“It’s the worst day of my life,” is a common refrain from my son. When I pick him up from an activity or school he often starts with his list of what was wrong with his day. For a person who strives to find the positive and keep her sense of humor, it can be challenging to parent a child who tends toward the negative. My standard comeback is that he needs to tell me an equal number of positive comments to balance the negative ones. Sometimes this reduces the list of complaints and at the very least it teaches him perspective.
I have always sensed that my son is hard wired to look at the world this way and a recent study in Psychological Science confirmed that some people are genetically predisposed to focus on the negative. Although it can be frustrating to deal with children who lean into the negative we do not want to completely turn off this tendency because we have evolved as humans by responding to threats or negatives in our environment.
You’re in the driver’s seat
As parents we can help our children see the silver lining in the clouds and steer them toward a more balanced outlook. Heidi Smith Luedtke, PhD., personality psychologist and author of Detachment Parenting: 33 Ways to Keep Your Cool When Kids Melt Down says, ” Kids need to see that negative emotions are short lived. They can get dragged farther into the negative if we let them.” Our goal as parents is to teach them that bad things happen but they can handle them appropriately. Luedtke suggests redirecting them to the positive while still acknowledging that they had a negative experience. “Empathize and ask them how they handled the situation.”
One of the special joys of being around children is that they live in the moment. If that is a negative moment, this is an opportunity to teach them how not to get stuck in this negativity. Luedtke says giving them a time perspective is important. “When you are in it, think and talk about what the consequences will be in 10 minutes, 10 days.” Remind them this will not impact their life in the long term and that tomorrow can be a better day.
Like two peas in a pod
Can you still help your child see the silver lining if you are wired toward the negative? Absolutely. Luedtke says this is a gift because it offers you insight into how your child feels. Whether you tend toward the positive or negative, recognize that you are modeling the ability to see a silver lining to your children from the time they are born. Our children are always watching us and listening to our self-talk. Moms like Laurie Fisher-Zottman use this to their advantage. “When we are the ones getting gloomy, it’s a powerful opportunity to show our kid how to handle those emotions. I make comments to my little one all the time like, Grr! It feels like nothing is working today. What can I do? I know. I can take a big breath and try something different. I can figure this out.”
Keep your child’s age in mind when you react to their emotional outbursts. You cannot reason with a two-year-old who is in the middle of a tantrum. Just like us, young children can gain a better perspective on events after they are over, when they are not “in the heat of the moment.” Luedtke recommends physically coming down to their level, absorbing their feelings and giving them a long hug. Try “saying less and hugging more,” says Luedtke. That strategy works for all ages.
Pass-on the positive
Developing your child’s optimism can make them more resilient. Although it will not happen overnight, Luedtke says fostering a positive outlook will “encourage self confidence and an ability to roll with the punches.” Kelly Knuckle encourages positive self-talk with her son. “I interrupt him when he talks negatively about himself or his ability and encourage him to stop and think of three things he likes about himself or does well. I also reward or reinforce whenever he finds the silver lining himself or talks in a positive way.”
Use your powers of observation to help your child carry skills and learning from one situation to another. “Remind them of all those things they’ve done that are similar and help them bring that learning forward,” advises Luedtke.
With practice and thoughtfulness, both you and your child can find the silver linings in those everyday situations that are less than perfect. Learning opportunities abound.
Sue LeBreton is a health and wellness journalist and a mom of two children. She knew her positive outlook was having an impact when her son said one day, “I found a positive thing about diabetes today. It helps me practice my math facts.”