Is your child easily fazed by setbacks, no matter how small?
Kids who are prone to negative thinking may find it difficult to persevere with their schoolwork or hobbies, and they may find social interactions challenging, as they often come away feeling wounded. As parents, you can probably already see how these tendencies could affect the quality of your children’s lives well into adulthood.
According to psychologist Tamar Chansky, who authored the book Freeing Your Child From Negative Thinking (available at NLB), children have the innate ability to engage in flexible thinking to deal with challenges — this is most apparent when they play video games, because they’re eager to face up to “enemies,” and willing to try again when defeated. Chansky says if we could find a way to help our children unlock this ability when dealing with real life, they would view life’s obstacles with the same enthusiasm, instead of feeling scared and discouraged.
Read on for her expert advice on helping children to cultivate a “two-track mind” — one where negative thoughts don’t stick, but healthy ones do. This is one area where it doesn’t hurt to get an early start!
Collect A Sample Of Your Child’s Thoughts
To get an idea of your child’s thinking patterns, spend a few days (or up to a week) recording his or her thoughts in a notebook. You could ask your child, “What were you thinking about when you felt good today? What did you think about when you felt bad?”
You can also call attention to your child’s thinking during interactions where they may be slightly upset. For instance, some children feel unhappy if others around them receive praise, including their siblings. This is a chance to find out what is driving their thinking — do they feel lacking in a skill, or are they insecure about your affections? Allowing your child to articulate his or her thoughts helps with self-awareness, which is the first step towards change.
Teach Two Sides Of Thinking
This is an exercise that you can carry out on a regular basis with your child, where you teach him or her that there are (at least) two ways to view any situation. For younger children, you can use two stuffed animals, such as a grumpy bear to represent a negative thinker, and a cheery-looking toy to represent a “smart thinker.” For older children, you could use two characters from real life as your inspiration — someone whom you associate with negative thinking (such as a grouchy relative) versus someone that your child respects and enjoys being around.
When your child embarks on a negative train of thought — such as “I spilled my drink because I’m so clumsy… I’m not good at anything!” — it’s an opportunity to help him or her recognise that this is a negative lens. In contrast, you can suggest an alternate narrative, such as “It’s just a little accident. Everyone has them. I can clean it up easily. Nothing was damaged or harmed. It’s not a big deal.”
The negative thinker tends to view an unwelcome event as being part of a larger pattern, and a symptom of one’s flawed existence. The healthy thinker, on the other hand, takes daily events less personally, and is in a better position to identify solutions and move on. (Do take note that your own responses to events could be shaping your child’s thinking as well.)
Play A Game Of “Fortunately, Unfortunately”
You don’t have to wait for a real-life teachable moment to get your message across. Chansky recommends playing a simple game that she calls “Fortunately, Unfortunately” to help your child develop flexible thinking skills.
To play this game as a family, distribute blank notecards to each family member, and write down an “unfortunate” situation on each notecard, such as “Unfortunately, I got sick and had to stay home for a week.” Each family member then draws a card, and has to think of the silver lining, e.g. “Fortunately, I was excused from having to take my oral exam, which I was dreading!” You can extend the fun (and difficulty) of the game by building on a single situation until someone runs out of ideas, such as, “Unfortunately, my teacher said I would still have to take my exam when I return to school… but fortunately, the scores won’t be recorded in the report book.”
With the practice acquired from this game, should a real-life challenge pop up, you can say to your child, “Are there any ‘fortunatelys’ in this situation?”
Is This Permanent, Pervasive & Personal?
Children who are negative thinkers tend to hold on to the 3Ps; in other words, they feel that everything in life is permanent, pervasive, and personal. If a friend is annoyed with them for the day, they may feel that the friend is “always” targeting them. If someone doesn’t smile at them, they may suspect it’s because the person dislikes them. If they should get a less-than-stellar grade for a class, they may lose motivation for the entire year.
This is what Chansky calls “supersizing” a problem or situation. Your job is to help your child to “downsize” his or her interpretation of events, by focusing on specifics instead. Think of it as helping your child to play detective in analysing situations. For instance, his or her friend could’ve had a bad day, which resulted in the annoyance. Perhaps someone didn’t smile because they were in a hurry, or they were tired. If one gets a bad grade for a quiz, it doesn’t mean that one needs to give up on the entire class — what were the problem areas for the quiz, and where can one get answers or additional help?
Don’t Fall In The Positivity Trap
Negative thoughts are part and parcel of life — sometimes, they’re there to protect us from taking unnecessary risks and getting hurt. It’s not that your child needs to make a 180-degree turn to start being the most upbeat person around, and you shouldn’t try to quash every negative feeling with a positive aphorism. Instead, focus on cultivating the awareness that too many negative thoughts can be debilitating. If your child has the ability to identify some of these thoughts, and quell them with logical thinking, that’s all that it takes to move forward.