Motherhood is a time of a woman’s life that is often labelled as blissful and exciting, yet it can be one of the most challenging transitions a woman experiences in her life. It’s a time of profound change for a woman, from her body, her hormones, and her identity and usually involves uncertain emotional overwhelm. There have been studies that found maternal anxiety to be significantly associated with certain types of cognitive biases, and importantly, these maternal cognitive biases which extend to influence how mothers process potential threats in their child's world, could raise the risk for their child experiencing anxiety. On the contrary, research shows that mothers who had higher emotional and cognitive control were less likely to report poor child behavioural problems.
So, what exactly are cognitive biases? In the early 70s, Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman introduced this concept to describe a systematic error in thinking that affect a person’s choices and judgements. As mothers, we do worry about things from time to time – sometimes more than usual. Here are some of the cognitive biases commonly experienced by mothers, with some tips on how to get back on track.
Personalisation refers to assuming responsibility when something bad happens. For example, your child’s teacher called because your child forgot to bring his assignment to school today. You felt so frustrated because you had specifically reminded him to put his work into his bag, several times. “Am I not supporting him well enough?”, “Perhaps I should have put it in for him, or at least watch him put it in”, “He failed because I didn’t do enough”. You blame yourself for not being a good enough mother. Your frustration doesn’t end here, every time he forgets something, you either blame yourself for not helping him enough, or have an intense conversation fuelled with rage with him, and neither was the ideal outcome. While acknowledging that you might have a role to play, it’s important to understand and acknowledge that his mistake or achievement does not equal yours.
Mind reading occurs when people assume they know what others are thinking, often assuming that people are thinking negatively about them. As mothers, we are often self-critical about how well we look after our children. When my baby cried and other people looked at me, they must be criticizing me negatively and I must have done something wrong. For example “They must be thinking I’m not a qualified mother”, and “They must find us disturbing and want us out” pop up. This kind of cognitive bias might create a strong sense of failure and cause us to doubt our capability in mothering. To help detect this common cognitive distortion, try to use a more objective approach by collecting evidence for and against your mind reading, not just weighing which side has more evidence but considering the quality of the evidence.
Catastrophic thinking means catastrophizing the seriousness of things, predicting the worst outcome for everything, and believing that things will be too dire to bear. For instance, “If my child doesn’t sleep through the night by 12 months old, he will always have trouble sleeping” or “If I don’t get him into this school, he will not grow up successful”. This kind of cognitive bias often causes immense stress and anxiety. It depends on us never being in the moment for the unknowable, uncontrollable future. Practicing mindfulness is a great way to help us pay attention to our present experiences instead of letting our minds caught up in stressful thoughts about the future.
Emotional reasoning is another cognitive bias involving a person taking their emotions as truths, assuming that feelings reflect facts. For example, you feel lonely with your new life as a mom and you’re compelled to deduce that no one cares about you but the baby, regardless of your spouse's continuous devotion and support. In cognitive behavioral therapy, we propose many techniques to combat emotional reasoning. Essentially, we encourage you to judge reality based on rational evidence. For instance, you can ask yourself “Has my husband done anything that shows his care about me?” even when you can’t list out anything, would you possibly have discounted or dismissed the more positive explanations such as he has always been spending time with the baby as soon as he gets home — was he trying to look after the baby as a father so that you can have some time to rest?
Author: Janice is a Psychotherapist, Counsellor, and Certified Motherhood Educator, with Maternal Mental Health being her keen focus. As Hong Kong’s first Certified Motherhood Educator, She is deeply committed to guiding women through early motherhood and provides mental health support to expectant women, mothers, and couples adjusting to parenthood. She adopts a variety of evidence-based approaches according to the needs of every unique individual, including CBT, Mindfulness, Play Therapy & Art Therapy.
This article was independently written by a third person or organisation. The opinions expressed in this article are of those of the authors. It is informative only and not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be relied upon for specific medical advice.
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