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  • Writer's pictureDr. Rachel Kramer

April 24: Thought Bubble Thoughts

Over the past few weeks I have spoken with several families about helping children learn to distinguish when they should share a thought with others and when it is most appropriate to keep the thought to themselves. It’s possible that this topic is coming up now as part of the social rustiness that many people (adults and children alike) are experiencing as part of the long tail of COVID. Whatever the reason, if you have been reading these posts for a while, you know that when a topic comes up multiple times in my practice, I often decide to write about it as I assume that the information might be useful and relevant for a larger audience.

The families I spoke with described a couple of different scenarios when children say something that would have been preferable to keep as a private thought. In some situations, children speak impulsively without pausing to put on the brakes and check in with themselves about whether or not a thought should be shared. This might range from saying to a grandparent, “I don’t like this present – I already have this,” to saying to a peer, “Your drawing is ugly.” At other times, a child might be emotionally dysregulated – upset, over-excited, or just generally elevated – and they blurt out something that they might not have said aloud in a calm moment, such as saying to a friend, “Your breath smells bad,” or, “You’re doing a bad job.”

The balancing act here is to give children the message that while it is fine for them to have any private thoughts they want, part of being a kind friend or classmate is to be thoughtful and judicious about when and with whom to say things aloud. Just as I encourage telling children that all feelings are welcome but all behaviors are not, similarly, all private thoughts are acceptable but it’s not always useful to share every thought in your head with others. A helpful way to make this concrete for children is to distinguish between ‘thought bubble thoughts’ – those that you can think but that should stay in your head and/or only be shared with a parent or other caring adult – and ‘sharing thoughts’ that are for general consumption. Some children may have learned about thought bubble thoughts as part of the social-emotional learning curriculum at school.

If you have a child who could use some coaching around this topic, here are a few ideas:

  • For preschoolers, practice identifying thought bubble thoughts versus sharing thoughts with stuffies, toys, or dolls. You and your child can take turns having the toys say things back and forth to each other and deciding if each comment is a thought bubble thought or a sharing thought. For example:

    • “Those shoes are ugly,” is a thought bubble thought.

    • “Are those new shoes?” is a sharing thought.

  • Similarly, for school-aged children, you can playfully give each other examples of different thoughts (either with or without using toys as props) and rate whether they are thought bubble thoughts or sharing thoughts. With school-aged children, consider adding humor by using some extreme, silly examples, things that most children would know not to say to another person (“Your lunch smells gross”), mixed in with examples that are more on target for your child, such as:

    • “I can’t believe you didn’t get that math problem – it’s so easy,” is a thought bubble thought.

    • “I’m finished with the math sheet,” could be a sharing thought.

  • If your child likes to write or draw, you could draw some people with thought bubbles above their heads and other people with speech balloons above their heads. Practice sorting sample comments into each category.

  • With tweens and teens, you can dig into this topic in more depth, focusing on the practice of putting yourself in another person’s shoes and trying to imagine how a comment sounds to the person who’s hearing it. A gentle way to talk about this topic in more depth is to share a time that you (the parent) blurted out a thought bubble thought and talk about your own experience:

    • What did you say and how did the person react?

    • In the moment, did you wish you hadn’t said the thought aloud or did you not feel that way until afterwards?

    • Did you apologize or talk about what happened?

  • You can also talk about times your child may have been the recipient of a comment that a peer probably should have left as a thought bubble thought. See if your child can reflect on:

    • How did it feel when the person made that comment?

    • Did the person realize you were upset?

    • Did the person apologize or try to make amends?

    • If not, what do you wish they had done differently?

  • Another important part of this conversation is to reassure your child that they are always welcome to share these thoughts with you and/or other caring adults in their lives. If your child comes home from school and needs to tell you about a classmate who had a smelly lunch or couldn’t answer an ‘easy’ math problem, you are always available to listen.

Talking about thought bubble thoughts is a great way to help your child build empathyand practice seeing situations from another person’s perspective. As part of the conversation, I would also suggest talking about how to manage times when your child blurts out a comment and a moment later realizes that the thing they just said would probably have been better as a thought bubble thought. Practice offering a sincere apology:

  • “Oops. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that.”

  • “Sorry – I wish I hadn’t said that. Can we rewind and forget about that comment?”

Reassure your child that everyone makes mistakes. An important part of character development is figuring out what you’re going to do once you realize you have made a mistake: taking action, apologizing, and, if appropriate, making amends.

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