New Year, New Attitude: Help Your Child Be Positive


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You probably made New Year’s resolutions to exercise more, spend more time with family and friends, eat healthier foods, maybe even clear some clutter. But how about a resolution to find the bright side of a difficult situation and help your children adjust their attitude, too? You don’t need to wear rose-colored glasses all the time. You just need to give your child or teen a toolbox filled with suggestions for how to recover from a setback and learn from the experience.

Proactivity vs. Defeatism

A negative outlook can impact all areas of our lives. “The kids that tend to have a negative outlook tend to do more poorly in school, from what I’ve observed,” says Alison Bowman, who has a master’s degree in education and is a licensed professional counselor at Morrisville Elementary School in Wake County. “Emotionally, they tend to not have as many friends; they have peer relationship issues. Physically, they tend to have a lot of somatic complaints — headaches, stomachaches, things like that.”

Jen Kogos Youngstrom, a licensed clinical psychologist, clinical professor and director of Child and Family Services at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Psychology, looks at negativity from a proactive angle.

“Our motivation, our activity level, our outlook, all intermingle,” Youngstrom says. “If we sit around eating candy, not getting any sleep, that will affect our outlook, and our outlook affects our choices.” If our outlook is positive, we’re being proactive and are more likely to make good choices about eating, sleeping, exercising and reducing stress.

Justin Parker, a licensed psychologist with 3C Family Services in Cary, talks about the benefits of warding off defeatism. “There are lots of strategies that a child or adolescent can have that will help them bounce back from a setback,” Parker says. “You can tell a child or adolescent all the ideas in the world, but if they already believe that the ideas, the strategies, won’t work, they’re not going to even engage in it,” he says. “If you’re not buying in that something will work, you’re not going to try, and if you don’t try, I can guarantee it’s not going to work.”

Preparation and Empowerment

A positive attitude helps you think about ways to improve a challenging situation. While no one can guarantee success, preparing to the best of your ability opens up possibilities and options, Parker says.

“Often, a trap parents fall into is trying to rescue their child by convincing him or her that they can pass a test, for instance, without being held accountable for actions they did and did not take in order to be able to pass,” Parker says. “And if it doesn’t go well, look at behaviors that resulted in it not going well: Did you handle what you truly could handle? Did you take a positive feeling and turn it into study habits or turn it into objective criteria that you could act on in order to evaluate?”

Sasha Fradin, a licensed psychological associate in the Psychoeducational Clinic at N.C. State University’s Department of Psychology, quotes child psychologist Ross Greene when she says, “Kids do well if they can.” She adds, “If they’re not doing well, then there’s a reason why they’re not … . They don’t choose to act this way, feel this way.”

Fradin uses Greene’s philosophy of the collaborative problem-solving process. “He recommends involving (children) in this process because a lot of times we, as adults, whether it’s teachers, parents, therapists, doctors, say, ‘Why don’t you try this?’ ‘Why don’t you do that?’ So we’re telling them what to do instead of teaching them how to problem-solve by collaborating with them,” she says.

Challenge Thoughts, Ask Questions

Bowman uses the triad of thinking, feeling and behavior in her counseling. Depending on the situation, focusing on thinking and positive self-talk first can impact a child’s feelings, which then impacts her behavior. Other times, focusing on changing the behavior will change thoughts and feelings, Bowman says.

Youngstrom agrees. “Often, thoughts affect our behaviors and moods,” she says. With adults and adolescents, you can intervene by asking, “What was your thinking?” to try to understand the core of the negative thought and challenge it with data.

“If we point out that the extreme, negative thought isn’t as extreme as they thought it was, it will impact their negative thinking,” she says.

Involve younger children or nonverbal individuals in an activity. “They need to get out, play basketball, interact with others and exercise, and this improves behaviors,” Youngstrom says. “This behavior improves their mood, then improves thoughts.”

Youngstrom asks young clients, “Is your current path getting you where you want to be?” She then helps them find a meaningful goal to work toward, usually involving friends, academics or an activity.

