CYC-Online 55 AUGUST 2003
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theory in practice

Mind-sets for a happier life

Jo Webber

Negative mind-sets cause problems for adults as well as youth. The author of this article shows how irrational beliefs can be disputed and replaced with alternative mind-sets that foster healthy adjustment.

Working and living with children and youth with emotional and behavioral problems can be an exhausting endeavor because they are often demanding, irrational, ungrateful, and aggressive. It takes constant vigilance and practice to establish and maintain positive relationships with these young people, and a tremendous amount of energy, empathy, and emotional health to be consistently effective. Because of the challenges these youth present, adults have a tendency to avoid the experience completely, begin to feel helpless and depressed, maybe learn to perversely enjoy chaos and craziness, or also become angry and aggressive. Sometimes, under extremely stressful situations, adults may become as troubled as the children they are trying to help.

Only when adults remain psychologically resilient and behave in appropriate and healthy ways can they meet the challenges presented by individuals with emotional and behavioral problems. One of the best descriptions of the attributes that facilitate living and working with these troubled children was provided by Nicholas Hobbs (1982). He suggested that successful adults must be competent, self-assured, and resilient, and that they view each day as a rewarding experience. Furthermore, they must be able to give and receive affection, to live relaxed, and to be firm; a person with private resources for the nourishment and refreshment of his own life; ... a person with a sense of the significance of time, of the usefulness of today and the promise of tomorrow; a person of hope, quiet confidence, and joy; one who has committed himself to children and to the proposition that children who are disturbed can be helped.

It is also thought that adults can be more effective when they engage in active problem solving with children; remain calm and act appropriately in crisis situations; and display openness, optimism, and empathy (Fink & Janssen, 1992). How does one manage to remain psychologically sound, emotionally resilient, self-assured, affectionate, self-nurturing, hopeful, committed, empathetic, optimistic, and full of quiet confidence and joy in a context of anxiety and irrationality? One method for maintaining mental health is found in the cognitive restructuring theory mentioned by Zionts and Zionts (1997) and Webber and Maag (1997).

Cognitive restructuring theory
Cognitive restructuring theory posits that psychological soundness is a function of how we view the world (e.g., Beck, 1964; Ellis, 1962): People can choose to interpret events in a way that can cause anxiety, anger, fear, or depression, or they can choose to think in a way that results in a sense of well-being. Adults can remain psychologically sound by refusing to engage in self-defeating thinking, disputing irrational thinking, and adopting healthy belief systems. Sometimes seeing the world through “rose-colored glasses" is even helpful for avoiding emotional distress. If you find yourself reacting in unhealthy ways while dealing with troubled young people, you might want to examine your own cognitions.

Thinking about your thought processes and recognizing the thoughts that block healthy emotional and behavioral responses is the first step to developing psychological well-being. Changing the way you interpret events may lead to changes in your emotional reactions and behavioral responses to children with emotional and behavioral problems. Your altered emotional reactions and behavioral responses may, in turn, affect children's emotions and behaviors. For example, a teacher who thinks that she can’t stand these students talking back to her might glare at her class with arms crossed and sternly say, “Let’s get to work." Conversely, a teacher who thinks about how much she enjoys her job might have open arms, a kind smile, and a laugh when she says, “Let’s get to work." The first teacher’s attitude may elicit inappropriate behavior from students while the second teacher may be met with student smiles and compliance. The smiles and compliance, in turn, cue the teacher to think positively, feel affectionate, and behave in a friendly way. Positive thinking seems related to greater happiness, higher levels of achievement, and better health. Conversely, persons who engage in negative thinking are more prone to suffer from depression, lack of productivity, and illness (McAuliffe, 1992).

