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One of the characteristics that we see in a lot of strong-willed kids is a tendency to be negative. This can be hard for us to listen to as parents and we worry as parents because we know that positive thoughts lead to a positive life. However, many of us wonder how to help a child who seems naturally negative to become more positive. We may even wonder if it’s possible!
The good news is that research shows that individuals can actually train their brain to be more positive. You can literally rewire the brain to be happy. We’re here today with clinical mental health counselor, Mike Fitch, to learn how to train our brain to see the positive.
Mike Fitch, CMHC
Positivity, Negativity, and the Brain
Retraining or rewiring the brain to be more positive comes down to something called conditioning. Most people have heard of conditioning before, but I want to give a little refresher on what it is.
Conditioning is when we train the brain to behave a certain way by consistently repeating the same actions. A psychologist, Ivon Pavlov was the one to discover that conditioning was possible. Pavlov set up an experiment where he would ring a bell every time he would feed his dogs. He did this repeatedly and consistently, until his dogs were so conditioned to food accompanying a bell that they would salivate as soon as they heard the bell.
Humans, while being an advanced species, are animals too and can be conditioned just like dogs. We don’t call it conditioning, we more often call it habit forming. Believe it or not, if you or your child are negative thinkers, you have simply formed the habit of negative thinking. That can change by you conditioning your brain to see the positive in life enough times that positive thinking becomes your new habitual thinking.
I should say that I’m sure genetics have something to do with your thinking as well. For example, if you have depression it can be a lot harder to be positive. However, research shows that the most effective treatment for depression is to make positive thinking your habitual thinking.
**In some cases of severe mental health disorders, the brain does not have the capacity to rewire to the extent that we would like it to. If your child has a more severe mental health disorder, we recommend meeting with competent professionals for help**
Balancing Positivity and Negativity
I used to think that it wasn’t good for my kids to hear me be negative or vent about things. I have since come to realize that negative experiences and feelings are a normal part of life. Our kids will watch us to see how we handle these normal experiences and feelings.
With that in mind, I feel that it’s OK for us to vent, to allow our kids to vent, to get those negative feelings out, and then to balance the negativity of that out with positivity. Vent, then move on. Give your kids opportunities to vent, then encourage them to move on.
Dwelling in the negative will create negative thinking habits. Venting then moving on to positivity will not.
But how do you help a naturally negative child to move on to positive thinking? Here’s my top tips to get you started.
Tip #1 Point Out the “Positive Opposite”
This is the first technique I recommend parents use when they are trying to help their kids become more positive. I recommend doing this without your child knowing that you’re doing it, because strong-willed kids will resist thinking more positively if they know you’re trying to make them do it.
In a nut shell, pointing out the positive opposite means that you are going to ignore all of their negativity and instead, give a lot of positive response to their positivity. You’re going to teach their brain that being negative doesn’t get attention and being positive does!
How do you do this?
- Acknowledge what is the behavior that you’re trying to change in your child. Do they show negativity through whining, pouting, moping, etc.
- Identify the opposite of the negative behavior you’re trying to eliminate.
- Ignore the negative behavior (to be clear, we don’t ignore behaviors that are against family rules. We’re talking about whining, pouting, etc)
- Watch for times they use the positive behavior
- Praise them when they use that positive behavior! With younger kids, be more ecstatic in your praises. With older kids, play it cool. But in both cases, be sure to do the following:
- Say their name
- State clearly what they did that was positive
- Share what the natural positive consequence of that behavior is
With this technique, the positive attention is the rewards for the positive behavior. Also, understanding how their behavior brings more goodness into their lives helps them connect the dots between their actions and their outcomes in life.
Tip #2 The Positivity Game
Now the second tip that you have is playing a positivity game. Basically you put your kids in charge of catching each other doing positive things.
For example, I have three kids, one of which can be really negative. So we will approach her and the other kids and say, “We’re doing a contest! The contest is to catch your siblings doing something positive. Every time you catch them doing something positive, we’ll put a marble in a jar for you. The one with the most marbles at the end of the day gets to stay up a half an hour past bedtime!”
This game gets our kids to start noticing the positive things people around them are doing rather than the negative. I do have to warn you, that it gets a little annoying having them point out positive things all day and you having to put a marble in the jar over and over again. However, it is totally worth it!
You could play many variations of this game.
- The person who tells you the most positive things from their day wins
- Anyone that can point out twenty positive things by the end of the day gets the prize
- Use some creativity. The options are endless
The main idea is just to make seeing the positive fun at first! Making new habits and rewiring the brain can be a laborious challenge, but if you get started by having fun with it, it can make it easier for everyone.
Tip #3 Positive Nighttime Routine
Once again, there are endless variations of this activity. So experiment and find one that works for your family. But research has shown that this habit is one of the MOST POWERFUL to create. Do what it takes to make a positive nighttime routine part of your family’s life. It will pay off in the end, BIG TIME.
At the end of the day, have your kids write/share/draw three to five positives things that happened that day. Have a rule that they cannot repeat the same things two days in a row. You may want to do this when you tuck them in or during dinner time. You pick the time that works best.
This helps in a couple of ways.
- It helps your kids reflect on the day and see positive in it.
- It sends your kids to bed with positive thoughts in their minds. Studies show that if we think negative thoughts right before bed, we think negative thoughts through the night. If we think positive thoughts right before bed, we think positive thoughts through the night. How powerful would it be to have eight hours of positive thoughts floating around in your child’s brain?!
- Since your child has to come up with new things each day, their brain will subconsciously be searching for positive things to add to their list! Isn’t that cool?! Their brain won’t be searching to find what isn’t good each day, it will search for what IS good.
Bonus Tip: Practice Gratitude
How does expressing gratitude for people or things in your life help you be more positive in your thinking?
Throughout the day we’re often reminded of the things we don’t have instead of thinking about what we do have. We can take for granted the good people, opportunities, or situations that are in our lives. When we stop to express gratitude either to people or in a journal, we refocus our minds on the good.
So I recommend expressing gratitude each day. You can do this in many ways:
- Write a note to someone
- Text someone and let them know why you are grateful for them
- Be intentional about saying “Thank you” to anyone who serves you
- Have a gratitude journal
- Offer a prayer of gratitude
Once again, the variations are endless. Find what works for you, your child, and your family.
In the end, positive thinking comes down to thinking habits. Helping your kids find ways to create positive thinking habits will help both you and your child.
I also want to remind parents, that while we are responsible for teaching our kids, we cannot force them to be positive. Even with all these great tools, your child may still choose to be negative. If this happens to you, continue to lead through example and enjoy the happiness of your healthy decisions.