“I try to have a positive attitude about it and give him a fresh start,” a parent recently shared with me. “But it seems like every day there is a blow up when it’s time to stop gaming. It’s miserable.”
“Ugh. That sounds so hard,” I responded picturing similar scenes playing out in my own home when my kids were younger.
“It is. I dream about a day when things go smoothly.”
She went on to ask if I had any thoughts or ideas. “Hmmm…,” I responded. “I’m curious, I wonder what it would look like to give a more accurate forecast of the feelings that come up at screen time transitions?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I’m all for positive thinking and fresh starts,” I shared. “But it can also be really helpful to normalize and forecast the feelings that consistently come up so we can make a plan to handle them.”
The science of positive thinking
When we hit a rocky spot, it is certainly tempting as parents to hope that tomorrow will be a better day. Thankfully, we are often right! Sometimes all it takes is a good night’s sleep to increase our kids’ capacity to handle what comes their way. Other times, though, they fall into emotional patterns that are more predictable. When this happens, it turns out that conventional wisdom – that fantasizing about success will bring it into being – is not born out by the research.
It isn’t that visualizing “success” (whatever that means to you) is bad. Among other benefits, dreaming of better futures helps us explore different possibilities, generate creative ideas, and get through challenging times.
Dreams alone, however, aren’t enough to help us create lasting change. The latest evidence demonstrates that wishful optimism in the face of predictable obstacles tends to backfire. There are at least a couple of reasons for this:
- Wishful optimism feels really good in the short term. So great that we can actually become more apathetic to the effort involved in problem solving or skill building. This makes it less likely that we respond in new ways to obstacles when they inevitably arise.
- When we don’t ground our expectations in reality, we experience greater distress and dissatisfaction when we fall short. This can lead to an overwhelming “What’s wrong with me?” feeling rather than a motivating, “How might I handle this differently?” feeling.
Let’s consider these dynamics in the screen time scenario above. Every day we do our best to give our kids a “fresh start” and imagine a world where we have a smooth and peaceful transition at the end of a gaming session. This sounds amazing.
The challenge? There is a huge gap between this expectation and the reality of these daily transitions, leading to a consistent sense of failure (and, dare I say, eventually despair). Plus, as we cross our fingers hoping that today will be different, we lose opportunities to practice the skills we need to create that change.
Why creating a more accurate emotional forecast can help kids handle turbulence
Researcher and author Dr. Gabrielle Oettingen has been studying positive thinking for over two decades. One of her major takeaways? Planning for obstacles is just as important as indulging our dreams. She’s all for dreaming, but insists that how we dream matters.
Dr. Oettingen suggests that we combine positive thinking with a realistic forecast of what might get in the way. She offers two cognitive tools that can help. One is called “mental contrasting” and the other is “implementation intentions.”
Mental contrasting simply means alternating between visualizing success and focusing on predictable challenges. Implementation intentions are practical “if-then” plans for when we encounter those inner obstacles.
While this complicates positive thinking a bit, we still shouldn’t skip over imagining more positive futures entirely. Indeed, constructing a vivid mental picture of what success looks and feels like helps root our work in a larger sense of purpose and direction. For example, “Let’s both imagine what we will both feel like when we don’t yell at the end of screen time.”
But Dr. Oettingen encourages us not to stop there. Mental contrasting means that we brush those dreams up against the most likely inner obstacles. For example, “We’ve learned that anger often shows up at the end of gaming. That makes sense! It’s hard to stop playing this game. When you scream and yell it doesn’t feel good to you or to me though.”
When it comes to forecasting, note that anger isn’t the problem. We all get angry. What we want to plan for is what to do with that feeling.
For example, “What will you do to stay safe and respectful if anger shows up today?”
We can brainstorm “if-then” plans like, “If anger shows up then I will take four deep breaths,” or “If anger shows up then I will squeeze my fidget ball.”
We can also practice these skills in a more “cool” context, before they get emotionally heated. For example, “Let’s practice those breaths together now.”
This doesn’t mean dwelling on obstacles or skipping celebrations
Creating an accurate emotional forecast doesn’t mean dwelling on our failures or catastrophizing outcomes. We can just as easily skew the forecast by projecting negative behaviors as if they are personal and inevitable. For example, starting a gaming session with, “We don’t want to have another disaster like yesterday, do we?” or, “You are always a mess at the end of screen time so we need to make a plan,” doesn’t set anyone up for success. (Sidenote: this also makes it more likely that these negative behaviors will happen).
We also don’t want to wait to celebrate progress until some unrealistic dream of perfection is realized. For example, if we wait until our kids hand us the video game controller with a huge smile, a hug, and an articulate thank you, we may never get to revel in our own growth. Instead, we want to mirror back effort and note progress. “I noticed that anger showed up today. That makes sense because it’s hard to stop playing games. I noticed that you screamed at me once, which didn’t feel good. Then I noticed that you stopped and took two deep breaths. How did that feel? Nice!”
Even adults with fully developed brains have a difficult time consistently regulating our emotions in healthy ways. For kids and teens, the skills that help them handle feelings like anger, worry, frustration, or embarrassment are still under construction. Practicing these skills takes time. This means that progress towards our goals can feel like two steps forward and one step backward (or five steps sideways depending upon the day). Forecasting feelings and planning for skill building normalizes this. It acknowledges that emotional management is a work in progress.
Let the forecast change as we grow grow grow
Forecasting isn’t just for anger and video games. It can help us focus on skill building for handling all kinds of inner challenges. For example, if worry consistently shows up at bedtime, we don’t need to treat it as an unexpected intruder every night that needs to be banished. Instead we can offer a forecast combined with confidence that they can handle it. For example, “We know that the worry part of your brain has been taking charge at bedtime lately because that’s when the rest of your brain is tired. What would it feel like to rest in bed without worry taking over? What will you say to the worry part of your brain if it shows up tonight?” We can think of similar conversations that might help teens handle social anxiety, kids manage separation, or parents regulate their anger.
Our emotional lives are unique, variable, and – though we hate to admit it – sometimes very predictable. Forecasting emotional storms isn’t about delivering rigid predictions. It’s about building our confidence and capacity to handle turbulence when we have good reason to believe we will encounter it. It offers a fresh start down a more realistic path towards our goals. And to be accurate and meaningful, a forecast invites us to pay attention to each other – to our growing skills, our patterns and to changing conditions.
So let’s be optimistic about what we are capable of. But let’s brush our dreams of the future up against the inner obstacles we will inevitably encounter on the way. And let’s be willing to change the forecast as we grow.