Changing unhealthy thoughts
Several times in the preceding section, I alluded to the impact of positive versus negative thinking. In general, we consider positive thinking as facilitative and negative thinking as inhibitory At a more specific level, Beck (1976) described negative thinking in terms of certain cognitive distortions that make a person more prone to inappropriate behavior. He arranged these distortions into three levels:

  1. Automatic thoughts that portray one as helpless, the environment as frightening, and the future as hopeless, for example, a parent whose pervasive view of his child is “My son will never amount to anything";
  2. Biased thinking that results in overgeneralizing conclusions drawn from one event, for example, a teacher who, upon being called names by a student, thinks, “No one ever cares about my feelings";
  3. Dysfunctional belief constructs used to make sense of one’s environment, for example, adults who may think, “The only way for me to be happy is to be successful."

An example of an automatic thought could be a teacher who hopes that no one observes him today because he believes his students are always disruptive. If he were to think instead that he is going to use powerful reinforcers today to ensure that his students work well, his feelings may change from fear to anticipation, and his withdrawn behavior will probably become active and firm.

A mother who engages in biased thinking might believe that she is a terrible mother because she lost her temper one day. This thought might cause her to feel inadequate, depressed, helpless, or frustrated. In turn, these feelings might cause her to behave in a passive or aggressive manner. A more rational view might be that she did not get enough sleep the previous night and had little energy to effectively manage her child's behavior. This rational perception may change her feeling to mild regret and result in more assertive behavior.

Beck’s notion of cognitive restructuring compliments that of Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy set forth by Ellis and Bernard (1985). As Zionts and Zionts (1997) stated, the premise of REBT is that it is not really the event but your belief systems, learned early in life, that cause intense feelings and inappropriate behavior. They described three basic irrational beliefs that cause people trouble:

  1. The belief that “I must be loved by everyone or else I am totally unlovable." This type of thinking might lead a teacher to become terribly upset if a student acts aggressively toward him or her because it has just been proven that he or she is a horrible and unlovable person (i.e., the student doesn’t love him or her).
  2. The belief that “I must be perfect and never make mistakes or else I am a failure and a generally rotten person." An individual engaging in this thinking might become extremely defensive and blame others when it is pointed out that he or she should have handled a crisis differently.
  3. The belief that “Life should be easy, I should be comfortable, and people should act the way I want them to or else I should be very upset and punish them" Someone engaging in this irrational belief will have low frustration tolerance, will complain and whine incessantly, and in general will blame everyone else for his or her own misery.

Finally, Seligman, in his work on attributions and optimism, stated that many people who accurately assess reality are often at its mercy (see McAuliffe, 1992). He recommended viewing the world from a positive perspective by learning to overestimate your own ability, attractiveness, and talents while not dwelling on losses and failures. By viewing the world as “rosy," you can protect yourself from depression and anxiety and maintain good cheer and health. By taking control of thinking and belief patterns, teachers and parents can become optimistic and mentally strong. The three most commonly recommended ways to do this are disputation, semantics, and adoption of alternate mind-sets.

Once unhealthy, negative, or irrational thinking is recognized, the next step is to use disputation “a method of self-questioning “on specific thoughts. For example, if you have overgeneralized and assume you are a bad mother, ask yourself, “Where is the evidence that what I’m thinking is true? Factually prove that I am a bad mother. Is it really impossible to make changes in my life?"

Teachers can use this same technique. For example, a teacher who thinks no one cares about his or her feelings may dispute this thought: “Why should the actions of one student dictate whether people in general are concerned with my well-being? My family and friends are interested in how I feel. My principal asked me yesterday if I needed help. Not everyone is concerned about my feelings, but some significant people are!"

The key component for effective disputation is to use “prove it" questions. You want to be hard-nosed, literal, factual, and precise to dispute unrealistic assumptions, overgeneralizations, rigid thinking patterns, and irrational beliefs. For example, where is it written that life should be easy and you should be perfect and loved by everyone? View the world as it is and refuse to be terribly unhappy about the hand you have been dealt.

