It’s a very obvious statement when I say that what we think can impact on how we feel and how we feel can impact on what we think. However, when we start to unpick this it gets a bit more complex. I see ‘raw’ feelings as those that are triggered by something happening such as the death of a pet, being in danger or receiving a pleasant treat. These are straightforward: there is a trigger and there is an immediate emotional response as a reaction to the external situation. In these situations, most people would initially have a similar emotional reaction. Many emotional responses though can be a little more complex than this as they involve our thinking and our thinking can distort things. Also, every individual’s capacity and way of distorting is individual to them.
So two people in the same situation can have distinctly different reactions because of their unique thought tendencies. For example, two people could receive exactly the same attacking insult. One person will shrug it off as untrue or think it says more about the person who gave the insult than themselves. Another person could take it deeply to heart as it triggers their typical thinking that they are no good and the insulter must be right.
We tend to have patterns in our thinking that we are not often very conscious of. In the worst-case scenario, our thought patterns can lead to depression. When our inner voices/thoughts tend to side with the negative, we can be more significantly knocked by tricky external events than someone with thought tendencies that put a more positive spin on things. What’s worse is that when a person feels depressed, their thought patterns are going to be more negative and it’s then that things can spiral out of control. The good news is though that our inner voices are just thoughts and thoughts can be changed. This is the foundation of cognitive psychology in a nutshell! (I am not for a moment saying that tackling depression is a simple as flicking a switch, I am viewing this more as creating an awareness that can increase the chances of your child being more resilient).
So what does this mean for our children? Well it is fundamentally about challenging any distortions in their thinking to make things seem less dramatically negative. This can therefore result in extremely uncomfortable emotions being triggered less often and make positive mood more likely. The way your child speaks will often give clues to any distortions going on in their minds. Here are a few examples:
- Overgeneralising e.g. when something has been cancelled and your child is disappointed it becomes a catastrophe because ‘you always cancel my fun’ and ‘you never spend time with me.’ Challenge always and never.
- All or nothing thinking or not allowing the grey area as I call it! e.g. when your child decides a person is all bad because they recently did something nasty. Help your child see that no one is all good or all bad – we all have a bit of both based on personality and circumstance!
- Mindreading and/or jumping to conclusions e.g. when a child says something like, ‘I know she hates me.’ This can be challenged by either asking your child for evidence that the other child likes them and suggesting that the other child might be simply having a bad day or that your child might have done something to cause upset, that the situation could be sorted with some communication etc.
- Sweeping negative judgements. e.g. ‘People who play netball are stupid.’ A little questioning can challenge and clarify the source of your child’s judgment with statements like this.
- Labelling yourself e.g. ‘I got my maths wrong so I am a complete failure.’ ‘I have never been good at art.’
- Discounting the positive. e.g. I got full marks in my maths but that’s because it was an easy test.
In a nutshell challenging automatic negative thought patterns and practising optimism can build resilience and you can help your child to do this.
A further note. I remember reading an experiment where half of a group of people diagnosed with depression were asked to put photos of happy memories in places they would regularly encounter – on fridges, car dashboards, fronts doors etc. The other half didn’t do this. At the end of three months, the ‘happy photos group’ were reported to have their depression significantly reduced and what’s more – it was permanent. The brain can be trained to think more positively. The child equivalent is sharing a positive thing that happened that day, every bed time.