Constructive Distractions: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

Wednesday 20 Oct 2021

Have you ever told your child that they can’t have an unhealthy treat, only to find they become obsessed with the treat and unable to control their subsequent outburst? No matter how many creative ways you tell them to stop thinking about the treat, it’s like they just can’t let go of the idea of devouring it.

It is almost impossible for the brain to not think about something we are told to not think about. Simon Sinek illustrates this by saying to an audience, ‘Don’t think of an elephant’.

Similar to the way we usually think about things we are told to think about, our human tendency is to also think about things we are told to not think about. In other words, we think about the things that are right in front of us, regardless of whether they are good or bad for us.

By way of example, the more we engage with media that highlights stories of sadness and despair, the more we worry about the future with feelings of distress and helplessness. Whereas, the more we engage with positive and uplifting stories of heroism and generosity, the more hope we have towards the future and the more inspired and motivated we become to joyfully serve and graciously receive support from others. (Political sidebar: Why you should stop reading news.)

In order to accomplish good things, we must think about good things.

With intentional thought and discipline, most adults are able to rationally redirect their thinking from negative to positive. Children, however, can get hung up on whether their sandwiches are cut into halves or quarters, squares or triangles, soldiers or with Christmas cookie cutters. Yes? You see, the brain doesn’t reach full maturity until the mid 20’s, so our children are still learning how to masterfully redirect their thinking.

We can help children develop the skill of redirection through constructive distractions; the goal is to shift children’s thinking away from unhelpful things and towards constructive things.

When you want your child to stop thinking about that unhealthy treat, instead of talking about the treat, redirect them to something they can have, such as a piece of fruit or a visit to their cousin’s home. When you want your child to stop playing with a device, redirect them to something they can do, such as helping with baking or playing with the family pet. When your child despairs over things they don’t have, redirect them with gratitude to the things they do have. When your child behaves in an unkind way, do point out the unkind behaviours so your child understands the impact of their behaviour on others, but spend the majority of the conversation discussing behaviour that is pleasing and the likely results of pleasing behaviour (e.g. friendships are developed through kindness).

If we help children redirect their thinking through distraction at a young age, as they mature, they will become adults who are equipped to do this for themselves. And adults who can think positively despite the gloominess in front of them tend to be more joy-filled and capable of accomplishing wondrous things.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Philippians 4:8