My son, Thomas, came home a few weeks ago telling us about the new word he learned at school- metacognition. After getting over the shock of the fact that my 3rd grader was taught a vocabulary word that I didn’t know before graduate school, I was so excited!
For anyone who is reaching for the dictionary (or, more likely opening a new page to Google metacognition), metacognition means ‘thinking about or having an awareness of one’s thoughts’. This is a skill that I talk about daily with clients of all ages, not just children, often in the context of how one’s thoughts and emotions are contributing to one’s behaviors toward significant others (peers, coworkers, children, spouse, other family members). The beauty of being able to think about your own thoughts is that this means that you can have awareness and control over your thoughts too. With children, I talk about this as being the ‘boss’ of your brain. With adults, I talk about learning to argue with ourselves (or at least the part of ourselves that thinks thoughts that are unhelpful), recognizing with one’s thoughts are moving in an unhelpful direction and consciously turn things around. People often don’t initially have an awareness of their abilities to consciously take control of their own thoughts- but once they begin practicing (yes, it takes practice, just like any other skill!) they are often amazed at the impact on their emotional and psychological well being, as well as on their significant relationships.
A few examples hopefully will be helpful. First, I will tell on myself a bit... Yesterday morning I went to my car in the garage to retrieve my checkbook (another school fundraiser...). In the process I stubbed my toe REALLY hard on my bicycle tire. It hurt VERY bad. Immediately, I started to think (please keep in mind this was before I had my coffee)- “this is not a good way to start the day”... “this is going to be a bad day”... “do I have time to go back to bed?”. The speed at which the human brain can go to that place is truly amazing! Then, I caught myself. Working to be the boss of my brain, I told myself to take some deep breaths, shake it off, and go back in the house. “The day will only get better from here” was now what I chose to tell myself. I also remembered a youth pastor long ago telling me to thank God in those moments because you have a toe to hurt in the first place. What is amazing is that in these moments whatever we believe to be ‘true’ - “this means it is going to be a bad day” OR “the day will only get better from here” - is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
For another example, I will tell on my son. He became very upset about a week ago after going to bed, and it took a little while to get him to explain what he was crying about. Finally, he tells me that when he closed his eyes to go to sleep, he had remembered that he left his favorite Pokemon toy outside. He had then convinced himself that the dog had already destroyed it, and when he yelled out to me, I told him I would be there after I finished tucking in his sister (not fast enough for him, given the level of disaster that he had convinced himself had occurred). Great opportunity to capitalize on his new vocabulary word!! So after he calmed down and we recovered poor Oshawott from the backyard (fully intact, thankfully), I talked with Thomas about how this situation connected to his new word. We traced through his thought process from when he first remembered that the toy was outside to what he was thinking when I found him crying. He was then able to see that he had largely created the disaster in his own mind. We then talked about what he could THINK and DO differently next time to avoid the degree of drama...
An important thing to emphasize in this discussion, though, is that being the boss of your brain should not just be a solitary activity. We all need help sometimes, like my son did last week, to get our minds under control sometimes. We as humans are social creatures that depend on others - we also have an amazing ability to influence the way others think and feel by the way we act toward them and the language we use when we talk with them. Often being able to say out loud what we are thinking and feeling to another person who is genuinely interested in hearing and understanding (this is a vital part of the puzzle), helps us to recognize the pieces of our internal messages that are flawed, wrong, or damaging.
If you need learning more about using these skills for yourself, within your relationship, or with your children, you can contact the Institute for Couple and Family Enhancement (in San Antonio area) at 210-496-0100 or www.icfetx.com . Outside of San Antonio, you can find a qualified professional through www.therapistlocator.net .