I have been thinking about family legacies of trauma (I’m working on a longer blog post about that) and one of the things I’ve been thinking about is that when a family knows that the worst things can happen, hope can become a dangerous thing. Not every family that experiences trauma is like this, obviously, but it’s common because people want to be safe. If you’re too hopeful, you might take risks and you might fail.
I think about this when I hear parents dialing down their kids’ big plans.
“Don’t expect to hit a home run right away, kiddo.”
“Don’t be disappointed if you don’t get the lead.”
“Not everyone is going to get an award for this, you know.”
We don’t want our kids to be disappointed when they fail so we prepare them for failure.
“Don’t get your hopes up,” we say. But isn’t that what hope is for?
It’s true that we need our kids to be realistic but reality will do that for them. Telling them not to be excited doesn’t protect them from failure; it just adds an ugly sheen to the excited times before.
I get it, I do. There is nothing more heartbreaking than watching your child’s dreams get dashed. Ugh. Like a dagger to your own heart, I know. Our urge to mitigate that possible disappointment comes from a loving place but it’s spoils the fun and dampens the spirit.
Imagine if we did this with other things like, “Sooner or later you’re going to take a swig of milk and realize it’s gone bad so I think you should just prepare yourself for sour milk every time you drink it. I think you should mistrust the anticipation you have that the milk will be good.”
(Substitute some other example if you are dairy-free. Like apples with bruises or when your salad has the lettuce core in it. Or when your pancakes have those bitter lumps of baking soda.)
Nobody wants to live their life expecting disappointment.
So why not be hopeful? Why not get excited? And then if things don’t work out, we can hug the heck out of each other. It’ll be OK.
If you don’t do this with your kids, you might do this with yourself. You might find yourself gearing up by tearing yourself down. Whose voice is in your ear telling you to be careful? Not to aim too high? Who’s telling you to dial down your dreaming?
And here is Mel Brooks singing Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst, because Mel Brooks can make everything funny including the Judaic legacy of trauma (oh boy does this ring familiar and not just because my dad does a killer Yiddish accent):
I read this article, The Power of Negative Thinking, over at 99.u with great interest because I have a knee-jerk reaction against unbridled optimism and break out at hives if I’m seated at a dinner party next to someone who is relentlessly positive.
It’s not that I’m a pessimist; I’m an optimist who worries.
Article author Christian Jarrett notes, “By thinking realistically about the obstacles to success, it helps us pick challenges that we’re likely to win and avoid wasting time.”
It also helps us stay on track, ensuring we’re not derailed by inevitable setbacks since we’re prepared to overcome them.
The problem is when our pessimism is so strong that we don’t even make the effort. Remember what I said before about just showing up? Well, the pessimist doesn’t show up. The optimist who worries shows up but has a Plan B.
The pessimist is so sure of failure that she doesn’t try. The optimist who worries tries but plans for failure just in case.
I know that The Secret says otherwise but negative thinking isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In small doses it can make you more effective, more efficient and better prepared for success.
Just remember that a little worry goes a long way.
There’s going to be a lot of people quoting Mr. Rogers over the next couple days and with good reason. As always, Fred Rogers offers sound advice:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.
When scary things happen we look for reassurance that we are safe and that the world is not a terrible place. Our children need to know that and we need to know that, too. Here’s how we can take care of ourselves when big bad things happen in the world:
- Limit news consumption: This goes for everyone. The youngest children don’t need access to scary reports at all but the rest of us need to be mindful as well. If you find yourself glued to NPR or CNN.com, take a breather. Let yourself check in periodically (maybe in the morning and in the evening) but don’t let yourself become consumed with monitoring. The news will be there waiting for you; you don’t need to follow every little detail as it gets reported. You may feel guilty about skipping but you can’t help by worrying.
- When kids ask questions, ask them what they know first: Even if you’re closely monitoring media input, your children talk to other people. Ask them what they know and then help fill in the (age-appropriate) details. Emphasize the positives — the way the community has rallied, the people who were already there with medical tents for the runners who immediately stepped in — the world is more good than bad. Help your children (and yourself) see that.
- Reach out to your tween and teen: Your older children may not be asking questions. Check in with them to find out what they’ve heard and what they think. Be prepared to answer their questions honestly but with optimism. You can also help them feel proactive by finding ways to help. Does your local Red Cross need volunteers right now? Can your family afford to make a donation? Do your kids want to hold a garage sale or sell some old video games to raise a little money to donate? Help them find a way to be one of those helpers that Mr. Rogers is talking about.
- Make time for friends and family and other things that feed your spirit: It’s important that we take care of ourselves when we’re worried about things beyond our control. Coffee with a good friend, a long walk in the morning or indulging in some seriously silly TV with your kids are reminders about what’s fun and good right now.