Imagine two equally talented graduates at their first jobs. Within a year, downsizing gets them both laid off. One becomes caught up in thinking he’s failed: I was never good enough. My boss hated me. The other decides, I wanted this job so badly. I better fix my resume and learn how to deal with a difficult boss better. Who moves through adversity more quickly?
The same attitude carries over for parents around daily routines, school, or anything else. If one parent expects bedtime to be stressful and another feels it should happen without much adult effort, who has a harder time sticking to sleep training when it gets challenging? Our perspective toward whatever we encounter in life fundamentally changes how we experience it.
Stress itself can be defined as the perception that something is more than we can handle. When we frame challenges as surmountable, we surmount them more easily. When we frame them as opportunities for failure, we more often fail. That may sound like the most hackneyed, clichéd advice ever, but it is a foundation of resilience research.
What is resilience?
Resilience relies on how we perceive our lives. So maybe we get queasy watching our child on stage for the first time; anxious and concerned, we start ruminating. Within those thoughts exist layers of assumptions, perspectives, and mental filters—I didn’t prepare her enough; she’s going to embarrass herself; I must do something to save her. If we feel our role is to protect kids from everything, that moment on stage becomes miserable. If we recognize we cannot shield our children from every hurt, but we’ve done our best, the experience changes—I’m almost as stressed as she is! Hope it goes well, but I’m here if it doesn’t.
Perception itself is malleable. In fact, this idea is a focus of the military’s resilience training for soldiers. Participants explore mental traps—habitual distortions that undermine emotional well-being. These pitfalls might represent thoughts like Asking for help is an admission of failure. They include catastrophizing the worst possible outcome of every situation or, alternatively, minimizing and ignoring whatever overwhelms. An overly active inner critic may continually let us know we are not good enough to manage. All these distortions represent filters that twist perspective and pull us away from resiliency.
With mindfulness practice, we learn to hold these patterns to the light and question ourselves: What is valid, if anything, and what isn’t useful? Is our view inflexible, reactive, or full of doubt? Without belittling ourselves or forcing ourselves to be unnaturally positive, we observe with curiosity and redirect ourselves until new habits develop: She’s on her own up on stage now; I’m nervous but need to let go.
Uncertainty and change are inevitable in life—doubly so for parents. Instinct drives us to worry and protect endlessly because we care more than anything about our families. But if the only relief we seek is striving to battle uncertainty into submission, that causes needless stress, as certainty never happens—and too much stress undermines not only how we feel but the choices we make day to day.
Laboring under the misperception that parenting worry is ever going away only makes us feel worse. We cannot and should not aim to control everything. Rather, we can shift our perspective to accept that stressful things happen over and over again. When we try to fix everything we face and reach for a perfect picture of happiness, we undermine our best intentions. The perception that parenting or any other part of life can be anything other than imperfect and changing pushes us far from our most skillful and resilient selves.
Laboring under the misperception that parenting worry is ever going away only makes us feel worse. We cannot and should not aim to control everything.
You can begin to separate your perspective from the experience itself. Many attitudes toward adversity seem like factual statements: Those people are like that. My child will never . . . I’m not the sort of person who ever . . . Notice those habitual thoughts, and ask of each, Is it true? Drop your assumptions and predictions for a while, and see what changes.
Try catching yourself with this simple S.T.O.P. practice:
- Stop whatever you’re doing.
- Take a few slow breaths.
- Observe what’s going on around you and in your mind, and
- Pick how to proceed.
For a longer practice, follow the instructions below.
Follow the STOP practice
Stop what you’re doing; put things down for a minute. Get comfortable in the position you’re in, almost as if you’re relaxing into this moment.
Take a few deep breaths. See if you can tune in to the subtle sensations involved with inhalation and with exhalation, as if this were the first time you’ve ever noticed your breathing.
Observe your experience just as it is. If your mind wanders, gently guide it back to this moment. Notice any feelings present and how they’re being expressed. Research shows that just naming your emotions can turn the volume down on the fear circuit in the brain. Turn your attention to your body. How is your posture? How does it feel?
Proceed. As the stress response begins to calm, ask the question: What’s most important right now to pay attention to? Whatever comes up in your mind, that’s what you’ll continue with.
STOP practice from Elisha and Stefanie Goldstein
Six steps to shift perceptions
The following suggestions, adapted from recommendations of the American Psychological Association, provide a framework for shifting perceptions and building resilience:
1. Make connections and accept help. Value relationships with close family members and friends, prioritizing time with them, and reach out for support when needed.
2. Monitor for mental traps. Whenever undermining habits appear, pause, label them catastrophizing again, and redirect. For example, if you feel shut down by fear, acknowledge that fact, then refocus on something useful to be done as a first step: If nothing else, I’m calling the pediatrician today and getting a referral.
3. Nurture a positive view of yourself. Catch your inner critic in action, set it aside, and focus on your own strengths instead: Thanks anyway, I wish I’d done it differently but I didn’t. What would be the best thing to do now?
4. Aim to accept that change and uncertainty are a part of living. One common misperception that undermines well-being and resilience is fighting with whatever is truly beyond our control. Even when something upsetting happens, separate that experience from a broader expectation that it “shouldn’t” have happened in the first place.
5. Develop step-by-step goals and take decisive action. Rather than detaching and wishing stress away, stay proactive. When tasks seem unachievable, ask, What’s one small thing I can accomplish that moves me in the direction I want to go?
6. Take care of yourself. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed for resilience.
Tune in to your experience
Children learn more from what you do than what you say, so your resilience—the way they watch you approach adversity—affects theirs. Pay attention to how you experience challenges. Note how your body feels, your emotions, and where your thoughts go. Are you projecting your fears about the future? Are you caught up in regret or resentment? We often add to unpleasant moments in ways that make them even more difficult.
Adapted from How Children Thrive: The Practical Science of Raising Independent, Resilient, and Happy Kids by Mark Bertin, MD. Copyright 2018 by Mark Bertin. To be published by Sounds True in May 2018.