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All or Nothing Thinking

Updated: Jun 24, 2018

Cognitive distortions are defined as, "Aspects of ideas and experiences are given more weight and focus than others. Our mind convinces us of something that isn't really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves. We all do this both consciously and unconsciously, and how we do this provides pointers to our underlying beliefs about ourselves, others and the world".

One cognitive distortion that is common is "All or Nothing Thinking". This mindset encompasses thought processes to extremes; where you are either a success or a failure. For kids, it is important to recognize situations in their everyday life where this thinking can take place. For instance:


At school, not getting a 100% on a test may make them feel like they underachieved or failed; even if they got a 90 or a respectable grade that resembles their general average. When answering questions in class, not getting one right may lead them to believe that they are "dumb" in this subject and in all not smart in school. This thinking creates unreasonable expectations for themselves and can lead to poor performances in school and lack of motivation to work hard in areas that they struggle in. Kids need to embrace struggle in academics; they need to embrace that there are alternate resources and options to achieving higher grades; and they need to understand that they should not be comparing themselves to their classmates to determine their self-worth and their abilities.


Kids who play sports (team or individual) may have a "winning is everything mindset" . When they lose a tournament, game, set, or even point, this all or nothing thinking makes them feel like they are bad at the sport all together. When playing with friends who may be more skilled than them, a thought that they will never be as good as them will demotivate them and ultimately lose interest and the drive to compete when situations become tough. Another instance may occur when losing by a certain amount of points or while immediately believing something cannot be fixed or corrected at that moment for them or their team. Because of the fast paced nature of sport and the different factors and variables that play into each point, understanding that doing the best they can at every moment is crucial for their development both on and off the court.

Personal Life

Outside of school and sports, kids have plenty of time to pursue other ventures. Whether it be individual activities, playing with friends, or finding and working different jobs, understanding that this all or nothing thinking comes up at different points of their life and needs to be managed. Your kid may find job training hard and believe they can never do this job properly, or start a new activity (like learning how to play the guitar) and want to quit right away because it is to hard or failure comes more than success. Even in social conversation, your child may struggle with different scenarios that come up that they are not used too ... which should not lead them to believe that them not feeling comfortable means that they are shy and not good at talking. Everything that they experience at a young age builds into a larger process; learning, understanding, developing, and refining their thought process through finer points as they grow up and go into the world.

Working around these areas

1. Ask questions about the "good" in failure

When kids fail, we need to ask them the why's, the positives, and the next steps. When your child returns home from school and shows you a 90% on a test but still feels badly about it, make sure to talk to them. Ask them why they feel upset. It might be because they got a question wrong they already knew - and them saying that out loud is already beneficial for them. Learning to communicate frustrations is crucial to getting around all or nothing thinking. Ask them to take some positives out of the test - a high grade, possibly above what they usually get, or maybe they put a lot of effort into studying for it. It may take the first or second time for you to get the ball rolling and giving them a different view - but let them come up with the positives and in time they will begin to turn it into a natural thought process. Lastly, ask them about the next steps. What are they going to do next time? Do they believe that there is other resources that can help them out? Even if they begin to say no, them developing critical thinking skills over time will start to understand different resources around to help them.

***Note: try applying this to a sport setting. These questions are very similar and can be used when your child has a bad game, if they lose, or if something goes wrong where they believe they are not important or valuable to themselves or the team.

2. Avoiding the "Nothing" or "Never" phrase

Stop it early. Kids who use the, "I'll never be as good as her", or, "I did nothing well tonight" terms should dig even deeper what those words really mean. As a parent/guardian, listen when your child speaks on their own or teams performance. When you hear these terms come up more and more, make sure to talk to them and refer them to even asking trusted family and friends about the scenario. Sometimes kids only see one side of the all or nothing - and hearing different opinions and positives from other influences may shed light on the process or "grey area" between the two extremes. For example, they believe they are terrible because they lost a game 2-1; but in reality it was one of the best games of the season against a team that was just as evenly matched as they were. Maybe they missed the final shot of a game or had a few bad unconventional errors; but overall the other 95% of contacts and game play were amazing. Kids like to pick out those few negatives and often forget about the other 95%. Go through these conversations with them. Show they that there is more than All or Nothing feelings.

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