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reframe negative thoughtsIntrusive and repetitive thoughts such as: “my classmates are mean”, “they tease me” or “they don’t like me” can play havoc on a child’s mind.

Why would one child fixate on a negative experience, while another child brushes it off without much thought? The difference is that the child who brushes the problem to one side probably has a more objective view on the situation, whereas the child who is troubled by a particular event is more likely to take the matter more personally. As a result, an emotional consequence usually follows.

Emotional Consequence

A = activating event or situation

B = belief

C = emotional consequence

The emotional consequence occurs not because of the situation, but because of the result of the thoughts placed on that situation (1).

For example, if a child’s emotional response when asked about going back to school after the summer holiday is apprehension (C), and the belief is that they have no friends (B), then the belief placed on the situation at (A) is the issue that needs addressing.  Below you will learn how you can help a child reframe a past negative experience using these ABCs to ease the transition of back to school.

Strategy: An Open Dialogue to Reframe a Past Negative Experience

Discovering more about the child’s situation with an “open dialogue strategy” can help to alter the child’s initial belief, thus leading to a more favourable outcome at (C). When using the dialogue technique, open-ended questions are used to help elicit more accurate information about an incident. These often start with “who” “what” “where” “when” “why” and also “how” and “can”.

Open questions allow the child to explore possible answers unlike closed questions which stay in the control of the questioner and usually only get a “yes”, “no” or “don’t know” answer.  More effective responses are encouraged when open-ended questions are subtly altered.

For instance, “why is that?” can become “in what ways?” and

“how is that?” can become “how else might you think about that?”

Paraphrasing and Summarising

Ten year-old Hannah is worried about a past event. As the gentle but challenging dialogue runs its course (below), notice how paraphrasing helps to keep the conversation moving and how summarising helps to clarify the main points of the conversation. Additionally, note how the questioner allows Hannah to remain in control of (A) (B) and (C).  Through this dialogue you will see how Hannah is able to reframe a past negative experience into a more positive potential outcome.

Questioner: “Let’s talk about your situation, Hannah (A). You say you don’t want to go back to school after the summer holiday… why is that?”

Hannah: “I have no friends (B).”

Questioner: “So, the thought of going back to school, how is this making you feel?”

Hannah: “I guess the thought of it is making me feel apprehensive (C).”

Questioner: “How might you support your belief? For example, where’s the evidence to show you have no friends?”

Hannah: “No-one plays with me or includes me in playground activities; I don’t think I’m that likeable.”

Questioner: “Can you think of anything that tells you otherwise?”

Hannah: “Well, one break-time, I smiled at Sarah and she sort of smiled back.”

Questioner: “What happened after she smiled?”

Hannah: “I headed to the library.”

Questioner: “Okay, you went inside and made your way to the library (paraphrasing). Why was that?”

Hannah: “I just felt so stupid for smiling because Sarah didn’t come over.”

Questioner: “How else might you explain why Sarah didn’t come over?”

Hannah: “Well, I suppose when she glanced my way, we looked at each so briefly that she probably didn’t think much about it.”

Questioner: “Who else was there?”

Hannah: “Sarah’s friends. She was playing a game with them on the school playing field. I kept thinking they would whisper in her ear and tell her I’m stupid.”

Questioner: “Let me get this right. Sarah glanced your way and you both looked at each other briefly (clarifying). If what you say is correct, and I believe it is, then how likely do you think it would be that her friends actually saw your momentary gaze across the playing field? (Here, challenging probability helps to put balance on the situation.)”

Hannah: “Erm, probably not very likely.”

Questioner: Deliberate pause to give Hannah time to reflect.

Hannah: “Maybe Sarah just felt a little awkward or wasn’t sure about leaving her friends behind to come over.”

Questioner: “Sure… and so if this is the case, can you think why Sarah’s not coming over would justify your feeling stupid; also, given that the other kids probably didn’t see you glance across the field, can you find any evidence otherwise to suggest they would think this about you?”

Hannah: “Hmm, I never thought of it like that.”

Questioner: “Sarah smiled back, right? What does this tell you about Sarah?”

Hannah: “That she’s friendly.”

Questioner: “And what does it say about you?”

Hannah: “That I’m likeable, that maybe Sarah likes me after all.”

Questioner: “Can you think of anything else that this might say about you?”

Hannah: “Erm… oh yeah, that I have no reason to feel stupid; and that there’s no proof to say that Sarah’s friends would think this about me either.”

Questioner: “So if Sarah’s smile means she’s friendly, that you’re likeable and no, not stupid (summarising to clarify main points at (B)) how about when you head back to school for the new term you give Sarah another smile and see what happens?”

Hannah: “Maybe I could.”

Questioner: “You have nothing to lose, right?” (This brief question helps to spot and resolve a possible worst-case scenario.)

Hannah: “No, but I do worry that I’ll get a rebuff.”

Questioner: “Okay, while this is unlikely, how about planning a coping strategy for what might be your worst-case scenario.”

Hannah: “Hmm, maybe I could invite the class to my birthday party or a barbeque. If Sarah turns down my invite, I’d be disappointed, but the event would be a way of making other friends.”

Questioner: “That sounds like a great idea… do you think you can do that?”

Hannah: “Yeah, I think so.”

Questioner: “How are you feeling right now?”

Hannah: “A little less apprehensive (C); I think I can handle going back to school now (A).”

Hannah’s new beliefs at (B) lead to a healthier outcome at (C) and a more positive approach to handling the situation at (A).

In summary, one situation can mean different beliefs for different children. An open dialogue strategy can help a child who responds adversely to see a difficult situation from a more realistic angle; or if their assumptions prove accurate to find a coping strategy to help them confidently manage their worst-case scenario. The dialogue above can be adapted to turn most negative experiences around.


1) Ellis, Albert. Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and Behaviors: New Directions for Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2001. Print.