Unhelpful Parenting Thought Patterns
Avoiding Perilous Thought Traps
By Dr. Susan Fawcett, with Glen Hoos
Reprinted from 3.21: Canada’s Down Syndrome Magazine (Issue #13: Caring for the Caregiver). Click here to download the full magazine.
Perception is reality, or so they say.
We’re not exactly sure who ‘they’ are, but they make an important point. The way in which we perceive our circumstances shapes our response to those circumstances. Our response, in turn, shifts the circumstances – for better or worse. This creates a new reality… leading to new perceptions… and new responses… and around it goes.
Deep thoughts, but a simple principle: how we think really matters. So, it’s worth thinking about how we think.
All of us have thought patterns: some healthy, some unhealthy. Those thought patterns inform our self-talk, an internal monologue running through our mind that helps us make sense of what’s happening in our life. Positive self-talk helps us see the circumstances of our life in the best possible light and think rationally and productively about problems as they present themselves. Negative self-talk skews how we perceive our circumstances and sabotages our ability to effectively respond to challenges.
Caring for a loved one with Down syndrome presents all kinds of opportunities for unhealthy thought patterns. Parents, in particular, rarely receive any specialized training before welcoming a person with a developmental disability into their family. Their journey takes them down paths and around corners they never could have imagined, much less prepare for. This opens the door wide to self-doubt and other thought traps that negatively impact parental mental health.
Being the best version of ourselves – and the caregiver our loved one needs – starts with getting our thinking right.
Problematic Thought Patterns
The first step in healthy thinking is to identify problematic thought patterns that may be at work within us. Before looking at specific negative thoughts that are common to parents, here are some of the most common “thinking traps” that can impact us in every area of life.
All or Nothing (Black and White) Thinking: Taking complex issues and reducing them to simplified, either/or scenarios. For example, “If I’m not perfect, I have failed;” “Either do it right, or don’t do it at all.”
Mental Filter: Only paying attention to certain types of evidence; noticing our failures but not seeing our successes.
Over-Generalizing: Being overly broad in the conclusions we draw. For example, “I always do that;” “Everything is terrible, nothing good ever happens.”
Disqualifying the Positive: Similar to the mental filter, discounting the good things that have happened and accentuating the negative.
Jumping to Conclusions: Mind-reading (assuming you know what other people are thinking) and fortune-telling (predicting the future based on limited evidence from the present). Mind-reading is a particular favourite amongst married couples!
Emotional Reasoning: Assuming that, because we think something, it must be true. For example, “I feel embarrassed so I must have made a huge mistake.”
Magnification and Minimization: Blowing things out of proportion (catastrophizing) or inappropriately shrinking something to make it seem less important. For example: “My child is going into kindergarten and still isn’t potty trained. What if he never becomes potty trained?”
Should and Must: Using critical words like “should,” “must,” or “ought” can make us feel guilty, or like we’ve already failed.
If you recognize yourself in any of these unhealthy patterns, don’t be alarmed. We all fall into many or all of these thought traps at one time or another. The key is to recognize it and not let it dominate our perspective.
Unhelpful Parenting Thoughts
The general thinking traps listed above manifest themselves in specific damaging thoughts in different realms of life. Some common themes include:
- How the parent sees herself or himself as a parent
- How the parent thinks others see her as a parent
- How the parent thinks others view her child
- How the parent sees her child’s ability to control his behaviour
- How the parent views problem situations
- Who should be responsible for problem situations
- How the parent views the future
To get a sense of how these themes play out in everyday life, how many of these negative thoughts are familiar to you?
“Everyone is staring at us.”
“I can’t handle this.”
“It’s my fault my child is behaving badly.”
“They must think I’m a terrible parent.”
“I should be doing more for her.”
“Things are just getting worse.”
“I should be more patient.”
“I can’t help my child.”
“My child would read better if I would practice with him more.”
“My child will always be dependent on me.”
The way thought patterns impact emotions and behaviour (and vice versa) is explained by a framework known as the “Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Triad.” Consider the following scenarios, and how the thought pattern impacts the outcome.
