How to Raise a Positive Thinker
It’s not just about a sunny disposition. Positive thinking helps kids weather life’s storms. Happily, the experts are here to brighten your child’s outlook.
Eliminate the Negative
Listen for absolutes. Chansky advises parents to keep an ear out for words that signal all-or-nothing thinking: “This always happens.” “I never do anything right.” Chansky will often ask young patients to sketch a “sometimes shaker” (shaped like the kind used for salt)
as a silly reminder to season exaggerated pronouncements with less extreme words, like sometimes: “Sometimes my friends are nice to me.” “Sometimes our team wins.”
Help your child reframe setbacks. If he is upset about flubbing a spelling quiz, your first move should be to acknowledge the pain of disappointment. “One of the most common things I say to a child is ‘I hear you! I get that,’” says Lynne Kenney, Psy.D., a pediatric psychologist in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the author of The Family Coach Method ($18, amazon.com). The next step: Get a sheet of paper and write his negative thoughts on the left. (“I stink at spelling.”) On the right, jot down more neutral ways to talk about what happened. (“Spelling is a challenge, but I’m a good artist.”)
It’s also important to propose steps that he can take to get improved results. “If a child is feeling down because he’s having trouble at school, you can’t just tell him to think differently,” says Kenney. “You also have to help him develop the skills to do better.” Suggest taking a practice test the night before the next big exam or running through tricky words together in the car. Once a kid experiences success, he’ll be willing to try harder, because he has learned that his efforts can pay off. And that may create a springboard from which he’ll launch himself into future challenges.
Praise with purpose. Focus on effort, not achievement, says Chansky. Say something like “I know that project was tough—you really stuck with it!” You want to reinforce the idea that success comes from hard work, a central tenet of optimism. Try to avoid saying, “You got an A. You are so smart!” Your child may conclude that she must not be smart if she ever gets a dreaded B.
Keep your own boat afloat. When kids are prone to doom-and-gloom thinking, it’s easy for a parent to get pulled down, too. “You’re driving home from school and your child is saying, ‘Everything is horrible!’” says Chansky. “So you think, He’s in such bad shape—I must be an awful mother!” Do your best to hit your own pause button, she says: “Don’t look at the problem as big and general and unchangeable. Bring it down to this moment. What do you need to do to help him right now?”
And, well, what if you also tend to be a sad sack? “Be compassionate with yourself,” says Carter, who notes that modeling your own efforts at positive thinking, imperfect though they may be, sets a great example for your kids. Instead of beating yourself up because you got home too late to make dinner, relish the excuse to order in. (Who ever grumbled about a spontaneous pizza night?