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Cognitive Distortions for Teens

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Teenagers, like many people, can sometimes be pretty hard on themselves. It is far too easy to get stuck in negative thinking patterns that induce feelings of depression and anxiety. Repeated patterns of negative and unrealistic thinking are called cognitive distortions. Mental health experts have identified a range of cognitive distortions, many revolving around false narratives and believing in things that are simply impossible to know.

Through understanding and recognizing cognitive distortions, teenagers are able to learn how to think more positively, how to change their negative perceptions and assumptions, and how to feel better about themselves and the world around them. As a parent, learning and talking about cognitive distortions with your teen is key. This article will discuss some of the different cognitive distortions, what they involve, and how you as a parent can support your teen.

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

What Are Cognitive Distortions?

Cognitive distortions, also known as thinking errors, are distorted thinking patterns that cause individuals to view situations differently. By irrationally thinking or exaggerating about certain events, thinking errors induce unhelpful and unjustified emotions and thoughts that influence how we respond to life. If left unchecked, these thinking errors can cause people to have constant patterns of negative emotions and behavior.

We all get confused and miscalculate situations from time to time, but thinking errors can quickly turn into a habit. And we are all guilty of doing this, maybe to justify unhelpful, unwise, or self-defeating behaviors. Perhaps you have worried that you offended someone as they didn’t wave back when you passed them on a busy street.

The difference is that these thinking errors are over minor matters and the majority of us have learned to interrupt our negative thinking patterns and rationalize the irrational. In some cases, thinking errors can become problematic for the older generation. It is also extremely common in individuals who suffer from depression or anxiety-related disorders.

Most adolescents, on the other hand, have not yet developed the knowledge and capacity to identify and control their negative feelings and problematic thought patterns. The majority of teens experience strong emotions that are often overwhelming. The abundance of hormones that are rushing through their bodies makes it difficult for teens to regulate their emotions and reactions.

All kids jump to conclusions or blow things out of proportion, but routinely distorting reality is not common. Self-defeating ideas are a trigger for self-defeating emotions, such as anxiety or pain, which then cause self-defeating actions. We all create our own realities by drawing in what we pay attention to. One person walks down a street and notices the noise and dirt, another walks the same street and notices a smile from a stranger and a refreshing breeze.

But why can’t we analyze the situation based on all of the presented information? It’s simply not possible, there are too many things to process and too many stimuli. In just one second, our subconscious minds can absorb an enormous amount of information through the different senses. The data is then filtered so that our conscious minds focus on just a small proportion of it, this is what we call a mental shortcut.

Mental shortcuts prevent sensory overload and help keep us sane. They allow us to judge different situations but can also cause us to overthink and misperceive things. Because our realities are based on a little bit of information, if the information is not balanced, for example, if it focuses on the negative aspects, we are left with a skewed reality or error in how we think.

Common Thinking Errors

Common Thinking Errors

Not only do teens experience errors in their thinking, but they tend to repeat these errors, over and over. There are several common thinking errors that are experienced and by knowing these, teens can begin to recognize and identify their own cognitive distortions.

All-or-Nothing Thinking

All-or-nothing thinking, also known as black-and-white thinking, is exactly what it says. Things are only experienced in two distinct categories, good or bad, black or white, there is no middle grey area. Black-and-white thinking creates unrealistic expectations and standards, things are thought about in extremes and if something doesn’t succeed, then all has failed.

This type of error is common in teens who like to be in control and who like the idea of everything being perfect, but this is not reality. For example, a talented and bright student who gets A’s suddenly gets a B one day and now considers themselves a failure. Kids who engage in black-and-white thinking tend to think and believe in absolutes.


Generalizing is when someone takes a negative event and uses it as the core base of everything that happens. They think because one bad thing happened, more bad things will happen over and over. This makes teens unable to account for their mistakes. They make one mistake and now believe everyone thinks they are stupid.

Maybe your daughter has gotten into trouble at school and thinks that their teacher is purposefully trying to get them into trouble. Or someone hears a peer say something rude about them and now thinks that everyone at their school dislikes them and they have no real friends. It’s a common thinking error as it’s a quick and easy way to categorize reality and takes away any ambiguity. But unfortunately, this is not how life works and by not acknowledging ambiguity, teens develop a faulty outlook on their lives.

Emotional Reasoning

Emotional reasoning is the false belief that the way you are thinking is the truth, and the way you feel about a situation is the absolute reality. While it is always important to validate, listen to, and express emotions, it’s also important to judge situations based on evidence and reality. Emotional reasoning is a common thinking error and has been associated with anxiety and depression.

Mind Reading

It’s likely we’ve all believed that we could read someone’s mind at some point, that we know what someone else is thinking. People assume that other people are focused on their weaknesses and faults, but this is wrong. Your worst critic is you! The mind-reading cognitive distortion causes individuals to come to a conclusion about someone else’s ideas and thoughts by interpreting their actions. Teens are very aware of what others think of them so are much more susceptible to this thinking error.

Of course, we all engage in some form of mind reading. Someone laughs at a joke you make so you interpret that they found what you said funny. Or if you tell someone something shocking and their mouth drops open, you can assume they are surprised. Picking up on particular cues is how humans relate to one another and is definitely not a thinking error.

