“More often than not, fear doesn’t emerge as nail-biting, cold-feet terror. It surfaces instead as anger, perfectionism, pessimism, low-level anxiety, depression, and feelings of isolation. It poisons each moment it touches.” — Dan Baker, Ph.D.
You may think your moods just come out of nowhere. But scientists now believe that moods are often a response to what we think, usually without even noticing.
Here’s how it works. A thought flits through your mind (“My child should be more like that other child”) and in response you feel a little anxious or sad. Those feelings make you more likely to think another negative thought (“Is there something wrong with him?) Before you know it, you’re plunged into a cascade of negativity: (“It must be my fault… If only I were a better parent…”) These thoughts create or reinforce a negative story in your unconscious about yourself, your child, the world. They make more negative thoughts more likely.
That’s how our little fears and judgments set up negative interactions that can snowball throughout our day, without our even realizing it. Since thoughts create emotions, you’re in a bad mood before you know it. Instead of enjoying ourselves and our children, feeling a sense of well-being, we end up pinched and anxious, running on our own anxiety.
And since our children are so sensitive to our moods, they pick up on our mood and tone, and get anxious themselves. Guess what kids do when they get anxious? They “act out” the feelings they can’t express in words. In other words, they misbehave.
So those bad moods and cranky days are often created by our own minds. But why is the mind prone to negativity? Because the human mind is responsible for keeping us safe. It’s always scanning for danger, to keep us from shame, embarrassment, failure. The mind is actually designed to focus on the negative, including constant warnings about what might happen in the future, if we don’t take drastic action now.
“If he doesn’t start using the potty, he’ll never be able to start school.”
“How will she ever make it in college if I’m having to check up on her homework so much?”
“I screamed at her again. I know this is bad for her. Have I damaged her for life?”
“If I don’t do something drastic to stop this behavior right now, he’ll grow up to be a criminal!”
Many of our thoughts about the future project a negative reality. Unfortunately, since our thoughts determine our actions, we’re creating our own self-fulfilling prophecy. All these negative thoughts influence us to act more harshly with our child, and that in turn worsens the child’s behavior.
One definition of FEAR is “Future Events Appearing Real.” But our thoughts about the future are never real — we can’t know what the future holds. Fear is what pulls us off the high road and onto the low road of parenting. Fear is what makes us hard on ourselves and our children. Fear is what makes us anxious and angry. When we give fear a foothold in one area, it has a way of taking over our lives. Without conscious management on our parts, fear can permeate our thoughts — and poison our relationships with our children.
But it doesn’t have to be this way! You can “retrain” your mind. Here’s how.
1. Notice your thoughts.
Stop. Take a breath. Notice all that chatter in your mind. Notice how often your interpretation of events is automatically negative: “If only I were more organized, things like this wouldn’t happen!”…”I just know she’s going to give me a hard time about this.”… “I really blew it this time!”
You can see that many of your thoughts are just fear talking; negative conclusions based on interpretations of the world that no longer serve you. And yet as they occur to us, we believe them without question. As you go through your day, practice noticing your thoughts and their effect on you. How does what you think change your mood and your actions?
You might be dismayed at how quickly your mind gets into a rut of worry or resentment. Don’t let it get you down. Becoming aware of these thoughts is the first step toward changing them. Once we notice, we stop automatically believing and acting on our thoughts. We have a choice.
2. Reframe negative thoughts.
As you notice each negative thought, hit your pause button. Transform that negative thought. Yes, even if it’s “true.” There is ALWAYS another, more empowering way to see the situation, which is at least as true.
“It’s not an emergency. No high school kid is in diapers.”
“She’s showing me that she doesn’t yet have the skills to manage her own homework. I can help her begin developing those skills so she can be successful. Losing my temper at her doesn’t help.”
“Nobody bats 1000. Even though I yell sometimes, my child is still getting better parenting than I did. I am going to use this as motivation to take a Vow of Yellibacy!”
“No, my child will not grow up to be a criminal; he’s acting like a kid because he IS a kid.”
You always have a choice. Will you feel worse, or will you feel better? Choose a thought that makes you feel better.
Notice that as you reach for a more positive thought, your perspective shifts. Your mood lifts a bit. You feel more trust in the universe, in yourself, in your child. From this new perspective, positive thoughts — and actions — are more accessible. As you keep choosing them, you build momentum in a positive upward spiral.
3. Repeat many times daily.
The mind tends toward negativity, but it’s also “plastic” so it changes in response to repeated experience. So practice this all day long. When you wake up in the morning, notice your thoughts. If there’s a thought that’s making you tense, reframe it. If your child balks when you’re trying to get him out the door, stop and notice your own thoughts. Choose a reframe that sees your child more positively (maybe he needs a hug right now?). As you go through your day, notice and choose thoughts that make you feel a little bit better.
When you find yourself manufacturing negative scenarios, reprogram your unconscious mind by suggesting a happier ending: “Wouldn’t it be nice if this evening everything went smoothly at bedtime? Wouldn’t it be nice if tonight I stayed calm and cheerful and knew just what to do?” Imagine what you want to have happen. You’ll be surprised at how happy your unconscious mind is to oblige.
You can’t jump from overwhelmed to joyful with one reframe. But you can shift from overwhelmed to a bit more trust and hopefulness. From that new perspective, you’ll find yourself taking actions that have a more positive effect on challenging situations. You’ll start making things better instead of worse. And much more often, you’ll be in good mood, feeling a sense of deep well-being.