Some of the greatest dangers for children are found in their own homes. Competent parents and caregivers are of course alert and take precautions. Gates on stairs, locks on low cupboards, toxic substances out of reach, lifejackets around the pool. Often forgotten though are the harmful effects of some patterns of parental thinking.
It is widely understood in psychology that children are highly influenced by the attribution styles of their care providers. How we talk to ourselves, about ourselves gets passed on. How we interpret what happens in our lives, teaches children the same interpretive skills. Granted, and in some cases thankfully, it isn’t a one-to-one correspondence. But generally children soak up what is said by adults. They not only learn the content but they learn the style too. When I forget something I hear my dad’s voice in my head saying, “Robert, you’d forget your head if it wasn’t screwed on.” (His tone was never mean, more like “silly boy”.) This is content. On the other hand, I realize that I can interpret things stoically (like my dad) and optimistically (like my mom).
Given the energy we put into protecting children it’s surprising more attention isn’t focused on how caregivers inadvertently teach children how to interpret events.
In cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), the main scientifically proven psychotherapy for depression and anxiety, patients are taught to examine automatic negative thoughts that contribute to their worries and depression. The treatment process is analogous to getting braces on teeth. Over a period of months there is a slow tweaking of the braces as the teeth move more towards the preferred configuration. In CBT, over time the negative thought processes that were once automatic slowly recede and new neuronal thought pathways are created. As with braces, where there are typical patterns that need correcting (overbite, wide space in the front teeth, crowded overlapping teeth), there are typical unhelpful thought patterns that CBT can fix. These patterns are just as intransigent as teeth because they have been practiced since we were children; usually passed down from our parents.
Let’s say you were taking the family to Chilliwack’s first “party in the park”. You get downtown and can’t find a parking spot. Out loud you say, “why does this always happen to me?” This is known as “personalization.” First, it likely doesn’t always happen to you and secondly, you likely aren’t alone, others likely had a hard time finding a spot. The kids, sitting in the back seat have learned, “when you are frustrated, consider that the universe is out to get you and you alone, you are a special victim.”
Here’s another scenario. So you found a parking spot and are having a great time but drip mustard onto your new white blouse. Frustrated you say, this night is ruined. The truth would be more like, this was frustrating but in balance the evening was a success. What the kids learned was “all or nothing” thinking. It’s perfect or no good.
Over the summer my colleagues Eryn Wicker and Marie Amos and I plan to write about some common “cognitive distortions”. We hope that you’ll think about your own thinking. Cognitive distortions can make the difference between misery and a full life.
Dr. Rob Lees, R.Psych is the Community Psychologist for the Ministry for Children and Family Development in Chilliwack