However, this becomes problematic when we think we can all of a sudden mind read. People will read innocent and non-threatening behaviors as generally negative and ambiguous. For example, if you wave at someone on the street and they don’t wave back, you think this friend hates you, whereas most likely they just didn’t see you.

This type of thinking is problematic as it creates a self-fulfilling reality. People react to what they believe to be happening, so make a problem out of nothing. This could pinpoint why your teenager is reacting with sudden outbursts of negativity or rudeness because they have interpreted something you have done as a personal slight against them.


Labeling is when a person identifies themselves, or someone else, in a negative way after a specific situation. If your teen is defining themselves based on a single event, this causes them to underestimate themselves. The same is said when people label others, the misperception can cause arguments or problems between individuals. When you lock in yourself or someone else in this way, your understanding of people becomes rigid and there’s no ability to see people differently.


A common cognitive distortion is catastrophizing, also known as magnifying. When a young person engages in this way of thinking, they typically turn small problems into bigger ones. When a teen catastrophizes they believe a negative outcome will occur after an event, and if this outcome happens, the consequences will be detrimental to them.

For example, maybe your teen is feeling stressed about an exam and believes that if they fail it, they will never be able to succeed in life. Or they may think that if their young love leaves them, they will be alone forever and will never find true love.

It’s referred to as magnifying because it magnifies things out of proportion. Unrealistic and silly scenarios are created, but teens view these outcomes as extremely possible. The danger of this way of thinking is that because issues are anticipated so much, they end up creating them.


Minimizing is when someone takes the positive aspects of a situation and minimizes them so that they do not ‘count’ as a good experience. It happens when a teen makes something seem much less significant than it actually was. By minimizing the significance of something, a teen is able to decrease their accountability for the situation.

This typically happens when someone wants to minimize their involvement in something. It can even be used to avoid accountability for something negative that happened, such as ‘other people said worse things’, or ‘I didn’t hit them that hard’. Or it could be used to redirect positivity, such as ‘it was mostly the others, I didn’t help that much’.


Mental filtering is when individuals focus on the negative details of a situation and filter out the positive aspects. This biased way of thinking causes individuals to focus on one piece of negative feedback while disbelieving or disregarding the other ten pieces of positive feedback.

This thinking error focuses attention on a person’s dissatisfaction and the negative aspects that they experience throughout life. This not only distorts situations but can increase the risk of developing anxiety or depression symptoms.


Another common thinking error is assuming things are caused by you or connected to you, so you take things personally. An example of personalization is if someone blames themself for things that are not their fault or out of their control. Or if someone assumes that they are being targeted or intentionally excluded. Personalization has been closely linked with heightened anxiety.

How to Help Your Teen Turn Distorted Thinking into Accurate Thinking

How to Help Your Teen Turn Distorted Thinking into Accurate Thinking

Parents can play a key role in helping their adolescents identify and challenge their different thinking errors. This can help reduce the anxiety and depression surrounding them.

Below are some steps that can help challenge negative and unhelpful thought patterns.

Identify and Challenge the Negative Thoughts

When you realize and identify a thought that is causing you anxiety or is making you feel bad, it can be good to acknowledge what form of distorted thinking is happening. Eventually, you are able to link what thoughts or experiences cause negative moods and anxiety. This is a good skill to have but may take time for your teen to develop.

Examine the Evidence

Thinking errors and their outcomes are not based on facts, they are based on opinions and interpretations of situations. Suggest to your teen that if they notice their thoughts are consistently belittling or criticizing themselves, they should list all of the ways that they are successful, productive, supportive, and efficient. Or if they are worried about someone not waving back, they should question if they have indicated in any other way that they are upset.

Recall Positive Experiences

If your teen is engaging in all-or-nothing thinking, you can directly challenge them by recalling opposites of their ‘nothing’ conclusion. For example, if they are stressing about getting a bad grade and now believe they will fail, remind them that they have got A’s before and that one bad grade does not equate to failure. Encourage your teen to make a list of the positives rather than the negatives.

Challenge Conclusions

Try to encourage alternative conclusions. Ask your teen if they would think the same if they had been presented with the same facts but related to someone else. ‘If Susie gets in trouble once, does that really mean her teacher hates her?’ Encourage them to take a different perspective. What would their advice be for someone else going through a similar experience? Would they look at the situation in the same way?

If you believe your teen is consistently experiencing cognitive distortions, their expectations are extremely low and their feelings are too intense for them, it may be time to seek professional help and advice. Although identifying and working with your child’s cognitive distortions is a positive, an individual who is seriously struggling with their mental health may need treatment from a mental health expert.

Treatment at Clearfork

Clearfork is a residential treatment center for teenagers, we provide behavioral health treatment for adolescent males and females who are experiencing anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, and other mental health concerns. We offer a therapeutic and faith-based treatment to deal with the mental, physical and social aspects of dependency and mental health.

We offer a residential program and also provide an intensive outpatient program. Our exceptional team of medical experts will provide a range of therapy approaches to give your teen the best chance of a successful recovery. Treatment methods used include:

  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy

We are here to help you. Contact us today to begin discussing treatment options.

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