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  • Writer's pictureOliver Drakeford, LMFT CGP

Cognitive Distortions FOR Teens: Overcoming Negative Thought Patterns

Updated: Apr 25

cognitive distortions for teens

Navigating the teenage years can feel like a rollercoaster ride, not just for the teens themselves but also for those around them. It's a time of intense change, growth, and learning. Among the mental health challenges that teenagers face, cognitive distortions stand out as a significant factor that can distinguish a teenager who thrives from one who struggles.

Cognitive Distortions are patterns of thinking that can distort reality, impacting anyone's perception of the world and themselves. For teenagers who are so excruciatingly sensitive to the judgments of others and themselves, understanding these distortions is a vital skill that is crucial in helping teenagers develop a healthier, more balanced outlook on life.

I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with a decade of experience providing therapy to teens, families, and parents. As the Clinical Director of an adolescent treatment center in Malibu, I found that the most effective way of helping teens and families improve their well-being is to help them first recognize and then challenge these cognitive distortions.

The Cognitive Triangle: Connecting Thoughts, Feelings, and Behaviors

the cognitive triangle for teens

The 'Cognitive Triangle' is a model from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that illustrates the interconnection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Our thoughts influence our feelings, and our feelings influence our behaviors, which in turn go on to influence our thoughts.

Imagine you have a big presentation coming up that you've worked so hard on and are excited to deliver. your thoughts might be something like, "I've prepared well, and I can handle this; I'm good at these presentations; I'm going to nail it!" This thought reflects a positive and realistic self-assessment that leads to feelings of confidence and calmness. These feelings then influence your behavior. Instead of avoiding the presentation by getting scared and fumbling with your words, you will approach it with determination and a proactive attitude. The presentation will likely go as planned, and you will receive positive feedback which goes on to influence your thoughts the next time you have a presentation.

Understanding Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are like mental traps, easy to fall into and hard to escape. They're not just quirks of the teenage mind but common to us all. But for teens who are in the throes of forging their identities amidst a maze of social pressures and personal changes, these distortions can have a profound impact.

Think of these distortions as mental filters – some are like dark sunglasses, casting a gloom over everything, while others are more like funhouse mirrors, twisting reality into strange shapes.

Going back to the cognitive triangle, if there's a distortion in the thinking, then that is going to lead to a different set of feelings, which in turn will lead to a different set of behaviors.

A teen might think of a low grade not as a single setback but as a sweeping statement of their entire academic future (thought) and then start feeling despair or hopelessness (feeling) and then not try as hard in their next exam (behavior). Or a passing remark from a friend might not just sting for a moment but fester as a perceived judgment of their character (thought), which impacts their confidence (feeling) and prevents them from saying hi to this friend the next day (behavior).

It’s crucial to recognize that these are not just ‘bad thoughts’; they are just automatic thoughts we all might have occasionally. If we choose to listen or believe those thoughts, they become deeply ingrained patterns that shape a teen's view of the world and themselves.

For teens who are so acutely aware and fearful of how others see them, these distorted thoughts can be especially distressing. They can turn teenage life's normal ups and downs into a rollercoaster of emotional turmoil.

Understanding cognitive distortions in teens isn't just about spotting these patterns; it's about realizing their power over a young person's life. It's about acknowledging that these random thoughts are unhelpful and create a skewed inner narrative that needs rewiring.

With the right knowledge and tools, we can help teens navigate these tricky mental landscapes and guide them toward a more balanced and realistic perspective.

Examples of Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive Distortions for Teens: Fortune Telling

Mind Reading: This is when we assume we know what others are thinking, and it's usually negative. For instance, if classmates whisper and glance their way, they might instantly conclude, "They're laughing at me." This can create feelings of isolation and unwarranted resentment.

  • "The coach didn't look at me during practice. He must think I'm the worst player on the team."

  • "My friends didn’t invite me out. They must be getting tired of me."

