How to bulletproof your kids for life II


Image courtesy of JULIE ELLIOTT-ABSHIRE

What kids say

“I’m such a loser”

“Nobody likes me”

“My teacher hates me”

“No-one wants to play with me”

When they do this they’re looking for an explanation for why something has happened. You do it too. So do I.

The coaching manual

In psychological terms, we’re looking at attributions. Another way of saying this is: “What do I attribute this event to?” or the most simple “Why did this happen?”

We’re especially concerned with attributions that relate to events involving ourselves, and developing good habits for working through these attributions. Practice makes permanent as they say. Attributions are pretty robust things so they take a bit to develop, and also therefore, quite a bit to change.  We’re doing this so we can help our kids and ourselves build skills that help develop resilience and help prevent things like depression.

To warm us up last time we looked at the simple idea of the Fundamental Attribution Error. For convenience, I actually blended a couple of ideas under the same heading here and then simplified them to help make the point that our perspective significantly alters the way we explain things. Our explanations or attributions are also altered by our personal history, the nature of the event, who it happens to and so on.

What we’re going to do today is look through a few attribution components so you can start to identify them when you see them. If we think about you as a coach, then these are some of the techniques your players have already learned, from you, teachers, and others. Your job is to coach them into the best technique. Before that, it’s useful to be able to identify what skills they, and you, already have, before we look at honing them.

An important condition

There are lots of different kinds of attributions and biases. You can come at them from a few directions and get more or less specific, but we want to get the key principles in place for thinking about resilience. But there are conditions, and here’s an important one. For convenience, any theory like this has to identify broad themes, then name them. The risk is that we see things as being either in this group or in that one. But you’ll know that figuring people out isn’t this black and white, so better to think about using a continuum rather than a box.

If you prefer to work with examples, try this. Box thinking would ask a bunch of kids (or adults) about how they behave, and to stand in the group that most closely describes how they behave, but it has to be either in this group or that. Continuum thinking would ask them to form a line from one kind of behavior to the other, with those at either end most strongly identifying with that behavior. This allows for people to recognise fuzzy things like tendencies and preferences that lean one way or the other, without being forced into an either/or choice.

While we have to use boxes for convenience, and people are generally more of one box than another, keep this in mind.

Ok, let’s try some out. Remember, we’re looking at attributions for events that involve us, not other people.

Internal vs External

It’s perhaps the easiest to spot this one. Does the blame for this event lie inside of you (internal) or outside of you (external). To use our crack in the path example, what was your attribution for why you tripped? If you say you tripped because the path was dodgy, the blame lies with the path, outside of you. It’s an external attribution. On the other hand, if you say you tripped because you’re clumsy, then the blame lies within you. It’s an internal attribution. Ok?

Another one. You get cut off in traffic. Did you get cut off because the person in the other car is a crazy, risk taking teenager (external), or because you were driving a bit quick, tailing a little close, and hadn’t really left enough room for the next lane to merge?

Now think about things that your kids do. What’s their natural inclination?

Specific vs Global

Is the reason for the event something that’s relevant now, for this event, or at this time, or is it something that pervades all of what you do, all the time, in every situation.

Let’s say you’re playing a board game with friends and you’re getting whipped. A specific attribution would be to say, “I’m not playing very well tonight”, because it’s specific in time. Or you could say, “I’m hopeless at Monopoly”, because you actually are :-), but it’s specific to the game of Monopoly.

A global attribution goes much wider. If you’re getting soundly thrashed by your friends, and your tendency is toward global attributions, you’re more likely to say “I’m useless at games”, because it relates to every game or, “My friends always beat me at everything”.

Stable vs Unstable

Stable attributions are placing the blame with things that will never change because they’re permanent. Unstable attributions are the opposite, they’re things that can and do change.

Try this one. You come home from work having had a bad day and snap at your kids. You then overhear your kids talking. One says “She’s always grouchy; she’s never any fun” while the other says “She must have had a bad day, she’s in the grouchiest mood”. Notice the difference?

They both acknowledge that you’re in a pretty dark mood and this probably isn’t the time to bring out school reports. But the first is a stable attribution. Always grouchy, never fun. This is attributing the bad mood to personality, which won’t change. The other, the bad day explanation, puts the grouchiness down to being a bad mood, and moods change.

Or this. Your child fails a test. They say “I failed because I didn’t try hard enough” (unstable, can try harder next time), or “I’m stupid” which is a far more stable attribute than not trying hard.

So here’s the take home bit

Now go practice. Run drills. Ask your kids why things happened to get used to identifying how they, and you, work through attributions.

Internal vs External – inside you or outside you

Global vs Specific – affects everything or relevant here, now, or for this example

Stable vs Unstable – because of things that can’t change, or because of things that can

Watch it with your friends and family, look for it in social situations, with other parents, at work or at school. We all do it, all the time. You need to get good at identifying the kinds of attributions we make in real situations so that, next time, we can wrap them all together.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Internal Attributions, External Attributions, Global Attributions, Specific Attributions, Stable Attributions, Unstable Attributions

Tell me what you’ve seen?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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6 Responses to How to bulletproof your kids for life II

  1. Russell Kells says:

    Loving this stuff Brendon!

  2. Dinah Roberts says:

    Excellent – this is making so much sense. How ugly is it when people are constantly going external with blame? Yet we all do it – it’s so refreshing to hear someone say ‘I got it wrong’. It’s probably refreshing for your kids to hear it too.

  3. CJ says:

    So, is the point that if we are a person who tends to attribute negative outcomes to internal, global and stable factors that we are more likely to be depressed and pessimistic because we see our problems as centred on our own ” fatal flaws” , the laws of the universe etc which we are powerless to change?
    Whereas if we can look at things in a more balanced way (accepting responsibility where necessary in specific situations but not seeing ourselves as a general loser!), seeing problems as specific, and seeing things as within our power to change-we will be more positive/happy?

    • Hi there
      Thanks for the question. In short – yes.
      I noted that you’ve used words like “tend”, “more likely to” and so forth, because it isn’t a certainty, but it does stack the cards in your favour.

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