We’ve all seen cartoons where what’s going on in a character’s mind is portrayed in “thought bubbles.” That’s a great visual representation of what’s happening inside each of our brains.

Like many people, my thought bubbles can get filled with negative stuff, especially when I’m worried or anxious. For a lot of us, the coronavirus has created some new anxieties and concerns.

One of the reasons our thought bubbles become filled with demoralizing messages is that our brains are poor at making predictions. Instead of producing accurate forecasts which might include good outcomes, we often just project our worries onto the future. This is especially true when emotions are involved.

Because our children’s minds are even more vulnerable to emotion-driven negativity, one of our goals as parents must be to manage our own thought bubbles so we can be a model for our kids. We need to help them gain a Positive View of the Personal Future (Asset #40) rather than feed into insecurities about it.

Researchers have identified many ways our thinking can mislead us, especially in times of stress, insecurity, and fear. Here are just a few.

1. Catastrophizing or Minimizing

We can easily become convinced the worst is going to happen. At the same time, some personality types can ignore important information including warning signs that should spur us to take corrective action. Fix your thought bubbles on the present and seek accurate perspectives rather than avoiding pain by ignoring it.

2. Discounting the Positive

Sometimes our filters screen out positive input. For example, if someone compliments you on being a great mom you might say, “Thanks, but you don’t see me every day. My kids aren’t usually this good.” Don’t deflect affirmation—accept it! There will always be critics and negative moments, so take the positive when it comes.

3. Personalizing

You assume things that are happening are personal to you. When my son or daughter’s friends don’t text or call, their first assumption might be that it has something to do with themselves. This can fill their thought bubbles with discouraging questions: “Did I do something wrong? Am I not fun to be with?” It’s natural for our brains to personalize, so we must train them to look at other possibilities. For instance, “My friends might be busy, or they might be spending time with their family right now.” Consider what may be happening in the other person’s life rather than assuming everything is about you.

What Are Your Thought Bubbles?

Now think about your thinking. What is taking up the most real estate in your thought bubbles? Consider keeping a journal to record the themes of your thoughts. What are emotions doing to your thought bubbles? Challenge some of your thoughts and ask, “Is there another way of looking at this?”

Keep in mind that what you pay attention to determines the themes of your thought bubbles and be aware that fear locks in our attention. It leads us to a defensive posture to avoid pain, failure, or other bad things we may not be able to control. Work to actively redirect your thoughts to things you can control. When faced with these thoughts put a positive spin on Planning and Decision Making (Asset #32) – this will help you gain a positive view of the future and help to overcome these latent fears.

Note also that thought bubbles can be contagious. The better you become at corralling them, the better you’ll be able to model this for your children.