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Today's Family Magazine

Helpful techniques to avoid worst-case scenario thinking

By Senders Pediatrics

Catastrophizing, known as worst-case scenario thinking, leads a person to overestimate and exaggerate the probability of bad things happening.  The tendency to exaggerate negative outcomes and anticipate problems where they most likely do not exist is part of our biology.

Our brains are designed to expect the worst.  In prehistoric times, it served as a survival strategy because nobody knew where a saber-toothed tiger might be lurking.  A “better to be safe than sorry” approach kept many people out of harm’s way.

Additionally, some people default to catastrophizing as a protective measure: “If I think the worst, and the worst doesn’t happen, I’ll feel relieved.”

Other times, we catastrophize because we’ve had a bad experience we didn’t see coming and want to make sure we are not blindsided in the future.  But this type of thinking is often unhelpful, especially in parenting.

Worst-case scenario thinking triggers an internal alarm that signals danger!  Your job is to discern if danger is imminent.  For example, if you hear a fire alarm you immediately assess if there’s an actual fire, or if it’s a practice drill or a false alarm.

But rational thinking, especially when our children are concerned, is often easier said than done.

For example: A 4-year-old who grabs toys can lead a parent to project that he or she will mature into a social deviant.

Or a timid and reserved youngster who holds on tightly to a parent’s leg becomes a social recluse who lacks meaningful interpersonal rapport.

These scenarios are inaccurate and exhausting! When your mind turns remote possibilities into true probabilities, especially when they are unwarranted, it erodes a healthy connection between the adult and child (your biggest superpower) and compromises everyone’s well-being.

The problem is not that you have negative thoughts; it’s that you believe these thoughts are true.

Nobody can predict or prevent the future – and catastrophizing exists in the future!  Below are some helpful techniques you can use to avoid worst-case scenario thinking.

  • Stay in the present: The moment is what it is.
  • Focus on the facts:  Describe what is happening at this particular moment.  Shift from thinking “what if” to thinking what is!  Use descriptive commentary and avoid subjective commentary.
  • Act like a reporter: Describe the situation, abstain from making judgments, and remove the emotion.
  • Think in shades of gray: Catastrophizing is very polarized thinking. It transforms things into this or that.  Remember, most situations are nuanced and include varying degrees and gradations.
  • Poke holes in your thinking: Identify other times when you resorted to “worst case scenario thinking” and it never came to fruition.
  • Discern facts from fear: Facts are objective; fear is subjective.
  • Label your thoughts: Instead of declaring a thought as a fact; “________ is going to happen,” say, “I have a thought that _______ is going to happen.”  Identifying your concern as a thought, instead of as a truth, can help you gain perspective.
  • Use your imagination wisely: The power to choose what to imagine is yours.  Use your child’s present situation to predict optimal future outcomes. For example:  The same 4-year-old who grabs toys will grow into a mature person who exercises a lot of agency and initiative.  They know what they want — they are focused and intentional!
The reserved child who clings to their parent’s leg recognizes the importance of safety.  Their caution enables them to make astute decisions and someday build a strong, safe and secure foundation for their own family.

For more access to helpful “bite-size” parenting and life wisdom, please follow Joan Morgenstern on Instagram @joan.morgenstern.