Parenting Tips: Black and White Thinking

Encouraging your Child to Explore the Gray

Thinking in black and white terms, also known as concrete thinking, is a manner of thinking that sees only extreme ends of a continuum.  In childhood, black and white thinking is developmentally expected. When adults think in black and white terms, it can become a thinking error that can lead to difficulties in navigating emotions or relationships.  Words like always, never, best, worst, perfect, or impossible, are clues that black or white thinking is in play. Becoming aware of when this type of thinking is happening can really help us teach our kids, and ourselves, how to change our thought patterns.

Children’s brains work in black and white terms until they enter into adolescence.  As they grow and mature they begin to be able to “see the gray” in situations, a skill that helps them accurately perceive themselves and others, make healthy decisions and delay gratification. For these skills to develop, children need to have adults teach and model thinking into the middle ground. 

When you catch your child thinking in these terms it can be helpful to be curious with them about possible middle ground.  When your child says “I’m never going to pass this test”, or “no one likes me” you can be curious about times the opposite was true, and remind them of their successes.

This is also a great moment to validate the underlying emotions that can drive these statements, which can sound like “Of course you’re worried about your big math test; remember the last time you were so worried and you did really well”. 

As adults, it is good to also watch for our own black and white thinking (‘cause we all have it).  When we think in these terms, it is usually a sign of stress or underlying fears or anxieties. Have you ever caught yourself saying “I’m never going to get this project done,” worrying if you’ll meet a deadline? Or, “will my child ever be able to control their feelings”, fretting about how your child is going to navigate the world?  

When we catch ourselves thinking in these terms, it’s a good practice to take a deep breath, identify the worry, then begin to find the middle ground and identify next small steps.  If we are able to catch ourselves in these moments and model these steps for our kids, that is a great way to teach and model a skill they are trying to learn.  And if you can do it with some humor too, all the better! 

For more parent support, connect with a member of Decade2Connect today!

Our Intensive Outpatient Program is in-network with United!