Regardless of your experience with children, bringing home a new baby can be full of worries and concerns. Many people worry about their ability to care for a newborn, but sometimes those thoughts can be very powerful and lead to distress. These types of thoughts are often referred to as “critical thoughts”.
Examples of critical thoughts include:
- Shoulds: “While the baby is sleeping I should…”, “I shouldn’t be doing XYZ”,
- Self-Critical: “I’m incapable”, “I’m a bad person/parent”
- Good Parent Fallacy: “A good parent would do XYZ…”
- What ifs: “What if I am not doing enough?” “What if I’m not a good parent?”
- Do-Overs: Replaying events several times in your head to get it “right”
Over time, critical thoughts can become automatic. This means that they pop into our minds unintentionally, especially in moments of uncertainty and vulnerability. Negative automatic thoughts in the first year of parenting may be frequent and intense; these thoughts become problematic when they start interfering with daily functioning or pleasure.
Sometimes we interpret critical thoughts as truth or fact. Because these thoughts are negative , they can make us feel low, sad, worried, or anxious. So how can we determine when something is an automatic critical thought or a fact?
Exercises to Reduce Critical Thoughts
1. Who Said That?
When a thought pops into your mind, ask yourself: “who said that?”
For example, if you are thinking “I should be folding laundry while the baby is sleeping”, ask yourself “who says that’s what I should be doing? Me? Parents on social media? My own parents?”
How it works: Once you figure out who said it, you can evaluate if that critical thought is fact or opinion.
Tip: Questioning critical thoughts requires slowing down your own thoughts, especially if they are racing. Try mindful breathing to slow down your mind and body.
2. Is that True?
When a thought comes into your mind, ask yourself “is that true?” and then try to answer the question by looking for evidence against the thought.
For example, if the thought “I am incapable of parenting” comes up, you can ask “is that true?” and then look for evidence to counter the thought, and see where you have been capable and successful with parenting (for example, feeding or soothing the baby).
How it works: Critical thoughts are triggered by moments of uncertainty and vulnerability. This means there may be evidence for the critical thought just in that moment. By asking “is that true?”, you are encouraged to think about the bigger picture. The thought becomes a moment of insecurity, rather than an absolute fact.
Tip: Questioning thoughts requires having the time and space to challenge negative thinking. If you’re busy with your baby, you might say “I wonder if that’s true…I’ll think about that later.”
When a self-critical thought comes up, you can counter it with a compassionate response.
For example, if you think “I am not a good parent” you can respond with “I am doing the best that I can.”
How does it work: Fake it until you make it! Even if countering your thought with a positive thought doesn’t feel true in the moment, practicing self-compassion can help cultivate it over time.
Tip: If you’re struggling to develop self- compassion, imagine that voice in your head is speaking to your child. How would you respond to criticism of your child?
Parenting is a long and winding road with many challenges and moments of uncertainty. The sooner you can learn how to respond to your own negative thoughts and feelings that may arise along the journey, the less burdened you will feel along the way.