In this series of blogs, I’ve presented an approach to parenting that emphasizes holding children in high regard and supporting their range of emotional responses while still teaching them accountability for their behavioral choices. In this fifth and final installment of “Parenting with Dr. Dave,” I will focus on the perspective of cognitive psychology and, specifically, the parenting technique of reframing.
The Cognitive Perspective
As I’ve written about before, we tend to think and speak as if our feelings dictate our behaviors. “I ran away because I was afraid,” “I didn’t go to school because I didn’t feel like it,” or “I’m moping around because I’m so depressed,” are statements we often hear. The behavioral perspective tells us that behaviors affect feelings as much as feelings affect behaviors. Maybe the individual is feeling despair because they often skip school and thus fall behind and perform poorly. Perhaps one is afraid because they have consistently avoided facing an intimidating but ultimately manageable situation. The bottom line with behaviorism is if you want to change your feelings, do so by changing your behavior.
The cognitive perspective gives primacy to the thinking process. In essence, if you want to feel better, change the way you talk to yourself. What we think and the narratives we tell ourselves determine how we feel and choose to behave. Assume I’ve recently started working in a new position. Suppose I tell myself that nobody likes me, that I can't do anything right, that I'll never be successful. In that case, of course, I am likely to evaluate my life as irreparable, feel terrible, and choose to avoid opportunity because I believe I will inevitably fail. But if my thinking follows a different path, then my feelings and choices will be congruent with a different evaluation. If I think to myself that I’m new in my position and my colleagues have yet to learn of the ways I can contribute, that I made an error in my first presentation, but I won’t make that mistake again, and that it takes time and patience to fully know if a position is a good fit, then I won’t feel so terrible, and I’ll have more confidence in myself. And with that assessment of my situation, I will likely seek opportunities to show my talents.
Notice that in the example above, the unhealthy narrative is exaggerated while the healthy one is more likely to fit objective truth. We often say no one likes us, but that is rarely, if ever, true. It’s also not likely that everyone likes us. But it is these extreme exaggerations in our thinking that often lead us to negativity. Absolutes like “all, none, everyone, nobody, never, or always” often indicate a distorted assessment. Truth is in the gray areas in between the extremes.
How this Plays Out with Children
With our children, we also tend to think that their feelings are driving negative statements. A child might say, “Everybody hates me,” or “I’m so stupid,” after being criticized, and we tend to think the cause of the statement is their intense misery. But again, cognitive psychology tells us their habit of using an untrue and exaggerated phrase may be the cause of the feeling. So the distortions and hyperbole in a child’s assessment of their current condition can lead to strong negative feelings and desperate or dysfunctional behaviors.
Reframing - Developing a Realistic Narrative
Reframing is simply the practice of correcting those exaggerations by replacing them with a healthier, more realistic narrative. “I think Bobby hates me. He asked Sara to be his lab partner,” can be countered with, “Why would you think that? I can think of several reasons he might ask someone else to be his lab partner, but thinking that he must hate you doesn’t sound right.”
I recall when my own daughter was a student here at Clark (over 20 years ago), she said to me with an agitated and fearful tone, “Dad, did you know that they can give you detentions at Clark in fourth grade?” “Yeah,” I said, “And you’ll probably get a couple.” “I will?” she replied, with a tone suggesting that would be terrible. “Sure, you can get detention for things like late homework, a dress code violation, or even running in the halls. I just hope that when you get one, you learn from it. And detention is only staying after school and doing your homework in a classroom with one of your teachers.” In that way, I was trying to reframe her thinking from detention being some kind of torture to simply another tool for teaching students responsibility, enforced by kind and supportive teachers.
Example #1 - An Academic Struggle
A common response from a student who struggles with academics at times is for them to make self-deprecating comments, like, “I’m so stupid.” We know that this is the child's rather underdeveloped way of saying they’re frustrated. But we hear the pain in the statement and then tend to rush in with reassurance, saying, “No you're not; you’re very smart.” But this reassurance reinforces the comment, meaning the comment worked; it brought the desired comfort and assistance from the parents, so the comment is likely to be repeated in those situations. We may think we are countering the self-deprecation with our insistence that the child is not stupid. But, what the child reiterates to themself, even silently, and when we aren't around, will overwhelm our protests and, thus, their self-image can erode.
A better approach in that situation is to correct the language, to insist that what they are saying is inaccurate. “Do you really think you are stupid,” you can ask after the child has settled down and appears to be in a better mood. “Well, I guess not,” might be the response to which you say, “Then why did you say that?” “Well, I felt that way at the time.” “That’s not the way intelligence works,” you reply, “your intellectual ability is pretty consistent. You can’t be smart one minute and stupid the next. So what you said, that you are stupid, simply isn’t true. It’s a lie, and it hurts my feelings that you would say that about yourself. You can always tell the truth. You could say that you are frustrated, that you are angry, or that you don’t like tutoring, because those are statements that could be true, but you can’t say you are stupid because that just isn’t true.”
Example # 2 - Fear of Mistakes
What if a child says they don’t want to be in the piano recital because they might make a mistake? Among the many possible responses, a parent might reply, “Everyone makes mistakes. I make mistakes frequently. In fact it’s good to get used to making mistakes because when you are unafraid of them, you try more and therefore learn more.”
Example #3 - Hate vs. Frustration
And what if the child says they hate you. After they have calmed down and now admit that they don't hate you, the first time, you can explain that hate is so strong it isn't an on and off feeling. If I hate something, then I always hate it. But frustration, anger, and disappointment are transient feelings. “I can feel angry at you one moment and not a short time later. But that isn’t how hate works.” Then, again, you can explain that saying they hate you when it clearly is both a lie and hurtful will lead to consequences next time such a statement is uttered.
It’s About Honesty – Not Rose-Colored Glasses
Some parents think I’m asking them just to put a positive spin on everything so that the child doesn’t feel bad. I’m not. Always seeing the world through rose-colored glasses or being a Pollyanna teaches rationalization and self-deception, preventing the child from learning from their experiences. From the examples I've used, I hope you can see that the reframed narratives are the more honest, more objective assessments. By helping to amend irrational assessments we are teaching a more nuanced, healthier, more mature, and thus more sophisticated understanding of the world in which our children live.
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