Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking: Help for the Pint-Sized Pessimist

pint-sized-pessimistHow to Overcome Negative Thinking: Top Six Strategies for Teaching Your Pint-Sized Pessimist a Better Way

Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.

Kids don’t want to make themselves miserable (or you either), but for some kids when faced with a disappointment (whether large or barely perceptible to the adults around them) their thinking takes a non-stop flight to disaster and there is no turning back. Whether it is striking out in baseball, not getting the A on their book report, or being left out of a friend’s sleepover, these disappointments change everything in a child’s mind. There are no isolated events. When things go wrong they begin a new page in their history-everything is wrong, it can’t improve so they shouldn’t try, and maybe even… they are a terrible person and they deserve it anyway!

Quick! Stop the planes! Rather than let your child’s interpretations of normal life events make them take a nose-dive in their mood, there are simple steps that parents can take to help kids turn things around. But take note, the answer may be different from what you think. Most parents take the boomerang approach-if their child is very negative, they feel compelled to force them to find the positive. As any parent who has tried this can tell you, it doesn’t end well. When faced with this response from parents, kids typically feel that their parents really don’t understand, and as a result, feel compelled to turn up the volume on the negative-they think that maybe then their parents will get it.

What’s the alternative? Rather than rushing to take the direct route out of your child’s misery, take a detour first to empathize and hear out your child before finding the solutions. What seems like an unnecessary step will actually save time and struggle in the long run. When your child knows that you are on his or her side, you will find that rather than dragging your child kicking and screaming to happiness, they will be willing collaborators in finding the way out of the negative maze.

Step One: Empathize: Resist the urge to just “fix” or “downplay” your child’s distress. Instead, empathize with your child’s unhappiness this doesn’t mean you agree with the reasons they are feeling the way they do, it does mean that you are trying to see things from their perspective so they will feel heard, and so they will be clear about what is bothering them, as opposed to what might be bothering you.

I see that you are really upset about this; I want to understand what happened.

An added benefit of this step is that by hearing his or her thoughts played back, children are often able to move beyond the feelings and recognize how they are different from the facts. So, for example a child who is upset about losing a game may be able to say, “I know I feel like a total failure, but I know it’s not true.”

Step Two: Get Specific! Negative thinking supersizes small problems and makes them seem monumental, permanent and unchangeable. Help your child narrow and identify the one thing that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

This feels really big; let’s try to figure out the one thing that started the bad feeling or the part that feels the hardest for you.

By getting specific, your child shrinks the overwhelming problem-I’m terrible at baseball-to a manageable goal: I keep missing those ground balls! I’m frustrated!

Step Three: Switch Perspectives: Your child may be taking the first version of the story that has come along. Let your kids know that while negative thinking gets there first, it exaggerates and magnifies the problem. Ask your child to take the same situation and tell you how their best friend would see it, or their favorite rock star, their hero, their favorite movie character.

Your negative brain has decided that this is an impossible situation, is that how you want to see it? Can we look at this from someone else’s angle? Who do you want to consult? Who is on your panel of experts?

Especially with sports, but really in any context, it helps to choose a fallible hero and see how that person would handle the situation. Would your child’s favorite athlete say, “I quit!” if they were in those shoes? How do celebrities handle not winning an Oscar? Do they quit the business?

Step Four: Mobilize! Once kids have cooled down and can see things in better perspective, help them act on it-are there steps they need to make things happen differently next time, or even to improve the situation at hand?

You’ve really figured out the problem, what do you want to do first to make things better?

So, for instance, back to our ballplayer who keeps missing the ground balls, this would be the moment to ask: what do you think is going to help you most? Do you want to talk to your coach, practice with your big brother in the backyard? Look closely at how the pros do it when we watch a game on tv? It helps if children generate these options for themselves, but be prepared to offer ideas if they are drawing a blank.

Step Five: Normalize! Show the Seams in Your Own life!

(a)Use your own experiences with disappointments or negative thinking to model for your children how frustrations are a normal part of life, and how we have choices about how to talk ourselves through. Our approach can either help us learn from these glitches or just keep us stuck and feeling bad. If children observe you talking yourself through your own obstacles, they will learn how to do so themselves.

I burned the dinner, I have a choice, I can either freak out about it and decide I should never cook again, or I can go to Plan B, tonight is a frozen pizza night-cooking resumes tomorrow!

(b)Not doing well immediately with something (especially something new) is a big trigger for kids’ negative thinking. Introduce a new vocabulary about how things take time to learn, and that’s OK, in fact, that’s how it works foreveryone.

I don’t know how to work this new cell phone yetI’m climbing the learning curveeverything’s hard at first, then it gets easier.

Try a light-hearted touch when appropriate-if your child is struggling with something new and concludes that it is impossible, see if you can use humor to gently point out the short-comings of that conclusion: You know I think that is what it said on the label, if you can’t assemble this model plane in two minutes-walk away, give up and don’t look back! When done properly (i.e.: you are laughing at the situation and not at your child),  your child will be able to see the absurdity, get the point and move on. Beware: once your child learns this approach, don’t be surprised if he or she turns it back on you! Fear not, this is all for the good, the more change agents in a household the better!

Step Six: Free Yourself Too!

It’s hard to teach your child to see things in perspective if you yourself are catastrophizing about your own life-or even about your child: “he’s always like this, he’ll never learn to handle things.” Using these steps on yourself will help you see things more clearly, work better with your child, and everyone will benefit. It’s called interactional optimism-it’s a two-person job! If you can be optimistic about your child’s ability to think more competently and optimistically, (in other words, be patient that this is a process with a learning curve that is hard at first and takes some time) you will be creating the very conditions that will ensure that it will happen!

Adapted from: Freeing Your Child from Negative ThinkingPowerful, Practice Strategies to Build a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility and Happiness, available at all on-line booksellers and bookstores.

If you like this blog post, share it!

Connect with Dr. Chansky on Facebook and Twitter!

Photo credit: Shavar Ross / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Share Online

tamar chansky phd

Stay in Touch

Sign up for my newsletter and you will get blogposts and videos delivered to your inbox about living a life far beyond the limits anxiety can impose. Here’s to less worry all around.