Semantics is the language component that addresses meaning and interpretation (e.g., nonliteral and literal meanings). We can make use of semantics through our overt and covert speech to facilitate healthy thinking. Cognitive psychologists encourage people to talk to themselves and to others as though they were talking to a friend – in a realistic, kind, and respectful manner. When using self-talk, you should employ words that best describe true conditions, and avoid words that accompany all-or-nothing thinking and demands. For example, replace demand statements ("I must," “I should," “I ought to") with non-demand statements ("I prefer," “It would be better if”, “I would do well to"). Pressure that you place on yourself to perform, and the stress that accompanies it, is reduced as demands are changed to preferences. The biggest semantic change occurs when what were once believed to be “needs" simply become “wants." A need is something without which you will die. A want is everything else. There is no choice involved with thwarted “needs" – a semantic aspect of language that can lead to feelings of helplessness. On the other hand, there are choices involved when desires are not met, which may lead to feelings of empowerment.

When someone thinks, “I should not have lost my temper," the implication is that because he or she did not comply with that demand, he or she must be a failure. It is almost as if saying “should" magically changes the outcome of a previous situation. Although this thinking is erroneous, nevertheless, it is prevalent. On the other hand, if someone thinks, “I wish I hadn’t lost my temper, and it would have been better to deal with Olivia in a quieter fashion," then the worst that happened is that a preference was not met. In fact, the person has identified something else that might work better in the future. The first thinking pattern may be followed by severe self-criticism or even depression; the latter may be followed by problem solving.

Additional words that reflect dichotomous (all-or-nothing) thinking, such as always, never, no one, and everyone, can also be eliminated from the vocabulary to enhance emotional well-being. Seldom do events or conditions take on such all-or-nothing considerations. Using words such as usually, sometimes, some people, or few people to depict the real state of affairs (e.g., “Sometimes Charlie acts aggressively toward me" rather than “Charlie is always hitting me!") may result in fewer negative feelings and more productive behaviors.

Adopting Alternative Mind-Sets
The next step after disputing unproductive thought patterns and using more realistic self-talk is to adopt alternative thinking patterns, or mind-sets, that may trigger positive feelings and productive behavior. Learn to view the world in ways that allow happiness and goal achievement. Healthy thinking provides a means for becoming self-nurturing and self-assured. The following are 10 mind-sets that might help teachers and parents who are exposed to other people’s irrational behavior on a daily basis. Read about each mind-set, then practice reciting each as a daily affirmation. If unhealthy thoughts return, examine your self-talk for shoulds and absolutes, dispute irrational thinking, and practice reciting the mind-sets.

I think I can, I think I can. The first mind-set has to do with believing in one’s own capacity to perform. As a parent or teacher working with children with emotional and behavioral problems, you need to believe that, in most instances, you have the power to change situations. You are at risk for becoming a victim if you do not, and you may learn to be helpless, hopeless, and inept at obtaining desired outcomes. Being a victim results in resentment and ineffectiveness, and undermines future motivation to change things. Believing in your own ability to make changes, no matter how difficult, sets the stage for positive, effective action. Refuse to quit, think that you can, and keep trying.

I will persist. Closely related to the first mind-set is the notion that persistence may result in finding solutions to problems. People who persist at solving problems reject the notion that they must be perfect on the first try, which allows them to ask for help and resist helplessness, depression, and shame if a solution fails. The following are some effective problem-solving strategies: (a) objectively identify problems, (b) develop many possible solutions, (c) pick solutions and seek help when necessary, (d) try the solutions, (e) evaluate the results, and (f) choose other solutions when one does not work. Someone who is a persistent problem solver usually looks forward to new challenges as opportunities to be creative. Persistent problem solvers will have more self-confidence and be better able to resist defeat and recuperate from stressful situations.

I have hope. Looking on the bright side instead of seeing yourself in a negative light and the world as a frightening place can result in better health, more energy, fewer fears, more trust, more self-confidence, and higher achievement. Optimists believe that their efforts cause their successes, and they believe in future success at everything they try (McAuliffe, 1992). If something bad happens to optimists, they do not blame themselves, and the thought of future failure is not an issue. In certain stressful situations, it may even be good to think in terms of subtle, self-aggrandizing lies that “foster the illusion that we can achieve positive outcomes in our lives" (McAuliffe, 1992, p. 59). Although a true assessment of reality (pessimistic thinking) is usually recommended as a rational thinking strategy, optimism often is more effective. The key is to find a balance between optimistic and realistic thinking and to avoid overly catastrophic thoughts.

