance Seeking
    While these seems opposite of the previous statement, there is a point in which reassurance causes more harm than good. There is a difference in reassuring a child that the thoughts they are having is normal and nothing to be afraid of, reassuring them that their thoughts are unfounded doesn’t allow them to learn how to cope with the distress. Repeated reassurance can reinforce that they need you to manage it for them. Children should be encouraged to manage the thoughts on their own and only seek help after they have tried several coping skills.
  • Limit Exposure to Disturbing Content
    In today’s digital age, children can easily come across disturbing content online or in media, even with the most secure systems in place. It’s important to continue to monitor and limit their exposure to such content. Taking these steps can reduce the likelihood of triggering intrusive thoughts. Halloween is an especially difficult time for many children, especially with displays in stores and commercials on television. Make a plan with your child on how to handle spooky things.
  • Encourage Healthy Activities
    Encourage physical activity and creative pursuits as these can help reduce anxiety and provide an outlet for pent-up emotions. Children need a lot of unstructured outdoor play, play in general, and playing with others. Children learn through play and they process difficult events through play. Even though it is tempting to allow children play online games with their friends, play needs to happen in the company of others. There is a lot of research to support that we learn best when we’re face-to-face with others.
  • Consult a Therapist
    If the intrusive thoughts persist or become distressing to the child, consider consulting a therapist experienced working with kids. These professionals have expertise in helping children manage their thoughts and emotions effectively through play and techniques that kids can understand. A therapist trained in play therapy techniques, or child centered play therapy is ideal.
  • Seek Support for Yourself
    Parenting a child with intrusive thoughts can be challenging. Don’t hesitate to seek support for yourself through parenting groups or counseling. Understanding how to support your child effectively can make a significant difference.

Remember that intrusive thoughts in children are often a passing phase and may not necessarily indicate a more serious issue. However, if these thoughts persist, escalate in intensity, or interfere significantly with the child’s daily life, it’s essential to seek professional guidance promptly. The goal is to provide a nurturing and supportive environment that helps the child develop healthy coping mechanisms and navigate their thoughts and feelings with resilience.

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