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Errors in Thinking

Errors in Thinking is a cognitive approach to treatment that directs a youth to monitor his behavior and thinking to determine a direct connection between them.  The Errors in Thinking concept began coming of age in the late 1970’s.  Dr. Yochelson and his (then) student Dr. Stanton Samenon are responsible for developing this cognitive approach to treatment.  They studied serious criminal offenders over several years and began listing the errors that these offenders exhibited in their thinking.  Dr. Yochelson and Dr. Samenon felt that these errors in thinking inhibited criminals from reasoning correctly.  The Errors in Thinking concept emphasizes that an individual makes a conscious decision to act the way he does rather than be affected by parental, societal, and cultural forces in influencing his decisions.  This cognitive approach places the responsibility of actions back on the individual.

Now that you have a bit of historical information about Errors in Thinking and the theory behind this concept, allow me to explain how the Community Care Resources, Inc., group home staff utilizes this concept in treating youth.  The programs in operation at both Inner Changes and Challenges were adapted from the programming at Ethan Allen School for Boys in Wales, Wisconsin.

The first step in facilitating this program is learning and teaching the Errors in Thinking to youth.  Inner Changes, with a population of boys between the ages of 14 and 18 years old, incorporates all the same errors used at Ethan Allen; while Challenges teaches six of these errors in the treatment program for the age population of 10 to 14.  Listed below is a brief definition and example for each of the eight errors in thinking.

Victim Stance
Definition:  To not take responsibility for your own actions
Example:  He made me steal the car.

Lack of Effort
Definition:  To not put energy toward completing required tasks
Example:  I am failing Science because I do not do my homework.

Lack of Concern for Others
Definition:  To not care about another person by treating them poorly
Example:  I hate the way you teach your class.

Fears Being Put Down or “Punked”
Definition:  To not allow anyone to tell you what to do or to give you constructive criticism
Example:  I do not have to do my chores.  You can’t tell me what to do.

Refusing a Trust or Obligation
Definition:  To not follow rules or refuse to participate
Example:  I am not going to go to “Errors in Thinking” group because I do not need it.

Shows Weak and False Pride
Definition:  To take pride in lack of accomplishments, create fears in others, and do the exact opposite of what is expected of a responsible citizen
Example:  Give me that tape, or I am going to hit you.

Using Anger Inappropriately
Definition:  To overuse anger in difficult situations
Example:  She wouldn’t stop talking, so I hit her.

Poor Planning & Decision Making
Definition:  To not think before you act
Example:  I did not know that smoking marijuana would postpone my discharge.

It is important for youth and staff to be fluent in these errors.  One method developed by the boys at Inner Changes Group Home was a Jeopardy game.  Examples of errors in thinking were created and needed to be answered with the correct error.  Another effective method of teaching errors in thinking is through role playing, whereby errors are directly related to experiences of the youth participating in the program.

C.C.R. Group Homes implement the Errors in Thinking treatment approach on a daily basis.  It is important that a youth become familiar with errors he demonstrates in his thinking.  Log sheets are used as a tool to familiarize the youth with errors and teach him to work toward correcting these errors.  The focus of the log sheets is what the youth thought, not what he did.  This emphasis flows from the theory that it is the thinking pattern or habit that must be changed before the behavior.  Log sheets identify the error in thinking, state what the youth was thinking before the error was made, state the correct thought, and relate this error in thinking to previous experiences.  The log sheets are reviewed by the facilitator of the Errors in Thinking Program and discussed individually with each youth.

When using the Errors in Thinking model in an attempt to change thought processes in youth, the Community Care Resources, Inc., treatment group homes Challenges & Inner Changes focus on two main ideas:  thoughts–not behaviors and creativity–making it fun!

By:   Cynthia Schaefer, MSW, CICSW

Thinking Errors

Thinking errors are flaws in our sense of self-worth that become rigid patterns of self-talk.  (Self-talk is the things you tell yourself inside your head about what is happening around you.  Everyone does it.)  These flaws or thinking errors arise from assuming that our needs and desires should take priority over anyone else’s.  At the core of this are three common characteristics:  1) self-centeredness, 2) irresponsible behavior, and 3) non-empathic feelings.

Those who behave without regard for their impact on others may rely on these patterns of erroneous thinking and self-talk to justify their self-centered behavior.  Children who have experienced significant abuse may have developed these thinking errors to cope with their painful experiences.  Identify these patterns in your foster child and see the “So Now What Do I Do?” article for some ideas on how to intervene.

