Imagining Worst Possible Outcomes of Small Setbacks

Develop Flexibility Skills

Practice Imaginary Pep Talks

You may notice that your child “catastrophizes” small changes in plans: If you don’t take him for his new soccer cleats on Sunday, then his coach won’t get to see how well he plays at practice on Monday, and then he won’t get to start in the big game on Wednesday. His anxious imaginings may be unleashed in many areas of his life. As a result, your child can’t adapt to changing circumstances and causes himself unnecessary anxiety.

Most high school-age children experience moments of anxiety, usually triggered by a legitimate setback or by a sudden change in plans. But if your child chronically imagines negative results when plans change or he faces something unexpected, then this could indicate a problem with flexibility skills.

Flexibility is one of our executive functions: the set of skills that let us execute daily tasks.

Solution: Externalize the Inflexibility by Imagining a Pep Talk with a Friend

When your child places his worry outside of himself by having an imaginary pep talk with a friend, this takes away the emotional power of the situation. When he does this exercise over and over again with various scenarios, he’ll learn a different habit of responding to a change in plans because he has learned to see “either-or” scenarios more rationally and less emotionally.

Don’t do this: Your child was supposed to take his driver’s permit test on his 16th birthday, but you’ll be out of town so he has to wait until the next week. He sobs, “I’ll never get my permit and I’ll be the only one of my friends without a driver’s license,” and you say, “get over it,” or change your plans so he can take the test.

Try this instead: When your child panics at the news he has to postpone his permit exam, ask him to imagine he’s talking a friend through the same situation to help manage his anxiety. He might imagine saying to his friend, “Taking the permit test a week later doesn’t mean you can’t ever get your driver’s license, it just means you can’t practice driving for seven more days. You have to have your permit for six months before getting your license anyway, so one week doesn’t really change much in the big picture.”

Remember: Your child’s increased emotional response may be triggered by poor flexibility. Learning how to “roll with it” can help your child be more successful and feel more empowered.

It is perfectly normal for children to experience some degree of difficulty and frustration as they learn to execute new tasks. Toddlers can tantrum, school-aged children can yell and argue, and teenagers can ignore instructions. When deciding if executive function weaknesses require intervention, ask yourself: “How frequently is this occurring? How intense is the experience/significant the impact?” If your answer to these questions is “too much,” “too often,” “I don’t know what to do to change this,” or “it’s only getting worse,” you may benefit from a face-to-face conversation to help problem-solve your concern. Effective problem solving will help you clearly identify the problem, goal, steps it will take to achieve your goal, possible barriers, and available supports.

Girl and boy smiling

What to Expect

You and your child or adolescent will meet with a pediatric neuropsychologist for approximately one hour. 

Teenage boy smiling

Executive Function Interventions

These interventions aim to create new habits that can sidestep or override a child’s cognitive challenges.