It’s all a Trap! Helping your Adolescent Identify the Thinking Traps that contribute to Anxiety and Depression

Ask the Experts by Amy E. Graham

Q: Depression and anxiety seems to run in our family. My older brother struggled with both anxiety and depression his entire life and had a lot of problems because of it. He did poorly in high school, drank a lot of alcohol, did not finish college, was never able to keep a job for an extended amount of time, and has pretty much excluded himself from family events. My 9th grade son was just diagnosed with both anxiety and depression. Are depression and anxiety just different words to describe a future of failures, substance use and misery?

A: Although depression and anxiety affect different people in different ways, they are both treatable conditions, and most definitely not a guarantee of future failures, substance use or misery. In fact, depression and/or anxiety may resolve with competent, informed care (psychotherapy, improved self-care, social supports, and in some cases medication).

There are some very common cognitions (thoughts), or ways of thinking that research has shown contribute to adolescent anxiety and depression. In my presentation I refer to these as “traps.” One thinking trap that both adolescents and adults fall into is called catastrophizing.

Catastrophizing is having irrational thoughts that something is far worse than it actually is. It usually takes on two forms. The first of these is making a catastrophe out of a situation. For example, your adolescent may fail a geometry test and then believe they are a complete and utter failure and will fail every class. In reality, their struggle may only be a temporary situation (one difficult chapter, or difficulty in just the geometry class, not every class.)

The second kind of catastrophizing is future oriented. This kind of catastrophizing occurs when we think about the future and anticipate all the things that are going to go wrong. For example, your teen may be pitching in the big baseball game on Friday, and may repeatedly think, “I’m going to mess up,” or “I’m not going to throw any strikes.” The teen then creates a reality around those thoughts (e.g. “I’m not going to practice today, because I’m just not good enough•”). Because the teen believes something will go wrong, his behaviors contribute to making it go wrong.

The first step to dealing with catastrophizing is to help your teen recognize when they are doing it.•Over time, the teen learns to identify patterns and situations that lead to it. From there, the teen can replace negative or catastrophizing thoughts with positive affirmations.

Amy E. Graham, MA, Dual Title, Infant Mental Health, is a Doctoral Candidate in Clinical Psychology at Wayne State University. She is also a Research Fellow at the Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute, where she develops and examines the efficacy of mobile (electronic) health interventions for the prevention of substance-exposed pregnancies. Amy currently works as a pre-doctoral intern at Henry Ford Hospital in the Department of Otolaryngology Oncology. She also provides psychological assessments and individual therapy for children and adults at the Wayne State Psychology Clinic. Graham can be reached at or 313-401-8692.

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