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Chasing adventure & living mindfully while parenting through mental illness

DBT Skills for Parents: Building Mastery 

DBT, or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, helped me escape the trap of constant mental anguish and dramatic swings from hypomania to depression. It was life-changing therapy for me, and I sing it's praises loudly. Now that I'm a parent, I not only apply it's skills to myself every day, I find myself teaching those same principles to my kids. This series will explain each skill in relation to our lives as parents. I am not a therapist, so if you are in crisis and think DBT might help you, you should find a trained DBT therapist near you. It's important for parents to build mastery as part of emotion regulation because we don't get the opportunity very often. Check out the first in my series of DBT Skills for Parents on Building Mastery is part of the emotion regulation skills module of DBT. It is particularly important in gaining confidence and reducing vulnerability. People with mental illness usually suffer from low self esteem and feel a sense of personal failure. A small mistake or slip up becomes catastrophic, and we feel a deeper sense of despair and self-loathing, which then becomes paralyzing and leads to depression and extreme psychic anguish. Building Mastery means attempting little challenges and maintaining commitments over time to increase self confidence. If we try little things and succeed, we will want to try more things, and we're more likely to succeed. It bolsters us against the inevitable mistakes and hardships. When those come, we can factually say to ourselves "I messed up on this, but here is a concrete list of things I have accomplished". It helps us avoid the shame spiral that leads to extreme emotional outbursts.  Build mastery in small ways like building a succulent planter. Building Mastery is not something we get a chance to do often as parents. The nature of our work is not a simple feedback loop. We can do everything right, and still get negative feedback from our kids. We can set a list of chores and, through no fault of our own, fail to accomplish any of it.Building Mastery is so important for confidence and fulfillment though. We need to find ways to sneak it into our lives. Sometimes that involves getting our partners or peers to watch our kids. Sometimes that means changing what we see as "mastery".For me, taking my kids out in the community is a way I Build Mastery. In this instance," mastery" comes just from making it back to the house intact. It is kind of like doing a Tough Mudder challenge: it's never going to be easy or smooth, but at the end of the day you will have done it. There's usually some fun or beauty to be found when you take them on an adventure. It's important to take the time, once you're home and things are calm, to congratulate yourself for getting through it.Here are some of my favorite outing suggestions for Building Mastery:

  • Take the bus or train 
  • Go to a restaurant that isn't specifically "kid friendly"
  • Go on a hike (look for "accessible" hikes if you're taking a stroller) 
  • Go to the community pool or skating rink
  • Picnic at the beach
  • Watch planes at the airport

Sometimes building mastery is as simple as surviving a bus ride with 2 kids. Check out more DBT Skills got Parents on If you do have a short amount of time, either while kids are napping or while someone is watching them, here are a few ideas for things you can do to build mastery:

  • Craft something for your home or garden (Garden Therapy has great projects here!) 
  • Clean out and organize one drawer or closet 
  • Paint or draw a picture 
  • Bake cupcakes or cookies 
  • Write a short story, or write out an idea for a longer story
  • Try a dance class, whether in person or at home on YouTube

If you're stuck inside with the kids in a rainy day, here are some quickie ways to Build Mastery over time:

  • Learn a language (try the Duolingo app) 
  • Grow seeds (sunflowers and beans almost always sprout, and bonus your kids learn something!) 
  • Write quick haikus about your kids
  • Sing made up songs to your kids. Pick a tune like "Row Row Row Your Boat" or "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and make up new rhymes. 

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