Helping Kids with All or Nothing Thinking

All or nothing thinking is looking at the world and life experiences through an “either/or” lens. Either everything is perfect, or everything is a disaster. Other ways to describe all or nothing thinking is to think about it as polarized thinking, or seeing things as black or white with no gray area. Since life isn’t perfect, all or nothing thinking creates unreasonable expectations and can lead to difficulties with anxiety, school work, and relationships.

Common examples of this in young people are thoughts or statements like:

(Either) If I don’t make A’s on all my assignments, (or) I am not a good student.

(Either) If I don’t look like a social media model, (or) I am ugly.

(Either) Everything in my life is just how I want it, (or) I have nothing to

feel good about.

All or nothing thinking leaves no room for middle ground, and limits the ability to see all of the exceptions and exemptions that exist in real life. So, what are some strategies to use to help your young person with all or nothing thinking? I’m glad you asked!

Strategy 1:  Use “yes/but” to counter “either/or.” When you hear your child using “either/or” statements, help them replace this negative thinking pattern by providing a more positive option. Here are some examples.

Instead of this … (Either) If I don’t make A’s on all my assignments, (or) I am not a good student.

Say this … (Yes) I don’t make A’s on all my assignments, (but) I try my best and always make passing grades.

Instead of this … (Either) If I don’t look like a social media model, (or) I am ugly.

Say this … (Yes) I don’t look like a social media model, (but) I have a great smile and social media posts are edited and unrealistic.

Instead of this … (Either) Everything in my life is not just how I want it, (or) so I have nothing to

feel good about.

Say this … (Yes) My life is not perfect, (but) I have a family that loves and supports me.

Strategy 2: When you hear your young person making all or nothing statements, ask them

“Is that really true?” or “Is what you just said a fact/reality?”

Help them break down their all or nothing thinking by challenging their pattern of exaggeration. Model how to look at things through a different lens by changing perspective.

How we perceive the world greatly affects our daily wellbeing and our ability to problem solve and be hopeful about the future. All or nothing thinking hinders a positive outlook and hopefulness. Choose one of the strategies above and help your student reframe their thoughts, free themselves from negative thinking, and enjoy more peace and satisfaction in life.

Deborah Godbold

Mental Health Counselor

Suwannee County School District