Another recommendation for learning to think optimistically is to avoid “overthinking" (i.e., crying over spilled milk), particularly right after a negative event occurs. Engage yourself in a pleasurable and distracting activity. You can tackle the problem later when you are in a better mood, which may enhance creative problem solving.

My self-worth is separate from other people’s behavior. The ability to “disengage" and not take others' behavior personally will do much to boost your mental health. Children and youth with emotional and behavioral problems suffer from faulty learning, unsatisfied desires, and thwarted expectations; they probably are not astute judges of one’s character. What they say in a fit of anger about adults is very probably not true. It is self-defeating to think that you are a failure just because a child insults or criticizes you. The child's actions probably mean he or she is scared, sad, frustrated, or in want of attention.

A second part of this cognition is to practice “no-strings-attached" caring. Care for these young people freely without expectation of anything in return. Youngsters with emotional and behavioral problems sometimes take what they can without giving much in return, which often is a result of past learning. Adults need to detach their own needs from those of the student, view the world through the student’s perspective, and analyze each situation.

I am allowed to make mistakes. Closely related to separating self-worth from children's behavior is the belief that making mistakes is part of learning and might even be something to celebrate. People who believe that “I must be perfect in order to be happy," or “If I make a mistake, it means I am inept," or “My value as a person depends on what others think of me," are at risk for depression and neurosis (Ellis & Bernard, 1985). In addition, people who are very demanding of themselves tend to be very demanding of others and often give up easily in the face of failure. Learn to view mistakes and foolish acts for what they are – a one-time occurrence. As fear of failure or of appearing foolish subsides, you will become more self-assured and self-confident. Changing perfectionist demands to preferences for “doing a good job" can alleviate self-induced stress, feelings of shame, and fear of failure.

Gosh darn it, I did a good job. Negative self-appraisals are linked to depression and anxiety (Beck, 1976). Beck claimed that evaluating yourself in a negative fashion may lead to feelings of sadness or fear. Dealing with individuals who are difficult to teach and often in conflict may set the stage for thinking “this is going to be a failure," which can become a habit and cause self-defeating behavior. Thinking “I have done well at this in the past and I will do well again" will more likely lead to self-assurance, self-confidence, and assertiveness.

A way to increase the frequency of positive self-appraisals is to learn to recognize progress. Because we live in a goal-oriented society, progress often is measured by completion. Parents and school personnel usually have neither the resources nor the time to complete goals; therefore, they need to recognize that every step toward a goal is a victory. Two steps forward and one step back is occasion for celebration. In fact, overestimating one’s accomplishments may even be healthier!

I can manage conflict. To be a conflict-avoider while living or working with children and youth who are aggressive might be a fast track to a mental breakdown. For individuals who are emotionally disturbed, conflict is often a first response to a problem. You may quickly find yourself in a spiral of fear, guilt, and self-damnation if you avoid conflict because you believe you may have caused it, or if you feel obligated to prevent it from ever happening again.

One person cannot control all conflict, and not all conflict should be avoided. Some can be healthy and productive – actually stimulating interest and creativity in people, or facilitating valuable insight. Believing that conflict is manageable and accepting it as a growth experience can be a very useful mind-set.

I can travel new roads. Rigid beliefs have been linked to negative feelings and inappropriate behavior (Beck, 1964). Believing that “My way is the only way," or “I’ve always done it this way and cannot change," or “I’m just that kind of person" is indicative of the “global" and “stable" attributions that can cause depression and anxiety. Individuals with a flexible mind-set usually are open to new ideas and suggestions, and they may be willing to work through initial discomfort toward new and unfamiliar strategies. Subsequently, more opportunities for success and for fun become available. As more successful events occur, fear of change decreases, allowing for more effective communication and better relationships with others.

