“My day was horrible,” my youngest sobbed into his pillow recently at bedtime.
My mind immediately raced to two divergent responses at nearly the same time. My first reaction was, “Oh no! That bad?” I had no trouble coming up with all kinds of things that might have made his day horrible, from trouble with friends to challenges with schoolwork.
My second thought was, “No way! Your day couldn’t have been that bad… you went to school smiling and came home smiling! I saw you having fun with your brother right before dinner!” I apparently also had no trouble coming up with contradictory evidence.
From hard learned experience, I knew that offering either of these reactions out loud would likely backfire. Instead, I just rubbed his back and waited. Unfortunately, this led him to quickly add “awful back rub” to his list of things that were horrible about his day. His wailing escalated.
Tired bodies, tired brains.
I couldn’t blame him for wailing. The beginning of the school year during COVID is equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. The reality is that it is easy for small things to become big things when we are overwhelmed and tired.
For my son, this wasn’t the first school night that had ended in tears. While not easy, this back-to-school pattern had given me time to step back and reflect a little bit. Luckily, it appeared that he wasn’t experiencing any major challenges at school. Instead, like lots of kids, his days seemed to be a solid mix of great, awesome, so-so, and tough.
So why all the tears? The challenge was that by nighttime all those parts got jumbled up into “horrible.” A bit of context about the brain helps explain this:
- It wasn’t a coincidence that the “horribles” kept emerging in the evening.
- Evening isn’t just a time when our kids’ bodies are tired; their brains are tired too. The brain’s “executive center” is especially depleted after a long day back at school learning new friendships, new routines, and new skills.
- Our brain’s executive functions helps us with perspective and problem solving. It is the part of the brain that might help us put overwhelming or challenging feelings into perspective.
- Overgeneralizing language, like “always,” “never,” “all,” or “none” can be a good indicator that the brain is either under stress or out of gas.
How can we respond? Try breaking it into parts.
The reality is that both of my knee jerk responses (“Oh no! Everything is bad!” or “No way! Everything seems great!”) originated from the idea that my son’s full day had to be either good or bad. Riffing off the generalizations of a tired cortex is not always the most helpful strategy.
Instead, when overgeneralizing language takes over, it can be helpful to disrupt the thinking pattern by breaking experiences back into parts instead. Breaking things into parts allows us to acknowledge and name the hard stuff. It also allows us to locate and appreciate the good as well as everything in between.
What might this sound like?
Breaking things into parts is not about sidelining concerns. Instead, we can start by acknowledging how hard this part clearly is. Here’s how my son and I recovered from the bad back rub and found our way back to manageable feelings:
“It sounds like right now is a really hard part of your day.”
“YES,” he sobbed.
“Ooph buddy. It makes so much sense that you feel this way at the end of a long day.”
“YES,” he sobbed again, though a little less forcefully this time.
I waited until he quieted and then prompted him with another question, “Were there any other horrible parts of your day?”
“Kind of,” he replied. “I fell playing soccer at recess.” He then showed me a tiny scrape on his knee.
“Ooph again! That part sounds like a painful part! I am so sorry that happened to you.” We went on to debrief the abhorrent lack of band-aids for non-bloody and barely visible injuries on elementary school playgrounds.
“Any other painful parts?” I asked after giving the knee incident the time it deserved.
“I don’t know.”
“Got it. I wonder… were there any good parts today or were there just more bad parts you can’t remember right now?”
“Oh! There was a good part at lunch!” he went on, brightening a little.
It turns out that while the school doesn’t supply endless bandaids, it does supply excellent pizza. We continued to review more “parts” of the day and even added in some hilarious parts, boring parts, and silly parts.
We can all benefit from breaking overwhelm into parts right now.
Breaking things into parts isn’t about forcing our kids to just “look on the bright side” when things are tough. The goal is to help our kids avoid an overwhelming thinking pattern called overgeneralization. Overgeneralization is when we take an experience and we decide that things are always or never a certain way based on that experience. Breaking things into parts can disrupt this thinking pattern. In other words, it isn’t about avoiding the horrible parts. It is about practicing ways to not get fixated on them.
Of course, there is a scenario in which our kids break down every single part of their day as horrible. We shouldn’t expect this strategy to create lemonade where there are only lemons. Sometimes, most of the day really is hard. This is important information and we don’t need to force positives. Other times, kids are just too overwhelmed or tired to access this kind of thinking, especially at bedtime. If so, try revisiting an overgeneralized thought pattern at a time when your child has more brain power.
Finally, while breaking things into parts was helpful for my elementary-age son, this strategy isn’t just for little kids. Many teens are especially vulnerable to this cognitive trap as their cortex goes under construction during adolescence. They may need coaching to move from “all bad” to more manageable parts and pieces.
This goes for parenting too.
Parenting also leaves plenty of fertile ground for overgeneralizing. You aren’t alone if you have desperately wondered, “What if it is always like this???” Or thought to yourself on occasion, “Everything seems horrible.”
If you find yourself falling into that trap, do yourself a favor. Remember, that our bodies and brains are tired. The part of our brains that helps us get perspective and problem solve might be depleted. It might help to take a beat and acknowledge, “This part is so hard right now.”
And then, when you are ready, look for the other parts and pieces. They might make things more manageable when you need it most.