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Do you know a negatively-minded child who:
We all know what it’s like to witness when kids are trying to learn something new, or tackle a problem and it’s not working, not yet anyway. It’s messy, frustrating and even heart-wrenching seeing our children struggle unnecessarily when their thinking style stretches the normal obstacles and disappointments of life—supersizing them into impossible, insurmountable problems. Here are strategies to help our children see things as they are (manageable, temporary) rather than how they feel in the moment (impossible, forever). They work for adults too, so next time you’re getting an attack of “nothing’s working, I can’t do this!” take these ideas out for a spin and see how quickly you’re able to turn that everything feels impossible feeling into an action plan to tackle the one thing that really went wrong.
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.
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, can we try to figure out the one thing that started the bad feeling?
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?
Step Four: Mobilize!
Once kids have cooled down and seen 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?
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 choose to talk ourselves through them can either help us learn from them 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, or go to Plan B.
(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. I don’t know how to work this new cell phone yet. I’m climbing the learning curve, everything’s hard at first, then it gets easier.
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, you will be creating the very conditions that will ensure that it will happen!
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