Flexible thinking also includes the ability to choose how to think in given situations. You need not become a slave to some irrational beliefs that often are promoted through media, family, or religious teachings. Thinking “There is a clear right and wrong in every situation," or “Children must respect me or they must be punished," or “I must be who my parents want me to be or else I am a failure," or “If this person does not love me, I must cease to exist," is self-defeating and will lead to excessive frustration, anxiety, and possible depression (Ellis & Harper, 1975). Dispute inaccurate beliefs and replace them with more rational ones.

I can find joy in hard work. Living and working with individuals who may be demanding, aggressive, and violent is strenuous and stressful. It thus is counterproductive to get overly upset at the slightest inconvenience and complain about the daily demands of parenting and/or teaching. You would do better to accept that life is difficult and learn to find joy in hard work. Why should life be easy? Maslow (1954) alluded to this “hard work-joy" principle by writing that “optimal living" involves working instead of stagnating and devoting yourself to a mission or vocation. Accepting the challenge, believing in the ability to do it well, recognizing progress, and positively appraising that progress will result in feelings of a job well done, joy, and well-being. Coping with the demands of life and living up to reasonable performance standards will improve self-confidence and mental health.

Life is bizarre and funny. Surviving in any difficult situation requires that one be able to accept and laugh at one’s own foolish behavior and life’s bizarre twists (Ellis & Harper, 1975). Humor may relieve or prevent depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. The task is not to minimize serious events, but to find humor in people’s foolishness and an imperfect world. Bringing humor to the home or class-room can also have therapeutic value for children and youth with emotional and behavioral disorders. Young people will find it more difficult to persist in noncompliant, aggressive, or destructive behavior when they are laughing. Humor can act to disarm potentially explosive situations, relieve stress, and change how you view things. Laughing about something previously perceived to be frightening or hurtful changes its power over your feelings. Refuse to hold onto anger and hurt. See the world and people as fallible and imperfect. Forgive mistakes and thoughtless acts.

What teachers and parents believe and think about the world around them has an impact on their feelings about their job and their behavior toward others. Adults who are humane, confident, and hopeful; who are persistent and creative problem solvers; who plan to prevent crises but are not afraid of them; who can occasionally wear “rose-colored glasses"; and who refuse to think and act in crazy ways, instead believing in their own ability to make changes, will best be able to survive in strenuous situations.

By disputing negative thinking and using vocabulary that indicates preferences (not demands) and possibilities (not probabilities), you can change your thinking. You can also help yourself by adopting as part of a general philosophy the 10 mind-sets provided in this article. Everyone is free to choose how to think and can learn new ways of doing so. Developing ways of thinking that involve positive self-evaluation, promote self-assurance and confidence, enhance interpersonal relationships, and are based on a somewhat accurate perception of reality will make for happier living. This type of psychological immunization can last for a lifetime.


Beck, A. T. (1964). Thinking and depression: 11. Theory and therapy. Archives of General Psychiatry, 111, 561–571.

Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders. New York: International Universities Press.

Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and emotion in psychotherapy. New York: Lyle Stuart.

Ellis, A., & Bernard, M. F. (1985). What is rational emotive therapy (RET)? In A. Ellis & M. E. Bernard (Eds.), Clinical applications of rational emotive therapy (pp. 1–30). New York: Plenum.

Ellis, A., & Harper, R. A. (1975). A new guide to rational living. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Fink, A. H., & Janssen, K. N. (1992). Competencies for teaching students with emotional–behavioral disabilities. Preventing School Failure, 37(2), 11–15.

Hobbs, N. (1982). The troubled and troubling child. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

McAuliffe, K. (1992, September). Interview: Martin Seligman. Omni, pp. 59–60, 81–85.

Webber, J. and Maag, J.W. (1997) Thinking our way to improved performance and psychological health. Reclaiming Children and Youth, Vol.6 No.2, pp.66-67

Zionts, P. and Zionts, L. (1997) Rational Emotive Behavior therapy with Troubled Students. Reclaiming Children and Youth, Vol.6 No.2, pp.103-108

This feature: Webber, J. (1997). Mind-sets for a happier life. Reclaiming children and Youth. Vol.6 No.2 pp. 102-113

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