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Positively Parenting Your Pessimistic Child

It’s the worst day of my life,” is a common refrain from my son. When I pick him up from school or an activity, he often starts with a list of what went wrong during his day. For a person who strives to find the positive and keep her sense of humor about life, 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 out 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 hardwired 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, Ph.D., 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.” As parents, our goal is to teach our kids that bad things happen, but they can handle them appropriately. Luedtke suggests redirecting them to the positive while still acknowledging they had a negative experience: “Empathize and ask them how they handled the situation.”

Practice perspective

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 also 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, ‘Grrr! 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.’”

Age matters

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. This 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 lining in those everyday situations that are less than perfect. Learning opportunities abound.

Sue is a health and wellness journalist, and a mom of two children. She knew her positive outlook was having an impact when one day her son said to her, “I found a positive thing about diabetes today. It helps me practice my math facts.”





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