Many people deal with intrusive thoughts throughout their lives. For children, these thoughts can be incredibly scary and disturbing. They may worry that there is something wrong with them; however, this is not the case, and there are several ways to help a child manage this.
What Are Intrusive Thoughts?
Intrusive thoughts are thoughts that come into your head unprompted and unasked for. They can occur frequently and are often of an upsetting and disturbing nature. These disturbing thoughts can be violent or sexual and may often be about behaviours that you find repulsive.
Intrusive thoughts can be negative and draining. However, although they may be present and persistent, they often fade quickly.
The recurrence of these thoughts can be a worrying sign for people. They can often think that because they are having these thoughts, they are a bad person and they secretly want these terrible things to happen; however, this is untrue.
Intrusive thoughts are incredibly common. They are reported in almost every country worldwide, and many people will experience them throughout their lives. Children may not recognise these thoughts as just thoughts and will not know how to deal with them.
Young children often experience what is known as magical thinking. Magical thinking is a strong belief that your inner thoughts can influence the outside world, especially in children up to 7 years old. If a child is experiencing disturbing thoughts, they may be terrified that these dark images will influence the world around them. This fear can make them feel incredibly guilty, scared and afraid.
Causes of Intrusive Thoughts
There may not be a cause for intrusive thoughts.
Much of the population have these thoughts from time to time, and they are very normal. However, for some people (including children), intrusive thinking can be symptomatic of a deeper mental health condition, such as:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – those with OCD struggle with intrusive thoughts that can become behaviours. For example, someone with OCD may have thoughts about getting sick, which can then cause them to obsessively clean their countertops to avoid this risk.
- Eating disorders – eating disorders can cause intrusive thoughts about body image and food’s impact on the body. These thoughts can cause significant distress to those with an eating disorder.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – intrusive thoughts are common in people with PTSD. They may relate to the traumatic incident and trigger physical symptoms, including an elevated heart rate, severe flashbacks and mental distress.
How to Help
Your child may not want you to find out that they are experiencing intrusive thoughts out of fear of how you will react. If their thoughts are violent or disturbing, they may go to lengths to hide them, even if they are causing them immense distress. If you suspect that your child is struggling with negative thoughts, or your child confesses to you that they are, there are several steps that you can take to help them:
- Explain what intrusive thoughts are – young children won’t know what intrusive thoughts are and may feel intense guilt that what they are thinking will cause them or someone they love to get hurt. Even young adults may not know what they are experiencing. Explaining disturbing thoughts to your child can reassure them that they are not alone and they are experiencing something entirely normal.
- Thinking isn’t the same as doing – having intrusive thoughts about horrible scenarios or events is not the same as acting on them. A child may have thoughts about hurting people around them and worry that they are terrible people, but by letting them know that having these thoughts is not the same as acting upon them, they can begin to relax.
- Catch them in the act – teaching your child or teenager how to catch intrusive thoughts in the act can be a beneficial way of dealing with them. By noticing their thinking and acknowledging it, children can learn that they are nothing to be afraid of. You can teach your child to say or think, “this is an intrusive thought!” whenever one comes to mind, and then let the thought go so it can’t bother them anymore.
- Don’t push them away – although this may seem counterintuitive, pushing away intrusive thoughts can cause children – and adults – to fixate on them more. Instead, accept that the thought is there and know it will pass.
These methods may not be enough for all children, and in this case, they may benefit from attending therapy sessions to help manage and interrupt the process. Therapy can also help children and young adults to address any potential triggers for their disturbing thoughts to teach them healthy responses.
Intrusive thoughts can be scary for children and adolescents. They may not recognise their thoughts as intrusive and instead worry about what others may think of them. Help your child by educating them on how to catch intrusive thoughts in the act and how thinking is not the same as doing.
If your child confesses that they are having disturbing thoughts, it is not a cause for concern – they are common all over the world, and almost everyone will experience them at some point in their life.
However, if you are worried about your child’s mental health, always seek professional help.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling with intrusive thoughts, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential programme and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
 Clark, David A., and Adam S. Radomsky. “Introduction: A Global Perspective On Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts”. Journal Of Obsessive-Compulsive And Related Disorders, vol 3, no. 3, 2014, pp. 265-268. Elsevier BV, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jocrd.2014.02.001. Accessed 25 Jan 2022.