Joyful Parenting Tool: Cognitive Coping
Welcome to Joyful Parenting, part two! In this post, we will use fancy words (“cognitive coping”) from the evidence-based model of Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) to talk about tangible ways you can change your experience as a parent from right inside your own brain.
Our perspective shapes our reality. If you’re a parent, you’ve probably seen the movie Inside Out. As a Child and Family Therapist, when I watched that movie, I thought “well Pixar just put me out of a job”. It so beautifully depicts how our experiences, our innate temperaments, and our moods impact our perception of any given situation. Two people (or Pixar characters) can experience the same exact set of circumstances and interpret them vastly differently. This challenges our innate assumption that our thoughts are “facts”.
The realization that our thoughts are actually subjective interpretations, not facts, gives us tremendous power. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “don’t trust everything you think”? You don’t have to blindly believe the narrative coursing through your head all day! I encourage my clients to challenge any thoughts creating emotional distress by exploring two questions:
1. Is this thought accurate?
2. Is this thought helpful?
If you are overwhelmed and snap at a family member, you may think “I am the worst parent ever”. That’s normal. Most of us have had that thought. But is it accurate? I sincerely doubt it. Look for some evidence for and against this thought. Did you feed your kids today? Are they (somewhat) clean and (mostly) healthy? Have you spoken kinds words to them in the last 24 hours? I think you’ll find the facts stacked against the Worst Parent in The World Thought.
But what if the thought making me feel awful is actually true? I’ve weighed the evidence and it turns out, I’m the worst parent I know. I’m basically the stepmom from every Disney movie. Okay. Then ask yourself, “does that thought make me feel better or worse?” If it’s causing discomfort it’s not a helpful thought. This is where our fancy “cognitive coping” tool comes in: once we’ve determined that a thought is not accurate or not helpful (or both), we can develop a more accurate, helpful thought. Perhaps “I’m exhausted today and I wish I hadn’t snapped at my kids” stings a bit less? Or even, “I am a human parent and humans make mistakes”? How about: “my kids are resilient and know that I love them”? All true, all helpful.
With my younger clients, we explore thoughts and label them as “Stinking Thinking” and “Soothing Thinking”. Here’s another Stinky Thought: “he does that just to make me mad”. I’ve heard that motive attributed to many children. It might be accurate, but it is far from helpful. How about… “he’s expressing his needs in a really unhelpful (irritating, frustrating, etc.) way”?
Sometime this week, notice yourself for an hour as you interact with your child. Don’t change anything, just jot down thoughts as they pop up. Review this list later with a trusted friend or your partner. Read each thought out loud and determine the following: Is it accurate? Is it helpful? You would be surprised how often your brain likes to pretend it’s offering objective facts when in fact it’s supplying an assumption or a judgment. Extra Credit: create alternative thoughts. Write them down and keep them somewhere handy. You are the author of your internal narratives about yourself and your family. Reclaim your parenting joy as you re-write the stories in your head.
Give yourself the benefit of the doubt and start treating your brain like that one friend who usually gets the details a little bit wrong (you know who I’m talking about. The friend who is always misquoting things from the internet): a little bit of skepticism goes a long way. Our kids don’t need perfect parents who beat themselves up about parenting. They need loving parents who practice the same patience and compassion for themselves as they do their friends and family.