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How to Bring Up Your Little Debbie Downer

Photograph by Twenty20

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.

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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 potential solutions.

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 realistic

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 thoughts.

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 thought patterns

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 temporary

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 happened next.

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.

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4. Engage in positive self-talk

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.

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