Coping with Parental Stress:
The First Step, Learning to Notice Recurring Thoughts.
The Mind and Body are intimately connected. What we think affects how we feel and how our body functions. Here is a little dose of what psychologists call Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (C.B.T.). C.B.T. is a commonly used psychotherapeutic treatment that helps people improve their emotional state by changing their thoughts and behaviors. Through C.B.T., people learn how to notice their often habitual, negative and subconscious thought patterns that create stress in their lives. In an oversimplification of the theory — thoughts influence emotions (feelings), emotions influence our behavior (what we do), and the behavior either supports the original thought, or not.
Picture this — you get home from work and the house is a mess — dishes on counter, old pots on the stove, the kitchen table covered with paper, and shoes scattered about (sound familiar?). The kids and your partner are sitting on the couch relaxing and watching a movie together, apparently oblivious to the messy house. You think “They expect ME to clean up after them? I worked a full, long day! I do EVERYTHING! They don’t appreciate me at all!” The emotions you feel are probably something like frustration, annoyance, and most likely sheer anger. These emotions drive the behavior/how you respond. You might angrily begin cleaning up the dishes and yelling at your kids and partner to get moving. These behaviors can create a situation that reinforces the thought. Your family only hears and feels the emotion — the anger and frustration towards them (ignoring the words and meaning behind it) — and responds with anger and frustration toward you, making you feel unappreciated (your original thought). This is an interactional model, meaning all points on the triangle reinforce each other. See The Thought-Emotion-Behavior Triangle show below:
Let’s learn how to use C.B.T. at home. Understanding and noticing your thoughts is fundamental here. Assume most of your thoughts are automatic and come from past experiences — our expectations of how people behave, your ‘shoulds’. When an event happens, these thoughts occur automatically, without conscious awareness. Some of these thoughts are rational and based on the situation at hand, but most often they are irrational and based on assumptions or past experiences. So, how do you apply this at home? The work is to: 1) notice your thought pattern, and 2) notice the irrational, automatic thoughts that are interfering and creating negative emotional patterns.
Types of Irrational Thoughts to Look Out For
(adapted from The Feeling Good Handbook by David Burns)
All or None Thinking: You see things in dichotomous categories. If your parenting falls short of perfect, you see yourself as bad parent. “I am either a good Mom or a bad Mom. Nothing in between exists.”
Overgeneralization: You see a single, negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. “I worked a lot during my child’s early years. He must see me as unavailable, so why bother even trying. It’s too late now anyway.”
Mental Filter: You pick out a single negative detail and focus on it exclusively so that the whole experience is colored with a negative perception. “My son cried at his birthday party so the whole party was ruined.”
Disqualifying the Positive: Any positive experience is disqualified. It allows the person to hold onto a negative belief that may be serving a psychological purpose. “We are financially unstable” (despite being generally stable and just not making bonus this year). Or, “my child seriously struggles academically” (their child got mostly A’s and two C’s).
Jumping to Conclusions: It is what is sounds like. A definitive conclusion is made although there are not enough facts to determine that. “My son will not get into a good college” (because he failed 6th grade math).
Mind Reading: You assume a person is reacting negatively to you regardless of the reality. “She doesn’t like me because she did not talk with me at the party.”
Fortune Telling: You are convinced that things will not turn out well. Again, “My son will not get into a good college.”
Magnification/Catastrophizing or Minimization: The importance of things is exaggerated, such as your own error or someone’s success. Conversely, you minimize things until they are unimportant, such as your own positive qualities or other people’s flaws. “I forgot to send a lunch to school with my daughter again! The school is going to hate me!” “It was complete luck that I was given that promotion at work.”
Emotional Reasoning: Reading feelings as if they are facts. “I feel like my husband is cheating on me, therefore it must be true.”
Should Statements: This is a common cognitive distortion. Listen for the word ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’. The emotional consequences are guilt. When you direct ‘should’ statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment. “I should be able to get my work done, help my kids with all their homework, and get to the gym.” “I shouldn’t have eaten that dessert.”
Labeling and Mislabeling: This is an exaggerated form of overgeneralization. When you make a mistake, you attach a negative label to yourself. “I’m a bad mother.” When someone else makes a mistake, you attach a negative label to them. “He is a bad kid.”
Personalization: You take responsibility for an event that isn’t necessarily your responsibility. “My husband was late to work again. I should have woken him up and gotten him out the door on time.”
Begin to notice your automatic thoughts. Clients often find it helpful to print it out the list and hang it where you can see it. Put a check beside the types of irrational thoughts you often use. The first step in changing your cognitions is to notice them. Start today. To learn more, go to www.drbobbiwegner.com