Telling Your Brain the Truth (or, I Guess They DO Listen!)


My son (he's 5) tends to catastrophize. (I'd say I don't know where he gets it, but that little apple fell right next to our tree!) If he drops his toast, he'll never be able to eat again. If a friend says something unkind on the playground, nobody likes him. If a family member gets angry, nobody loves him now and nobody every will. You get the picture.

The other day we had a morning start off like this. In the car on our way to school, I decided to try a small intervention.

"You know, honey," I said, "when you say things like nobody loves you, you're not telling your brain the truth. And there's a lot of science that says when you do that, you actually change your brain and make it a little bit sadder."

He stopped sniffling and looked up. "What? It makes your brain sadder?"

"Yep. If you tell yourself over and over that everything is awful and horrible, your brain starts to believe it and it gets sad. You don't want a sad brain, do you?"

"No...."

"The way you make sure your brain doesn't change and get sad is to tell yourself the truth. That it's true your friend did say something mean on the playground yesterday. But your friend also said and did three other things that were really kind and made you feel good."

"How about if you tell yourself that everybody loves you? Then you'll make your brain super happy!" my daughter (also 5) chimed in.

"Well," I said, "that's not telling your brain the truth, either. There are people who have never met you, so how could they love you? Your brain might feel sad later when it found out that you weren't telling it the truth."

"Okay," she said. "That makes sense." (She happened to be particularly jovial that morning, bless her.)

"Wait. What do you know about science stuff, anyway?" my son, the skeptic, asked.

"Oh, I read stuff. You have to tell your brain the truth--that you know you're sad right now, but that later you'll be happy again."

He started protesting, as is his wont, that I didn't know anything about his brain or what makes brains sad and that he wanted to stop talking about it RIGHT NOW. So we stopped.

Fast forward about 7 hours. I'd been running from one thing to the next, trying to coordinate parent-teacher conferences for both children with childcare while packing for a weekend school camping trip and simultaneously getting the house ready for house sitters. I was sweating, stressed, and absolutely out of patience. I can't recall exactly what tipped me over the edge, but in a flash of anger in the car I yelled. I mean really, really yelled. Like a crazed banshee. Silence reigned in the car till we got to our next stop. I parked the car, took a deep breath, and then apologized.

"I'm sorry I yelled like that. It's never okay to yell at someone like that. I'm feeling really stressed out today, and I took it out on you, and I'm sorry."

"Why are you so stressed, Mommy?" both my children asked.

"Because I have so much to do and I feel like I don't have enough time and I'm going to let everybody down," I said, my voice quavering as my eyes filled with tears.

"Mommy," my son said firmly, "you have to tell your brain the truth. You are not going to let everybody down. You're doing the best you can."

"Yes," my daughter chimed in. "You have to tell your brain the truth. Everything will be okay."

My tears somehow changed while still forming from tears of stress and frustration to tears of joy and connection. Somehow my precious babies had not only heard and taken in what I'd said that morning, but used the lesson to help me when I really needed it.

These are the moments, as a parent, when I feel the most connected. The most real. When I see mirrored in my children the ability to love and forgive no matter the flaws and foibles. When I look at them and see their beauty and compassion, and I can tell my brain the truth: there are times when you know a moment may not last forever, but the feeling from it will.

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