Emotional Health

On the Bright Side: How to Make Problems Manageable

Often we feel overwhelmed by what seems to be a cascade of problems and begin to feel like we cannot cope. We don’t know how to begin to solve the many obstacles in our path and begin to feel helpless as a result. Sometimes it can help to examine how you are “framing” the issue. For example, one of the most useful concepts from cognitive psychology is the need to fight our tendency to “catastrophize” events. What this means is that when a problem arises, we imagine it in terms of its worst possible outcome. This has the effect of increasing anxiety—and that always interferes with good problem solving.

For example, lets say one of your teenagers is smoking marijuana. An example of catastrophizing would be the following:

“Weed can be a gateway drug! And it causes brain damage in teenage kids. . . .He could become a heroin addict or at the very least will never get into a good college.”

While all of these are potential outcomes, it is important not to approach the problem as if these are the only outcomes. For one thing, you will alienate your teenager, who undoubtedly does not see the issue in those terms. More important, you will be overwhelmed with anxiety that can cloud your thinking and may even hinder you from dealing constructively with the issue. Most kids who use marijuana do not become drug addicts. It is much more useful to approach him from this supposition than the one that makes you feel like the sky is falling. If you are paralyzed by fear, your parenting skills will be hampered.

You are likely to be more effective if you approach the problem as a manageable one. Identify your ultimate goal, being as specific as possible, and then look at what steps might get you there. For example, if you frame your goal as “I don’t want my son to die of drug abuse,” it may be less manageable than to say, “I want him to learn what risks there are to recreational drug use and learn to act responsibly.” Your approach might then be a combination of “education,” providing factual input and questioning what is leading him to marijuana: i.e. are there friends in his life who are keeping him from making good decisions? Is he under unusual stress that could be relieved in another way? Is he trying to fit in with a certain crowd?

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