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One of my very first clients was a very negative thinker. He
was exceptionally bright, very funny under the right circumstances (as in not
in the middle of a class lecture) and full of interesting information. An avid
reader of nonfiction, this kid was a wealth of information. But he was a very
negative thinker, and that impeded his ability to sustain friendships.
The Debbie Downer sketch is no joke. When a kid is stuck in a negative loop, that
child can struggle to make and maintain friends. "That will never work" and "that's a horrible idea" were two
of his most used phrases. As you can imagine, other 7-year-olds don't like
to hear those things all day every day.
Family work revealed that he was actually a lot like his
dad. The difference was that his dad was able to channel that negative energy
into a dry sarcasm that made others laugh, while my client used his to insult
others and hold himself back from trying new things. What that child needed was
a healthy does of optimism.
Some kids are naturally more optimistic than others. These kids approach new tasks with enthusiasm. Others struggle to try new
things. All kids have different temperaments and that impacts how they work
through challenging tasks. This isn't an either/or situation. You can and
should nurture optimism in your children, and it's never too late to start.
We can't just hand over a dose of optimism and hope it sticks.
Optimistic kids are better problem solvers, experience
greater resilience during painful or frustrating experiences, and feel happier
than negative thinkers. Where negative thinkers see problems, optimists see
We can't just hand over a dose of optimism and hope it
sticks. We have to help our kids work on it in a way that is meaningful to
them. Here are four ways to get started.
1. Be positive, but
Few things are more annoying than people trying to fill you
with positive thoughts when you're in the middle of a terrible day and you just
want to vent for a moment. The same goes for the "It could be worse" mentality.
Of course, it could be worse. And, of course, something good happened during the
day. But discounting feelings only leads to resentment and more negative
This is where being realistic comes in. You can't turn a
pessimist into an optimist overnight. Pelting your little negative
thinker with positive phrases throughout the day will only leave your child
feeling like he's doing something wrong. You might be saying, "You can do it!"
but your child hears, "Be more like (insert sibling here)!"
Meet your child where he is and model ways to put a positive
spin on frustrating situations in small increments. You can't force your child
to see the positive, but you can provide emotional support during a difficult
moment and ask questions that create an environment for positive change.
Something as simple as, "I wonder if there's anything we can do to make this
toy work again" empowers your child to look for solutions and take ownership of
his ability to work through things.
2. Confront negative
Pessimistic thinkers tend to repeat a script when the chips
are down. You're likely to hear a lot of "I never …" or "This always/only
happens to me" from negative thinkers. They see setbacks as reminders of past
failures instead of opportunities to learn.
Kids tend to view setbacks as permanent. A failed math test might feel like a sign of a lifetime of poor grades in math.
Call them out on negative thoughts and challenge them to
reframe those thoughts. Instead of "I'll never make new friends," for example,
encourage your child to say something like, "I've made friends before, and I can
do it again." It's helpful to make positive thought charts. Put the negative
thought on one side and the positive thought on the other. Practice daily.
3. View setbacks as
Adults have time on their side. They know that most
frustrating moments are, in fact, temporary. Adults know that working through
the hard stuff is challenging, but you do get to the other side at some point.
Kids tend to view setbacks as permanent. A failed math test
might feel like a sign of a lifetime of poor grades in math. Help your child
view setbacks as temporary. Brainstorm together times that things didn't turn
out as planned. Review what happened, how you worked through it and what
Instead of jumping in to solve problems for your kids, sit
with them and brainstorm ideas to solve the problem from a new perspective.
More often than not, I find that when kids have the emotional support they
crave they persevere through challenges and come out happier for it.
Parents get tired of hearing that kids model their behavior
after what they see, but this is the case. If you tend to engage in negative
self-talk under stress, your child will likely do the same. Try to reframe your
own thoughts when you confront an obstacle and say it out loud so that your
child hears you working through challenges from a positive perspective.