Regardless of how old I get, there are certain childhood activities, toys and outlets that continue to bring me positive memories and feelings. One of my fondest activities from childhood involved Where’s Waldo?

The Where’s Waldo? series was created by Martin Handford. In the books, the reader is invited to scramble and search through pages and pages of chaos and busy illustration in attempt to locate and find the main character, Waldo. Waldo is typically dressed in a red-and-white-striped hat and

"Where's Waldo" image via Flickr creative commons
“Where’s Waldo” image via Flickr creative commons

shirt. However, there are many lookalikes on each page, so attention to detail is very important for the reader.

As a licensed professional counselor who works with adolescents, I find it important to incorporate a certain level of creativity into the process of helping clients build coping skills. I have been strongly trained in the area of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), so I commonly introduce interventions and skills associated with thought logs and coping thoughts.

With adolescents, I find that providing a basic understanding of CBT is effective in most cases. I typically introduce the theory of CBT as a relationship between thoughts and feelings. I provide education on the way in which thoughts directly influence feelings and establish a foundation of awareness that we can achieve more desirable feelings if we can find ways to change thoughts.

With this basic description of CBT in mind, the intervention of a thought log can be very effective in helping adolescents to practice “catching” negative thoughts, identifying the immediate emotions and then “inserting” coping thoughts to challenge the negative self-talk, thus leading to more desirable emotions and more effective problem-solving of the situation at hand.

I introduce a thought log to my adolescent clients as a type of journal. They can use it to sit down for a given period of time or while in the presence of an external event to actively practice recording negative self-talk/thoughts and any associated emotions that arise as a result of those thoughts. Next the client will identify and record an associated coping thought/positive affirmation to counter the negative self-talk and associated emotions.

It is important to ask clients to rank the intensity of their thoughts and emotions because some coping thoughts may create new emotions, while others may simply decrease the intensity of the negative self-talk. This helps clients form a personal conceptualization and understanding of which coping thoughts are more effective on the basis of the emotions that they want to achieve or decrease the intensity of.


The Where’s Waldo? connection

At this point, you may find yourself wondering how this CBT intervention relates to Where’s Waldo? In my professional opinion, the chaos and busy illustration featured on each page of Where’s Waldo? simulates the day-to-day chaos and conflict that clients may experience within their system of stressors: school, family, relationships, peers, jobs, etc.

In the Where’s Waldo? activity, finding Waldo is the goal. For many adolescents, personal goals and ambitions are often discouraged or lost among the chaos and conflict of their day-to-day stressors. This is because that ongoing chaos and conflict can create a stream of negative thought that adolescents often find too difficult to challenge.

In my work with clients, I ask them to practice completing a thought log while engaged in the Where’s Waldo? activity. I invite them to sit with a piece of paper while they search for Waldo and record any negative thoughts that they experience. Examples of negative thoughts while trying to locate Waldo: “I can’t do this”; “This is too hard”; “I want to give up”; “I do not succeed at anything.”

I also ask my clients to record emotions created by these thoughts — for example, frustration, anger, hopelessness and anxiety. It is important to sit with clients as they engage in this activity because the thought log is an active, ever-changing intervention and skill. The counselor not only educates clients on how to perform the thought log but also serves as a support, encouraging clients to counter their negative thoughts with coping thoughts that will help them resist the urge to give up on finding Waldo.

This activity provides clients with an outlet to practice emotional distress tolerance and implement CBT skills in the context of a simulated activity. It also offers them encouragement to apply those same skills to actual day-to-day stressors. To conclude the activity, counselors can invite clients to compare and contrast the negative thoughts and emotions they experienced during the activity with what arises when they encounter the presence of the day-to-day chaos of real life.

Processing the activity creates an opportunity for clients to access personal growth and insight. It also provides them with the confidence to take the thought log home and implement it with some of the specific stressors that may have brought them into treatment. I believe that change occurs when clients are able to apply what is learned in therapy to real-life dilemmas.

By simulating chaos and conflict through creative, nonintimidating outlets such as this Where’s Waldo? activity, we can help clients to acquire the tools and confidence to effectively apply those coping skills to the personal dilemmas that initially led them to treatment.

Remember, as overwhelming as the chaos may seem on each page of Where’s Waldo?, the truth is that Waldo really does appear on every page. This can help to reinforce the idea to clients that at times in real life, it is necessary to tolerate the distress that is present. Because for every moment that distress is tolerated, the opportunity to reach the goal increases.



Brandon S. Ballantyne is a licensed professional counselor, national certified counselor and certified clinical mental health counselor with Reading Health System in Reading, Pennsylvania. Contact him at