Scenario 1: A father has been given a great deal of reading and speech therapy homework to do with his daughter. As he leaves the therapist’s office, he thinks, “We’ll never get this all done. It’s my fault she’s not improving. I should be doing so much more for her.” He feels inadequate, sad, and guilty, and now these negative thoughts are connected to helping his daughter with her homework. We all tend to avoid uncomfortable situations, so these emotions cause him to avoid doing the work with her, leading to more feelings of failure, and so on
Scenario 2: A mom is at the store with her son. He’s lying on the floor screaming because she told him he couldn’t buy a toy. She thinks everyone is staring at them. She is embarrassed and feels angry at herself for not being able to keep her child under control. She decides to begin avoiding taking her son out in public and do her shopping alone in the future.
How might these scenarios change if the parents shifted their thought patterns? Imagine if the father focused on his daughter’s recent successes and the role he had played in helping her in those achievements. Or what if the mother recognized that she can’t control her son’s behaviour, and other kids have temper tantrums in stores, too? A change in perspective may not solve the immediate problem, but it can certainly put us on a better path.
Cultivating Helpful Thoughts
Staying positive in the face of significant challenges is undoubtedly easier said than done. We do have the tendency as human beings to focus on the negative. It takes intentionality and practice to accentuate the positive.
It begins with the most basic step: simply becoming aware of the fact that you are having either helpful or unhelpful thoughts. Next time you notice a shift downwards in your mood or an uptick in your anxiety, ask yourself: “What was I thinking about just now?” Then, take on the role of a detective and put your own thoughts on trial. Ask yourself questions like: Is this thought realistic? Is it true? Am I basing my thoughts on facts or feelings? What is the evidence for this thought, and could I be misinterpreting it? Am I viewing the situation as black and white, when really it’s more complicated? Am I having this thought out of habit, or do facts support it?
These are clarifying questions. They reveal whether you are thinking in healthy, helpful ways – or not. And if you recognize that you’re not, you can begin to reframe the situation.
Reframing involves taking a different, more positive perspective on an unhelpful thought. For example, rather than perceiving yourself as weak, you can reframe it and remind yourself that you are a gentle and calming presence for your daughter. Instead of beating yourself up for being impatient, you might say something like,” I’m getting better at being patient. I’m working on it. I’m more patient than I used to be.”
Here are some more examples of reframing some of the common negative thoughts we discussed earlier:
|“I should be doing more for her.”||“I am doing the best I can under the circumstances.”|
“We have already accomplished a lot today.”
|“I can’t control his behaviour.”||“I am trying hard.”|
“He can now walk to school calmly.”
|“It’s my fault my child is behaving badly.”||“She behaves this way for my wife and her teachers, too; it’s not just me.”|
|“Things are just getting worse.”||“She is able to say more words than before.”|
“Things are tough right now. Tomorrow might be better.”
|“I can’t help my child.”||“It was me who taught our son how to zip up his coat!”|
|“I can’t handle this right now.”||“It’s tough, but I have done this before and I can do it again.”|
Returning to the scenario of the child throwing a fit at the store, instead of thinking, “Oh my gosh, everyone’s staring at us,” the mom could take a deep breath and remind herself, “My son isn’t the only kid who does this. I can ride this out. I’ve done it before, and I can do it again.”
Now, I’m not going pretend that she’s not still going to be a little embarrassed by the situation. But she might have just a little less embarrassment; she might feel a little calmer and more confident, and – MAYBE – she may even be able to see the humour in the situation. Reframing the situation allows us to step back and see it in a different light, and that’s often where we find solutions.
Another strategy I recommend is affirmation: becoming your own cheerleader. We all do better with encouragement, and it’s most powerful when it comes from ourselves, because we are often our own toughest critic.
Affirmation is about finding ways to boost yourself up and increase your confidence. It’s a powerful way to start your day: strike a superhero pose in the mirror, and tell yourself, out loud, things that make you feel strong. You may choose to focus on specific attributes of your parenting style and what you are good at, or things you have recently accomplished with your child. Or it might be something more general. Here are some examples of positive affirmations that you can try:
“I am a gentle, but firm, parent.”
“I am exactly what my child needs.”
“I am a confident mother.”
“I am learning and I’ll do better next time.”
“I’ve got this.”
And you know what? You’ve got this. You really do. You are doing an amazing job in a difficult situation. Don’t ever let yourself forget it.
“Helping Parents with Challenging Children: Positive Family Intervention” – Mark Durand & Meme Hieneman
“Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life: The New Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” – Stephen Hayes “CBT Basics & Beyond” – Judith Beck