What Is Catastrophizing — and Do You Do It?

A local expert explains what is catastrophizing and shares how it impacts children.

Watching your child climb to the highest point of the jungle gym can be anxiety-inducing. Will he fall? If he falls, will he get hurt? It’s not uncommon to have a sense of anxiety as your child explores the world — to a certain extent.

If you find yourself hovering, assuming the worst possible injury is imminent or even preventing him from embarking on that climb, you could be catastrophizing.

“We are jumping to the worst case scenario possible, going from a neutral state of thinking about an issue to this is the worst possible outcome really quickly and sort of skipping over the middle ground where the more realistic or reasonable possibilities lie,” says Mary Brennan, Ph.D., from Murray Center for Behavioral Wellness in Southfield.

Going from zero to the worst outcome can trigger anxious emotions and fear quickly — especially when parents feel a lack of control over their responses.

“It affects how they parent and then it can also trickle down to how their child experiences life, how they develop — and it can attribute to their worrisome thinking, as well,” Brennan adds.

If you’re struggling with catastrophic thoughts in your own parenting, read on for advice on how to work through it.

Anxious parent, anxious child

A parent’s anxiety can increase a child’s anxiety. It’s something that Brennan sees firsthand in the kids she works with.

In extreme cases, it’s linked to clinical anxiety disorders and impacts a smaller percentage of parents that experience anxiety symptoms all day long. These parents are more likely to have catastrophic thinking and for them, it can be debilitating.

When a parent has this level of anxiety, it can get in the way of their child’s normal development. “It can interfere with healthy exploration and play and development, especially in the case of a parent who is often interrupting play and intervening because they are so concerned about safety all day long or because they are in an anxious state,” she says.

Younger children learn through play, so if a parent is interfering, it can affect their child’s development and potentially trigger fear and worry in the child. In addition, this interference can disrupt a healthy sense of independence.

Aside from that, children are constantly watching to see how parents react to situations before they react emotionally. Take, for example, children who are learning how to walk. They fall and before they react, they turn to mom or dad. If the parent cringes, the child is more likely to cry. It’s that sort of anxious energy that can impact children as they are growing up.

“Kids learn by observation. They are very intuitive, and I think that unfortunately with catastrophic thinking and anxious parenting itself, kids can observe that,” Brennan says.

Building awareness is a good first step

In her work with parents, Brennan suggests they take a step back and think about how they got to the worst-case scenario and get stuck in this way of thinking.

Awareness is key, she notes. Most times parents don’t know they are acting this way until someone else observes they are hovering or not allowing their child to explore, or until they talk to a therapist.

Once a parent is aware of the relationship between thought, feeling and action, it’s time to reshape, reframe or neutralize the thought. This takes practice and would be best to do with a professional who can guide you.

Some people are able to recognize when thoughts are irrational and throwing facts at those thoughts helps neutralize it a bit, but again, it takes work. Acknowledge that unpleasant things do happen, and once there is acceptance of that, you can begin to stop the irrational thought.

“Part of it is that I think they are sort of cognitive distortions that can become reality for people really fast, and to be able to recognize it and work through it could lead to a much better quality of life for people,” Brennan says.

Pay attention to your thoughts about what’s happening with your child moment-to-moment. Are you doing futuristic thinking or being in the moment? Be mindful of being in the present and having quality exchanges in your child.

Working with a mental health expert can help parents — and ultimately their kids — overcome catastrophic thinking.

Content brought to you by the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation. For more information, visit flinnfoundation.org.

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