What Eeyore says
“It’s snowing still,” said Eeyore gloomily.
“So it is.”
“Yes,” said Eeyore. “However,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”
He’s great isn’t he? He’s also a complete misery and a master of finding the dark cloud around any silver lining.
Here’s where we’ve got to so far
What we’ve been aiming to do is teach our children skills to help them bounce back, and to avoid the misery and hopelessness that comes with an inability to work through adversity when life throws us a curve ball.
To begin with, we looked at how we ascribe cause to situations in life, also called attributions, and some of the thinking processes we use. From there, we hopped to looking at the skills we needed to develop.
First base was “I wonder” which is a game we used to help us develop alternative hypotheses.
Second base was voting, which gave us a ranking of alternatives and a weighting of each relative to the other alternatives.
Third base was “Truth Sleuth” which allowed us to step outside ourselves and assume the role of a famous crime fighter so that we could analyze our hypotheses and our voting, looking for objective truth.
We also looked at the negative influence of “Everyone’s a winner. Yay us!” thinking.
There’s just a little bit left. Well, actually, a touch more than a little bit so let’s call this a two cup read.
Feeling for the edges
Part of the deal is knowing just how big a problem really is. Many parents I know think they are pretty good at this for their kids. “It’s just a scratch” is a familiar example of a parent’s interpretation of the situation in which the child thinks their small cut means they’ll bleed to death.
How realistic are we?
Adults aren’t so good at this for themselves however, and it’s hard for kids to come to grips with it too. So, what to do?
What we need to to is figure out how far the problem goes by feeling for the edges of it. This helps us get things in perspective which makes deciding what we do next so much easier.
Making next steps is important because when we have something to do, we are much more likely to feel in control of a situation, even if not much has changed. The feeling of control is important in itself.
Additionally, a good marker for depressive thinking is hopelessness, which is obviously tied to negative thoughts of the future. Making plans is clearly future-focused, and works to combat depressive thinking.
Let’s work with an example
Imagine that your child comes home from school and says this:
“Jessica told me that I’m fat and doesn’t want to be my friend anymore.”
Parents, rational as we always are, take positions like…
- “You are fat. Harden up.”
- “Where does she live. I’ll pay her and her family a little visit with my friends Smith and Wesson.”
- “Oh well dear, I guess that’s just girls for you.”
Or in other words…
- Toughen up, accept life and get on with it. No-one ever said life was fair. Maybe you are the problem. And you’re a wimp too.
- Jessica is at fault. She’s clearly bad for your daughter and needs attitude readjustment. I’ll handle it.
- There’s no hope, this is how all girls are and there’s no changing it and therefore no controlling it. It’s life when you’ve got two X chromosomes. Blame your parents for having a girl.
Better to ask questions, prompting for hypotheses and objectivity. To find the edges of the issue, start with “What’s the worst that could happen?”
What’s the worst that could happen?
There are a couple of ways to handle this. The first is with ridiculousness, which works well with kids who respond to humor. Even kids who tend to negativity, stable and internal attributions, can recognize ridiculousness when they see it, and stretching a scenario till it breaks is a good way of finding out how big it is.
Ok, so Jessica doesn’t want to be friends. What’s the worst that could happen? Start near the middle of the problem, and gradually work your way out until it breaks, increasing the level of unlikelihood as you go. Increasing the ridiculousness is important, because if you’re just increasingly negative you really will end up miserable. You don’t want to make them increasingly miserable with nowhere to go.
What you’re doing of course is generating alternatives, just not for attributions but for what happens next. All you’re doing is putting them in a kind of order.
It might look something like this:
- She’ll take a whole week to come around
- You might not be friends with her ever again
- You’re right, nobody ever will be friends with you ever again
- Animals don’t like you either
- It’s true, reptiles find you quite revolting
- I’m certain that aliens who haven’t met you yet would immediately not want to be friends and would probably vaporize earth just to avoid the possibility that they could be intergalactic friends with you.
Now I’m going to go out on a limb and pitch that, long before number 6, kids will groan at you, roll their eyes, tell you to be serious and get a life, and openly wish for different parents.
What you have done though is shown them that there is a limit to the worst thing that could happen, and you can introduce a more serious conversation next about what the real outcomes are.
For kids who are a little more serious and who might not appreciate brevity, the same system applies, but merely as generating alternatives. What really is the worst that could happen?
- She won’t be friends ever again
- Everyone will think you’re fat and no-one will want to be friends
- You’ll have to shift schools to make friends
- Teachers will mark you low because you’re fat
- They’ll put up posters of you around school saying you’re the fat kid with no friends
Really? So now you apply the detective skills you’ve already learned and analyze each for evidence. Is this or that likely? How do you know? What’s your evidence? Alternatives tend to take the sting out of negativity. Not to say the situation isn’t negative, just that there are other ways of thinking about it.
Now of course it’s true that Jessica may never want to be friends again. It’s a realistic alternative and a serious one to consider. Of itself, that doesn’t need to color every other aspect of your life, which is where your involvement as a parent in these conversations is useful.
What’s the best that could happen?
Kids who tend to be more Eeyore-ish than average, a bit lower in mood, tend to be a little more realistic also, and are quite good at picking what they can and can’t do.
For kids who tend to the optimistic and think that a small success on the playing field will immediately be followed by a call from the professional scouts, or that Jessica not wanting to be friends is because she’s jealous of your football skills and this is proof that you’re great footballer and this will immediately be followed by a call from a professional scout – a little reality is helpful.
So you can take this from the other end and blow the best that could happen out of proportion too. Kids recognize that this, too, shows the limits of the best that can happen, so they get a pretty good grip on the best and worst that could happen from their situation.
What else is there?
The last part is a bit of a catch-all to recognize that there are also neutral things that may happen next. They are neither good nor bad, they are just there.
It’s good to cover these off too because, being neutral, they’re unemotional and this helps us lessen the emotion from other consequences and assess them all rationally.
- She might quit the team. Ok. Neither here nor there.
- She might want to avoid me and so take less hours working at the grocer I go to
- Other kids might now sit in the lunch seats we used to
Now we don’t know about these, but there will be outcomes that just don’t matter and about which we have no real feelings.
So here’s the take home bit
Now that we’ve worked through all our attributions and analysis, we need to get a feel for the size of the problem. Good to do this when the emotion has subsided a little, which is why I like to use humor, or to engage in some of the other steps first.
At every step though, we’re training our kids to do this for themselves. Again, get them to generate a range of best and worst outcomes, as well as the neutrals, because some things don’t matter. You can then work with them on what to do next.
You’ll see that all we’ve really done is look at the cause and effect of an issue our kids face, by coming to understand how we think about these kinds of things from a resilience point of view.
Our attributions and the cause, and we’ve just done the effects with the best and worst outcomes. What’s important next is to make sure that we do something, even if minor, so that we don’t feel hopeless about the future.
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
Attributions, Hypothesis Evaluation, Hopelessness, Cause and Effect
Tell me what you’ve seen?
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