  • Feelings are Facts: In this trap, feelings are mistaken for reality. If a teen feels dumb, they believe they truly are, regardless of their achievements. This can significantly undermine their self-confidence.

  • "I feel so dumb in math class; I must really be dumb."

  • "I feel like an outsider in my family. They must not really love me."

  • All-or-Nothing Thinking: Often seen in perfectionist teens, this distortion is viewing things in black and white. If they don't ace a test, they think they're a total failure. This can lead to extreme pressure and unrealistic self-expectations.

  • "I didn’t get the lead role in the play. I must be terrible at acting."

  • "If I'm not part of the popular group, then nobody at school likes me."

  • Catastrophizing: This is when a teen blows things out of proportion. A small mistake, like forgetting a line in a play, suddenly becomes a harbinger of eternal embarrassment. This distortion can lead to excessive anxiety and avoidance behaviors.

  • "If I fail this exam, my life will be over."

  • "I stumbled during my presentation. Everyone must think I'm completely incompetent now."

  • Over-generalizing: A single negative event becomes a never-ending pattern of defeat. A breakup might lead them to think, "I’ll always be alone," fostering a sense of hopelessness about the future.

  • "I had an awkward conversation with my crush. I'm always so awkward, I'll never be good at talking to people."

  • "I didn't get selected for the school debate team this time. I never get chosen for anything."

cognitive distortions for teens, part 2

  • Throwing Out the Good: Here, positive experiences or qualities are discounted. A teen might brush off compliments about their talent, focusing only on minor criticisms, leading to diminished self-worth.

  • "Everyone said I played well in the game, but I missed that one goal. I'm really not that good."

  • "I got compliments on my art project, but all I can think about is the one small mistake I made. It ruins the whole thing."

  • Personalizing: Taking things personally that aren’t meant that way. A teacher’s general comment about class behavior might be internalized as a personal attack.

  • "Everyone said I played well in the game, but I missed that one goal. I'm really not that good."

  • "I got compliments on my art project, but all I can think about is the one small mistake I made. It ruins the whole thing."

  • Filtering: Focusing only on the negatives and filtering out positives. If a teen gets mostly positive feedback but one piece of constructive criticism, they dwell solely on the latter, ignoring the positives.

  • "I got mostly As on my report card, but that one B is all I can think about. It means I'm not really smart."

  • "My friends laughed at most of my jokes, but the one that fell flat proves I'm not funny."

Judging and Blaming: This involves harsh self-judgment or placing blame on others without considering the context. It can fuel conflict with peers and family and erode a teen's self-acceptance.

  • "It's my fault my parents argue. I must be too much of a burden."

  • "If I were better at sports, maybe Dad wouldn't be so disappointed. It's all my fault."

Shoulds and Musts: Teens burden themselves with rigid rules on how they and others 'should' act. Deviations from these 'rules' lead to guilt and frustration.

  • "I should always get straight A's; anything less means I'm failing."

  • "I must always be the understanding friend, even if it means ignoring my own feelings."

The Impact of Cognitive Distortions on Teenage Behavior

Navigating the teenage labyrinth isn't just about dealing with physical changes; it's equally about grappling with the mental mazes. Cognitive distortions, those sneaky thought patterns, play a major role here, especially in shaping behaviors that might not always be in a teenager's best interest.


These distortions can be like little gremlins, whispering self-doubt and criticism, often leading teens to view themselves through a distorted lens of negativity. A simple remark or a minor setback can snowball into a personal critique of their worth. This constant self-criticism chips away at their self-esteem, leaving them feeling inadequate and unworthy.

Social Interactions: 

Imagine walking into a room believing everyone is judging you – that’s the daily reality for many teens struggling with cognitive distortions. They might read too much into a friend’s comment or misinterpret a teacher’s feedback, resulting in strained relationships and social withdrawal. These thought patterns can turn the normal ebb and flow of teenage social life into a tide of misunderstandings and loneliness.

