The Rational Basis® of Happiness Podcast

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Unwanted Thoughts

My young son was disturbed by a movie sex scene.




































(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)


Movie clip

Female:      Why don’t you stop drinking? Anybody can be a drunk.

Male:               Anybody can be a non-drunk. It takes a special talent to be a drunk. It takes endurance. Endurance is more important than truth.


Dr. Kenner:      Notice that if you’re an alcoholic, you train yourself to lie to yourself. You come up with all these rationalizations about why, it’s fine, you can hold your alcohol. It’s not a problem for you. It may be for other people and besides, it’s none of their business and you deserve to have some good things in life. All of those have names that psychologists give them. They’re either called rationalizations - which are lies to yourself - or permission giving beliefs. They’re lies that you say to yourself, beliefs that you hold on to despite the evidence, in order to continue your bad behavior, your destructive path. And it’s not until you catch those things that you say to yourself and challenge them and have the motivation to change that you’ll actually do it.


I’m Dr. Ellen Kenner and my show is The Rational Basis of Happiness. It’s an opportunity for you to call and ask a psychologist - that’s what I am, a clinical psychologist - a question. It’s not therapy but it gives you some advice that may give you a new perspective on something or point you in the right direction. I want to welcome Cathy to the show. Cathy, you have a problem with something that your son saw? A disturbing movie he’s seen?


Cathy:              Yeah, he saw a movie when he was over at a sleepover and he claims that the couple was having sex and ever since he saw this movie, which was probably two or three weeks ago now, he apparently is having visions in his mind of either his dad or myself having sex with somebody. It’s always like a close friend of ours or something.


Dr. Kenner:      That’s embarrassing!


Cathy:              Very.


Dr. Kenner:      First, how old is he?


Cathy:              He’s 8-years-old.


Dr. Kenner:      The first thing that strikes me is how good that he’s open with you.


Cathy:              He’s very open. And actually the first time that he told us about it, he was crying because he knew it was the wrong thing to be thinking about and stuff. My advice to him was just to pray and ask God to not give him these thoughts and stuff. He did that, but it’s like every single day he’s bringing this up to me.


Dr. Kenner:      The problem, tell me what you think the problem might be with praying and asking, placing the - what in psychology is called the locus of control outside of himself - saying that God will change him, or something outside of him will change it. It makes him feel more powerless actually. As opposed to saying, “You know, we all have thoughts, occasional thoughts that we don’t like.” I know you’re not doing this, he’s asking you how to get rid of these thoughts, but if he treats them as, “Oh my God, here are those awful thoughts again. I’m having those images in my mind or picturing mom and dad or mom with dad’s best friend or something,” which is embarrassing, but you can say, “Honey, that can happen all the time. It’s not a big deal.” That tends to make it feel like it’s not that abnormal for him, because people have thoughts all the time, what are called intrusive thoughts, and health people have intrusive thoughts. Healthy people do. What happens when you get an obsessive compulsive disorder is a person, let’s say a good parent is angry with her kid and she walks in - I'm going to make this very low key - she sees a book and she pictures herself hitting the kid with the book and she’s never hit her kid. And she just says, “Oh my God, what if I ever did that?” That could be the beginning of an anxiety disorder, instead of saying, “I know I would never do that. It’s just a mood that I’m in.” If she treats it more of a matter-of-fact situation, she doesn’t underscore and highlight it and bold it in her mind as something she has to run away from.


For example, let’s say that when you tell your mind, “Don’t think about X,” and one of the examples I use often is don’t think about a pink elephant, like Dumbo floating in the air. I don’t want you to think about Dumbo at all for the next 10 seconds, okay Cathy? Don’t think about it. 


Cathy:              I see your point there.


Dr. Kenner:      You’re already thinking about it. It’s impossible not to think about the pink elephant. Any idea why?


Cathy:              Why is that? Why do we do that?


Dr. Kenner:      Listen to me give myself the command. If you had told me, “Ellen, don’t think about a pink elephant,” I’m saying, “Okay, I really want obey Cathy. She’s a good friend and I want to obey her so what is the instruction she gave me? She told me don’t think of - oh my God, there it is again!” Because every time I give myself the instruction, don’t think of the pink elephant, I paint the picture in my mind of a pink elephant. So a “don’t” command, don’t think of something, actually makes you think of it more and then you don't know how to get rid of it. Praying won’t help. Praying makes the person feel even that more powerless. The best thing to do is just say, “You know you had some fleeting thoughts and I’ve had that too. I’ve had that happen,” but I would give him a different type of example.


For example, I would give my kid an example of, you know, when I was a kid, this is true, I saw dogs and cats and I was afraid of them. I was a little tyke and dogs can be bigger than me. I remember, we didn’t have dogs or cats in our household and I remember having nightmares of dogs and cats chasing me. And I didn't know how to get rid of those nightmares. I just had to not make a big deal about them and then they’d start to fade. Occasionally I’d have them but I’d say, “Not a big deal.” That may help him see that it’s not a big problem. The fact that it’s sexual makes it real heightened.


Cathy:              I know.


Dr. Kenner:      There is a second issue, which is that I was a stickler with my kids. I did not want them to see things that gave them the wrong view of the world before they were ready to cope with it. And when they were really young I thought it was very important for them to watch the news. I wanted educated kids. I turned on the news and what do you see at the beginning of every newscast?


Cathy:              Terrible things.


Dr. Kenner:      Yeah. Car accidents, how many people killed, something blows up, a fire, and I thought, “What am I introducing them to?” There’s so much good news in the world, but in the news world, if it bleeds it leads. The lead story is going to be the bloodiest story. So I stopped showing my kids the news. With movies, I would show them really good movies, but my husband would go through and cut out the violent scenes. I would cut out the sexual scenes until they got a little older and then I cut out the bad sexual scenes. But if there was a very nice, romantic one, as they were getting old - hugging and kissing, maybe not explicit sex - but I wanted them to see examples of good people having good relationships. So I was selective. My daughter even remembers at a Girl Scout function where I came in front of the TV with a big sheet and covered the scenes I didn’t want the kids to see. She just remembers this scene. It was a cute movie, but I remember it had a couple of scenes in it where they had a bad guy in it, so I went in and covered it. I would find out who the parents are, I would call and ask. Do you know what they saw, what movie?


Cathy:              He told me it was the movie Failure to Launch. 


Dr. Kenner:      Never saw it.


Cathy:              I haven’t seen it either, and really I don’t think he knows what sex is. He’s told me that he thinks it’s a couple laying down in bed and kissing a lot. 


Dr. Kenner:      That’s sweet. And I hope it was a good scene. As a parent, as painful as it might be, I would want to see the movie that tortured my kid, in private. Just privately with your hubby maybe too, so you can get his context. It may be nothing bad that he saw, or it may have been …


Cathy:              That’s what I’m thinking. I don’t think it’s a dirty movie or anything.


Dr. Kenner:      Then you can help him put it in context, and if all he pictures is you hugging your husband’s buddy, just say, “Oh, yeah, we like each other.” It’s just light touch, not explicit sex. When they get older, there are books by Peter Mayle, I think on my website, which talks about sex and is done in a very tasteful way.


Cathy:              It’s a book you said?


Dr. Kenner:      Yes, kids books, but when he gets to about the puberty age. Those are good books to introduce kids to sex. You want to read it first to make sure you’re at home with them, and you want to find the right age.


Cathy:              Right, and that was Dr. Peter Mayle?


Dr. Kenner:      I don’t think it’s Doctor. I’m pretty sure it’s on my website. 


Cathy:              That’s more puberty age.


Dr. Kenner:      Thank you so much for your call.