First of all, how absolutely wonderful it was to see all of our new 'rising' parents last night at 6th Grade Orientation. I can tell already you are going to be a lively and engaging group of parents, and I'm stoked to get to know you better. Thank you for placing your trust in us; we will work our tails off to be worthy partners in this endeavor of building sturdier adolescents. Our kids are our future, and how we love and care for them is the most important job any of us have.
I've been thinking a lot lately about our kids' attitudes and beliefs about themselves, and how flawed thinking can so dramatically impact their emotional life. I talked a little about this last night, but here's some more things I've been thinking about lately.
Let's face it, our brains can be unreliable at times. Sometimes our brains flat out lie to us. Usually it just sneaks up on us when we're not paying particular attention, and before we realize it we've been hoodwinked into believing something that is simply not true. It happens to all of us from time-to-time: our minds fall prey to sloppy and inaccurate thinking about ourselves and the world around us, and it can result in some pretty debilitating emotional flooding. I'm talking about things such as overgeneralizing and filtering out positive messages and only focusing on the negative. Social scientists and therapists have a name for these mendacious mental miscues: they call them "cognitive distortions."
While cognitive distortions are something we all are prone to, we know that adolescence can be like the Super Bowl of cognitive distortions. Our young teens are just getting the feel of their rapidly changing and developing brains. They are taking them out for a test drive and seeing what they are capable of. And mental fender-benders are to be expected. But we can help our kids tremendously by understanding a little something about the nature of cognitive distortions.
There are a number of cognitive distortions, and they go by different names in the research literature; but there are three in particular that I see from the principal's desk that our young teens really struggle with. There is value as adults in just being able to recognize these fallacies when they crop up in conversations with our kids, and with gentle and loving interrogation of these thinking distortions we can help our tweens to overcome emotional hijacking. The three thinking errors I'm thinking about - an 'unholy trinity' if you will - are: black-and-white thinking, catastrophizing, and mind reading.
Despite the political polarization and bitter culture wars playing out in the media, our world - both externally and our inner world - just isn't that simplistic. Life is extraordinarily nuanced with beautiful shades of gray. Black-and-white thinking is the cognitive distortion that tricks us into a tendency to see things in all-or-nothing terms. Either this or that. When we see things in only in extremes our world starts to feel more hostile and menacing. The truth of the matter is that most (but not all) things that are important in life reside somewhere in the gray, radical middle. At school it can sound like: "My friends are cool and your's are a bunch of hypocrites." "Either you are into Tik Tok or you're lame." "Teachers only like the quiet kids." Can you imagine how narrow your world starts to feel when life becomes only a battle between good people and evil people, good ideas and wrong ideas.
Catastrophizing is when we skew our perspective on something in such a way as to exaggerate its importance or meaning. It is the tendency to make a mountain out of a molehill and believe there is no possible recovery. A student who is generally good at math but makes a mistake on a test may magnify the importance of that mistake and believe that she is terrible at math and always will be. Or an athlete who makes a bad pass catastrophizes the situation and berates himself for being such a bad teammate and not worthy. If I get redirected by one of my teachers and then become convinced this teacher hates me and will always target me as being a bad kid, I've likely submitted to the cognitive distortion of catastrophizing. Gloomy Eeyore is a classic example of this type of thinking.
Lastly, the distortion of mind reading is a bogus belief that we know what another person is thinking. We are guilty of mind reading when we jump to conclusions about what we assume was going on in another person's mind, with little to no actual evidence, and invariably assume a negative interpretation. This is a tricky one, because we tell ourselves and our kids to "trust your gut" or "believe your feelings." But the truth of the matter is this can also lead to a great deal of anxiety for some of our kids because they become certain about things that are not true. Seeing a former friend with an unpleasant expression and jumping to the conclusion that they are thinking unkind things about you is an example of mind reading. Your teen assuming you don't like any of their friends and you think they are all a bad influence is a manifestation of mind reading. I read my wife's mind all the time... and it generally ends up I am totally wrong.
As I said, there are many other cognitive distortions that I'm sure you would readily recognize, but these are pretty prevalent with the teens I hang out with daily here at Cresthill. Lecturing and moralizing about these flaws is not likely to produce much of a positive result, but openly questioning the thinking behind the thinking at least gets you in the conversation. Better yet, you sharing examples aloud when you catch yourself falling into one of these thinking pits is incredibly powerful and instructive for your teen to see. Our kids are watching us!; and while they often fail to listen to us, they never fail to imitate us. How's that for a scary thought!
Once again, welcome to our new Cresthill families, and continued love to all you veteran Cougar parents.