Twenty Commonly Used Thinking Errors

Thinking Error Definition Self Talk Hidden Message
Anger Responding emotionally to manipulate and control others in order to fulfill your own needs  “I’m so angry I could  . . . ”    “If I don’t get what I want, I’ll use my anger to get it.Either I’ll use some form of passive anger (such as pouting) to manipulate others into giving me what I want, or I’ll use some aggressive expression of anger (such as shouting) to force others into giving me what I want.”
Blaming  Placing the responsibility for your irresponsible behavior on others in order to avoid accepting the responsibility yourself “They made me do it.  It was their fault.” “I can probably get away with this if I refuse to admit it is my fault.”
Closed Channel  Disdainfully ignoring or selfishly rejecting other people’s opinions while insisting that they listen and respect yours “I don’t want to hear what you have to say, but you’d  better listen to me!” “My opinion is the only one that counts.”
Excuse Making  Justifying irresponsible behavior  “I had a perfectly good reason for doing that.”  “As long as I can come up with an excuse, I can’t be accused of irresponsible behavior.”
Failure to Assume Responsibility Failure to accept personal responsibility for your irresponsible behavior  “This assignment is boring, and I don’t see what I can get out of it anyway.” “I’m not going to do something that doesn’t seem fun or exciting.”
Fragmentation A pattern of enthusiastically embracing a new relationship or task, then dropping it as soon as it becomes boring or no longer meets your needs “I can’t seem to finish anything I start.  Oh well, I guess I didn’t really want to do it after all.” “It’s my right to break my commitments whenever I feel like it.”
I Can’t   A stubborn, passive-aggressive way of saying, “I won’t;” controlling others from a position of helplessness, gaining attention, and eliciting help from others by making yourself appear inadequate   “I can’t do that.” “I don’t want to do it, and I won’t do it.”
Instancy  An immature, self-centered insistence upon the immediate gratification of your own needs without regard for others “To heck with it.  I’m not waiting for anyone.” “I want what I want, when I want it . . . not just when it’s convenient for someone else.”
Lack of Empathy A failure to consider the impact your irresponsible behavior has on others  “So what if he got hurt.  It didn’t hurt me.” “I don’t care about anybody, and nobody really cares about me.”
 Lack of Trust  Demanding that others place their trust in you, even though your lack of respect for others prevents you from trusting them  “He should just take my word for it!”  “You have to trust me, but you can’t make me trust you.”
Lying  Attempting to deceive oneself or others in order to satisfy your own desires   “I didn’t do it.” “The important thing is to get what I want.  If I have to lie to get it, then I’ll lie.  Lying is no big deal.”
Minimizing   Purposely discounting the hurtfulness of your irresponsible actions  “Why the big fuss?  What I did wasn’t all that bad.”  “If I can minimize the severity of my actions, I won’t get in as much trouble.”
Ownership The perception that other people and their possessions exist for meeting your own needs and desires  “Why shouldn’t I take it?  It’s what I wanted, and it was right there.”  “It’s my right to have whatever I want.”
Power The excessive desire for power, control, and dominance over others  “I refuse to do it his dumb way.” “I don’t care if I have to manipulate or intimidate them.  It’s going to be done my way!”
Suggestibility  Noted for being quickly and easily led into irresponsible behavior     “Sure, I’ll do that with you.  It sounds fun!”  “To heck with what I should be doing!”
Superoptimism Having an unrealistic evaluation of your own capabilities  “Of course I can do it.  I can do anything I want to once I put my mind to it.”   “No one can stop me from doing what I want to do.”
Uniqueness Adhering to the mistaken notion of specialness based on an unfounded, self-serving distinction between yourself and others  “So what if this is a 25 mph zone.  I’m in a hurry.”  “I’m special, so the rules that everyone else has to follow don’t apply to me.”
Vagueness  Giving nonspecific responses to avoid the consequences of your irresponsible behavior   “Probably . . . more or less . . . I guess so . . . I’m not sure.”  “If I withhold certain bits of information, I won’t get in trouble.”
Victim Stance Avoiding accountability for your actions by portraying yourself as a helpless victim of circumstances beyond your control “It wasn’t my fault.  He started it.  Don’t blame me.  I didn’t have any other choice.”   “As long as I can put the responsibility on someone else, I won’t be held accountable.”
Zero State Having an unrealistic, negative perception of yourself as a total failure whenever you aren’t recognized as an unqualified success “I’m no good.  It’s no use.  I can’t do anything right.”   “My worth is validated in being #1.  If I’m not #1, then I’m a failure.”

Reprinted from Prescription for Anger, Hankins & Hankins

So Now What Do I Do?
I can see many of you nodding as you recognize the patterns of thinking errors in our foster kids.  As with passive-aggressive anger, dealing with this problem requires awareness on the part of foster parents so they can observe a child’s behavior, identify a pattern, and discuss this with the child in an opportune moment.

Each of these errors in thinking can be thought of on a continuum; and all of us have utilized them in childhood certainly, and perhaps as adults also (e.g. “I want it and I want it NOW!”)  When you tell yourself over and over, however, that others are to blame or “I can’t do it,” it is easy to get into a self-destructive cycle.  The messages we tell ourselves can be reconstructed through awareness and practice.

After the discipline and consequences are passed out, and you have an opportunity to discuss what happened, point out your observations of a thinking error in a nonthreatening way.  Here are a couple of examples:


  • “I’ve noticed that when things don’t go your way, sometimes you will get angry and pout or slam doors.  Do you think this is good for you?  Does it help you get what you need?”  (Anger)
  • “Sometimes I see you wanting things to happen immediately, and then you get really frustrated when it doesn’t work out that way.  Unfortunately, though all of us like to get what we want, it takes time and we have to wait.  Waiting is hard.”  (Instancy)
  • “I know you like to think of yourself as special and unique, and you are.  However, the rules apply to everyone here with as much fairness as possible.  We need these rules so everyone can live here as a family.”  (Uniqueness)

(NOTE:  In these examples I begin with “I” statements, and I use a gentle, empathic approach.  This is meant to be instructive, not confrontational, which would create defensiveness and ruin the message.)

When you discuss an error in thinking, the goal is to show them how they are hurting themselves and how it interferes with getting what they need.  The emphasis is on how they sabotage themselves so that they may be interested in looking at situations in a new way.
Discuss with the child more positive ways of thinking about their lives.  This could include positive affirmations that they can state to themselves as alternatives.  

Examples include:

  • “I can do it if I try really hard.”  (I Can’t)
  • “I am responsible for my own choices and my happiness.”  (Victim Stance)
  • “I will make commitments and stick to them.”  (Fragmentation)

When using positive affirmations, they must be repeated and rehearsed before they can become a new way of thinking.  Try a new one for yourself today.  You deserve it!

By:   Monica Wightman


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