Academic Performance: 

These mental traps also cast a shadow on academic life. A teen who believes "I'm just not good enough" is less likely to participate in class or take on new challenges. Their motivation can take a nosedive, not because they lack ability but because their distorted thoughts convince them that failure is inevitable.

Cognitive Distortions and Mental Health Disorders

The link between cognitive distortions and mental health issues in teens is as intricate as it is significant. It's a delicate dance of the mind where distorted thinking can both signal and exacerbate mental health challenges.

Anxiety and Depression: 

Distortions like catastrophizing or overgeneralizing can fuel the fires of anxiety and depression. A teen who constantly expects the worst or believes one mistake defines their entire existence is more susceptible to these conditions. It’s a vicious cycle – anxiety breeds more negative thoughts, which in turn feed back into the anxiety.

Given these challenges, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) emerges as a beacon of hope. A comprehensive review, titled "The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-analyses", dives deep into the effectiveness of CBT across various conditions, including those prevalent in teenagers. This review synthesizes findings from 269 meta-analytic studies, revealing significant support for CBT in treating anxiety disorders, depression, and other mental health issues that often plague teens. The evidence underscores CBT’s role in breaking the cycle of negative thinking and emotional distress, showcasing its potential to reshape the mental landscapes of young individuals struggling with these complex disorders.

Other Mental Health Issues: 

It's not just anxiety and depression that find roots in these distorted thoughts. Issues like eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and even substance abuse can have ties to negative thought patterns. For instance, a teen obsessing over perfection might develop unhealthy eating habits, or one who feels chronically misunderstood might turn to substances for escape.

In both these realms, awareness and intervention are key. Recognizing the signs of cognitive distortions and understanding their impact can pave the way for healthier mental landscapes in teenagers. It's about changing the narrative, one thought at a time, and again this is further evidence of how important Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is.

The Role of Social Media in Cognitive Distortions

In the digital age, social media has become a double-edged sword for teenagers. While it connects and entertains, it also has the potential to amplify cognitive distortions. The curated realities on social media platforms can lead teens to fall into the trap of comparison and negative self-assessment.

For instance, seeing peers' highlight reels can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy or foster unrealistic expectations. The immediacy and sometimes anonymity of online interactions can also breed misunderstandings and mind-reading distortions, where teens may misinterpret comments or lack of engagement as personal rejection or criticism. Understanding the impact of social media is critical in helping teens navigate their online worlds with a more grounded and realistic perspective.

Role of Parents and Educators in Addressing Cognitive Distortions

Parents and educators play a pivotal role in guiding teens through the maze of cognitive distortions. It starts with creating an environment where open communication and emotional expression are encouraged. Guardians can help by actively listening, validating teens' feelings, and gently challenging distorted thoughts without judgment.

Educators can integrate discussions about mental health and cognitive distortions into their curriculum, fostering awareness and understanding among students. Both parents and educators can model positive coping strategies and thought patterns, and provide resources for professional support when needed. Their support can be instrumental in helping teens navigate their cognitive landscape with greater confidence and clarity.

Strategies for Teens to Challenge Cognitive Distortions

Combating cognitive distortions requires active engagement and skillful strategies. One effective approach is cognitive restructuring, a process where teens learn to identify and challenge distorted thoughts and replace them with more balanced and accurate ones.

Balanced thoughts usually always start with 'Even though....'

For example, instead of thinking, "I failed this test; I'm a failure," a teen can reframe it to, "Even though this test didn't go as planned, I can learn from it for the next time."

Other techniques include keeping a thought diary to track and analyze thought patterns to see which of the distortions you are more prone to. Practicing mindfulness to stay grounded in the present and to refrain from 'chasing' those distorted thoughts down is also important. The ultimate goal is to replace negative thought patterns and engage in positive self-talk. These strategies help teens develop resilience against distorted thinking and foster a healthier, more positive mindset.

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