Chandra White-Cummings discusses identifying toxic thoughts and emotions that may skew your son’s perceptions.
Picture this: you’re running late to catch a flight for an overnight business trip and you argue with your son about whether he is mature enough to be left alone while you’re gone. By the time you arrive at the terminal, you feel the early throb of a(nother) tension headache. “Darn that kid”, you think to yourself. “Why can’t he take instruction without a bunch of backtalk? He never listens. If I find out he’s had people in my house while I’m gone…” You get to your gate and decide to watch the CNN news loop on the overhead monitors while you wait for your flight. The anchor is interviewing a woman talking about the high rate of incarceration for men and boys. You say to yourself “see, that’s why I keep telling him to stop talking back all the time. God forbid he gets caught up in something and talks to a cop that way. I need to really crack down on that boy. Better he get his feelings hurt than end up on lock down or dead.” During the flight, you start to feel resentful about the fact that you’re raising your son alone. By the time you arrive at the hotel, you notice your stomach feels bubbly and crampy. Must be those peanuts you had on the plane. You decide to stop by the hotel convenience store to pick up some antacid.
Can you relate? Exhausted and tense single mothers are doing the best they can to provide financially, raise children, and make some semblance of a life for themselves. But times are tough. The American Psychological Association’s 2013 Stress in America™ report indicates that stress among adults and teenagers is higher than ever, and both groups believe they are dealing with more stress than is healthy. Where is all this stress coming from? And how can single mothers who already have a full plate realistically take control of their mental and emotional health in the face of daunting single parent realities?
Dr. Caroline Leaf, a communication pathologist who specializes in cognitive neuroscience, particularly the science of thought, has conducted groundbreaking research which suggests that controlling our negative thoughts is paramount to experiencing holistic mental and emotional health. I have applied her concepts to the single mom parenting context.
Dr. Leaf calls these negative thoughts and emotions “toxic thoughts” and “toxic emotions”, and explains their connection to stress this way: “[Toxic thoughts] are thoughts that trigger negative and anxious emotions, which produce biochemicals that cause the body stress. They are stored in the mind, as well as in the cells of the body.” Dr. Leaf further explains the physical effects of toxic thoughts and resulting stress: “These negative thoughts are fear-driven. In fact, research shows that fear triggers more than 1,400 known physical and chemical responses. This activates more than 30 different hormones and neurotransmitters combined, throwing the body into a frantic state.” In a single mother’s world, there could be plenty to think negatively about. The truth is, our responses to situations, rather than the mere presence of the situations themselves, distinguishes moms who have healthier mindsets and emotions from those who don’t.
As a first step, take emotional inventory using the following prompts to assess the effect of toxic thoughts and emotions on your parenting.
Common toxic thoughts rooted in fear:
- My son will become a statistic
- My son IS a statistic, and there’s nothing to be done to help him
- People judge me and assume because I’m single I’m a bad mother
- I’m failing him simply because who I am is not enough
- My son will have an encounter with law enforcement and/or end up in jail
- My son will get a girl pregnant too soon
- Someone with irrational fears will shoot my son down in cold blood; and there will be no justice
Common toxic emotions produced by fear-based toxic thoughts:
- Anger and hostility toward people who are perceived to be judgmental
- Bitterness toward the absent/uninvolved father
- Self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy
- Depression about chronic problems and challenges, feelings of abandonment
- Guilt for real and/or perceived deprivations
- Chronic defensiveness
- Chronic, sometimes irrational anxiety
Common toxic behaviors produced by fear-based toxic emotions:
- Outbursts of intense, but sometimes unfocused anger
- Vindictive tit-for-tat battles and obstructive behaviors with the absent/uninvolved father
- Overcompensation by overindulgence of sons with privileges and unearned rewards
- Substance overindulgence and abuse
- Social withdrawal
- Adoption of “superwoman” syndrome
- Overprotection, failure to establish developmentally-appropriate boundaries and responsibility-building opportunities for sons
For too long, some have excused these types of thoughts as par for the course. We might even think many of them are justified, and maybe some are. But we also must face the fact that this toxicity and the resulting off-the-charts stress is destabilizing our minds, poisoning our emotions, and literally killing us softly by compromising our immune systems and hearts.
Photo: Roy Luck/Flickr