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How Cognitive Behavior Therapy Can Help Make You A Better Dad

If you learned that there was a power tool that would make you the best father you could be, you might finally have something to ask for this holiday. While just a shade less fun than a cordless nail gun or a rotary hammer, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is still a pretty effective instrument.

CBT is a short-term, goal-oriented, drug-free type of talk therapy primarily used to treat depression and anxiety — although it can also be used for PTSD or even substance abuse. “It is a tool to help people with their mood or anxiety level,” says Norman Cotterell, clinical coordinator at The Beck Institute, one of the world’s most prestigious CBT facilities. “Guys often have a DIY attitude. Give me the tools and I can build it,” he says.

The therapy has been around for since the 1960s and is backed by stacks of research. Basically it’s a means of slicing through self-defeating thoughts, whether they’re doubts about one’s diaper-changing skill, golf game, or ability to hang drywall. If you’re struggling with doubts about your ability to perform your dadly-duties, Cotterell says CBT can help put you back on track. Before you make an appointment, here’s a taste of what the therapy entails.

The Yearn To Unlearn

CBT follows the simple idea that there are no shitty scenarios, only shitty attitudes. “It’s not the situations, the circumstances, the adversities that make us feel the way we do, but our beliefs about them,” says Cotterell.

The problem is not that you swing a driver like a drunken goat. It’s that you believe you swing a driver like a drunken goat. Same goes for a depression or anxiety that stems from a woefully misguided belief that you’re a bad father because you’ve botched a bottle feeding, diaper change, or father-daughter chat here or there.

Fact Check Those Negative Thoughts

A therapist will often ask their client why they feel like a failure at work, an inadequate father, or an incompetent barbecuer and work to unravel their off-base beliefs using lawyer-like tactics. “The goal of CBT is to poke holes in these lies,” says Cotterell. “You ask, ‘what’s the evidence propping up this belief?’ Because depression is a liar.” In other words: Your down mood is like a politician. Every statement requires assiduous fact checking.

How Does CBT Work?

Once you and a therapist have established the thoughts or tendencies that are causing your self-doubt, CBT commonly works by following the acronym: F.A.S.T. It’s using the Socratic method to transform your internal thoughts.

  • Facts: If your belief is, “I’m not cut out to be a father,” examine the facts around that statement. Are you actually bad at it? Or did you just forget to pick your 2-year-old up at daycare once. It happens.
  • Alternative: This is the poking holes part. You come up with other ways of looking at your evidence. As in, “I don’t feel cut out to be a father, but my kid seems happy.” Or, “Other people tell me I’m doing alright.” Or, “I can’t be any worse than my dad was.”
  • So What?: Ask yourself, “So what if it’s true? Who cares if my beliefs about my crappy performance are right? What’s the worst and best that can happen if it’s true?” Then you move onto another question: “What constructive thing can I do to make the best outcome more likely than the worst?” says Cotterell. You’ll be tasked with thinking of ways to improve upon what you believe to be your shortcoming. If it’s a lousy golf swing, you take a lesson. If it’s lousy parenting, maybe you take a lesson, too.
  • Toll: What’s the benefit or drawback to holding onto that belief? “Often people who are successful have a belief that what they do is not good enough because they have unrelentingly high standards,” says Cotterell. That can drive constant improvements that lead to success. Or, you’ll drive yourself insane striving for perfection.

Take It All In Stride

According to Cotterell, it usually takes about 10 sessions to see if CBT will work. If it does (which is often the case) you’ll see it start helping around session 12 to 20. Of course, no 2 people have the same self-defeating thoughts, so it changes on a per patient basis. But he says for dads, there may be a litany of doubts that seep in. Things such as:

  • I can’t be a solid parent.
  • I’m an inadequate father.
  • I don’t have enough warm feelings to be a loving parent.
  • I don’t want my kid to relive the bad patterns of my own life.
  • I’m too wrapped up in my career to be a father.

Of course, the evidence probably doesn’t support that. But if you want to be sure, you might want to give that therapist couch a whirl. Your friends would benefit from having a fourth that doesn’t openly weep on the 17th hole. Your wife would benefit from a husband who is more confident. And your kids? Well, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad.