Challenging unhelpful thoughts as a new parent
Becoming a parent brings a multitude of new physical, emotional and mental challenges which are difficult for everybody. For some however, these challenges are heightened by engaging in unhelpful thinking styles that may increase negative feelings and behaviors. Here are 5 common “thought traps”* that new parents may fall into and some guidance on how to challenge them:
When you apply a mental filter you only see the negative aspects of a situation and selectively forget the positives. For example, you completed 2 of the10 things on your to-do list today. You focus on the 8 incomplete tasks and feel guilty and irritable.
Ask yourself - What other ways are there of viewing the situation?
First and foremost, remember that you completed the most important task of all which is probably not even on your list and tends to be overlooked– taking care of your baby! You can feel proud and satisfied. As a bonus, you also completed 2 additional tasks! You’ve earned the right to feel like a superhero.
Mind reading involves making assumptions about what another person is thinking. For example, your baby-less friends haven’t invited you to many get-togethers since you’ve given birth. You assume they don’t want the burden of a baby to weigh down their fun. You conclude your social life is over with not much hope of recovering.
Ask yourself – What other explanations could there possibly be?
Perhaps your friends have also made assumptions and believe you are probably too busy to come along, or more likely, you would find it stressful. In actual fact your friends may be trying to be kind in not overburdening you rather than avoiding you. You can let them know that even though you have a baby you are still keen to see them and if you don’t feel up to it, you’ll let them know.
A familiar trap to many, catastrophising involves blowing things out of proportion. For example, if your baby is having trouble napping during the day you automatically tell yourself that this is causing serious harm to his long term development and spend the day worrying excessively about this.
Ask yourself – How realistic are my thoughts? How do I know my thoughts/beliefs are true?
If you are unsure of the answer to these questions, do some research to understand the facts about day time napping. Perhaps seek a professional who can help you understand what might be going on for your baby without spending countless hours fretting about the worst with little factual basis.
Black and White Thinking
When you think in black and white there is an ‘all or nothing’ answer and no shades of gray in between. For example, you are having trouble with your breastmilk supply and are supplementing with formula. You feel overwhelmingly guilty and upset as you feel breastfeeding is the right way to feed your child.
Ask yourself – Are there facts or pieces of this story I’m overlooking?
This way of thinking doesn’t allow for the positive outcomes achieved through finding a middle ground. For example, your baby needed more food and since introducing formula has been a happier, more settled baby who is sleeping better. You no longer spend hours trying to express from your sore and cracked nipples leaving you in pain and with little sleep. Although the solution doesn’t fit within your original idea of “right”, it is helping both you and your child stay sane and healthy which is the outcome you want.
Shoulding and Musting
‘Shoulding’ and ‘musting’ places unreasonable demands or unnecessary pressure on yourself or others. For example, you tell yourself you really “should” meet with your friend today as you arranged it a week ago even though you had a difficult night and really need to rest. You push through and feel resentful of her.
Ask yourself – Is this really necessary? What am I really afraid of? How likely is the outcome I fear if I don’t follow through?
Often shoulds and musts are evident in thinking with a hidden ‘why’. In this situation, if you look deeper you might find you believe your friend will become angry if you don’t meet with her as planned. This could mean your friendship is jeopardised. Unless your friend is very unreasonable (in which case other questions arise), she is more likely to understand that having a new baby is hard, sleep is scare and you will just reschedule to another time that suits you both.
Most importantly, remember to be kind and have compassion for yourself. There may also be times when these types of thoughts are entirely justified and indeed reflect reality. When this is the case, there are other coping strategies to help you depending on the situation. If you are experiencing significant emotional or mental distress due to excessive unhelpful thinking, please seek help from a medical or mental health professional. The Post and Antenatal Depression Association (PANDA) telephone support line is open Monday – Friday from 10am to 5pm on 1300 726 306.
*Beck, A. T. (1976). Cognitive therapies and emotional disorders. New York: New American Library.