At the end of such a day, it can be easy to fall into that familiar litany: “Life is so hard, these kids are doomed, I’m a failure as a parent.” The thing is, this pattern — though common — is actually the start of an unhelpful spiral. These types of statements are examples of a tendency known as “extreme thinking,” which forms black and white judgments about the moment (one part of the picture) – and uses those judgments to define the whole picture.
This tendency is fueled by how our brains work. The brain doesn’t easily access memories and feelings from a different emotional state. So when you’re sad or frustrated, it’s hard to access the good memories you have of times that have gone better. Instead, all you can think about is more sad or frustrating things — including sad or frustrating futures for you and your children. A scene from the movie Parenthood contains a comic example of this.
Steve Martin plays the worried father of an insecure son. During one scene he is coaching his son’s Little League team. Despite the protests of the parents and players, he sends his son to play second base with the game hanging in the balance. As his son runs onto the field, the dad gets lost in a daydream in which his son becomes the game’s hero. His dream then jumps into the future to his son’s speech as Harvard’s valedictorian, “I’d like to thank the greatest guy in the world, my Dad, for making this all possible. His belief in me during a Little League game turned my life around. Thanks Dad!”
Crowd noise snaps Martin back to reality as his son drops a pop fly and his team loses the game. Martin now envisions a different daydream – his desperate son is now in the Harvard bell tower with a rifle. Students and parents scramble away from an onslaught of bullets. “It’s all your fault, Dad!” he screams. “If you hadn’t made me play second base that day, none of this would have ever happened!”
This clip is a little “extreme” — but it humorously illustrates something most parents can relate to: what happens when our “extreme thinking” causes us to view specific, temporary behaviors as pervasive and permanent.
Extreme thinking may lead parents to believe false messages such as, “He’s always done this and always will.” Focusing on the negative future may fuel thoughts like, “She’s gonna be just like ____ when she grows up.” “The teenage years will be horrible!” “This kid will never make it in life.”
Parents caught in these kinds of negative thoughts then subtly or overtly communicate these negative expectations to their children. The subtle evidence of these thoughts may be found in a parent’s exasperated sigh that precedes a corrective interaction with a child, or in the simple tendency to always assume the worst when entering corrective situations. A more overt clue may be found in the words parents use. “What’s wrong with you now?” “You’re never going to amount to anything,” “I’m so sick of your behavior!”
The way out of extreme thinking is to learn to keep negative situations in a proper perspective and do some heart work to examine and be thoughtful about my core beliefs. When I can view and treat tough situations as temporary, and full of opportunities, I can help my kids to learn and grow through them, rather than be defined by them.
Apply It Now:
- What subtle anxieties do I feel about my child’s struggles and their implications for the future? How do they affect my responses to my child?
- What are some true statements about these struggles? (For help, see some truth statements here.) How can I remind myself about these truths when I need them?
P.S. If you really ARE feeling like you’re at the end of your parenting rope, consider contacting us about parent coaching.
This post is an excerpt from our book, How to Grow a Connected Family.
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