“It has to be a goal they’re invested in to challenge thoughts and change behavior, even if it’s not a goal the parent or teacher thinks is important,” Youngstrom says. “If there is no goal that’s meaningful, we don’t have a connection. We don’t understand what’s making them tick.”

Bowman asks scaling questions to give children a way to change their thoughts and feelings: On a scale of 0-10, with 10 being perfect, ask, “Where are you?” She asks how they would feel if the number were a little higher and what it would look like.

If scaling questions don’t work, Bowman asks, “If a miracle happened, what would it be?” to help children realize they have some control over their attitudes, thinking and behaviors, and to help them identify what they need to do to change.

Intrinsic Motivation

Parker encourages parents to seek mindful approaches to talking with teens so they can self-identify negative situations and intrinsically respond to them. “You want them, when they’re not around you, to be able to pick themselves up,” he says.

“In order to get (teens) to purposefully use positive attitudes, positive behaviors, they have to recognize when they’re not,” Parker says. “They have to recognize when negative thoughts are creeping in, when self-defeatism is starting to pop. They have to challenge themselves in real time, not just rely on a parent to do it for them.”

Youngstrom believes open communication plays a large role in helping someone maintain a positive attitude.

“Kids and teens with negative thoughts turn in, stop communicating, and then parents can’t help,” Youngstrom says. Parents can listen, ask questions and, perhaps most importantly, allow silence. “Parents tend to do a fire hose of questions and that can shut kids down,” she says.

Uphold Realism

Youngstrom encourages her clients to maintain a realistic attitude that’s not out of touch with reality. But sustaining a positive outlook depends on the particular circumstances at hand. If a family is immersed in severe distress, it’s best to teach coping skills.

Parents should validate their children’s feelings. “Don’t gloss over how a child feels at a particular time,” Fradin says. Reframe the thought or feeling and find something positive in it, instead of sweeping it under the rug.

When Bowman ran a small group for children with recently separated or divorced parents, she used a rain-and-sun analogy by asking about the positives and negatives of the new family structure.

“Sun and rain make a rainbow,” Bowman says. “It doesn’t mean we overlook the negative things, but in every situation you can always pinpoint something good that has come from it — something that has helped you grow from it.”

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Jen Kogos Youngstrom, a licensed clinical psychologist, clinical professor and director of Child and Family Services at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Department of Psychology, recommends the Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique to calm yourself — or your child — during stressful times. Here is how you do it.

Lie or sit comfortably. Starting with your feet, scrunch your toes into the ball of your foot, breathing in as you do. Release your muscles as you breathe out. Move up your body, scrunching and releasing each muscle group. Shrug your shoulders as hard as possible up to your head, then release.

Youngstrom also suggests learning to challenge negative thinking patterns and calming yourself through a variety of activities, such as shooting hoops, running or other exercise, deep breathing, or arts and crafts.

Cathy Downs is a freelance writer who lives in the Triangle with her family. 

More Resources

Check out the following resources for more information on instilling a positive attitude in your child.

For Parents

- Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies: abct.org.

- Evidence-based mental health treatment for children and adolescents: effectivechildtherapy.com

- Project Enlightenment: projectenlightenment.wcpss.net

- The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children by Ross W. Greene, Ph.D.

- Ross W. Green’s website: livesinthebalance.org

- Don’t Panic Third Edition: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks by Reid Wilson, Ph.D.

- Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Practical Solutions to Overcome Your Child’s Fears, Worries, and Phobias by Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.

- Help for Worried Kids: How Your Child Can Conquer Anxiety and Fear by Cynthia G. Last, Ph.D.

For Children and Teens

- The Relaxation and Stress Reduction Workbook for Kids: Help for Children to Cope with Stress, Anxiety, and Transitions by Lawrence E. Shapiro, Ph.D., Robin K. Sprague, LCPC, and Matthew McKay, Ph.D.

- What to Do When You Worry too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety by Dawn Huebner

- Recovering from Depression: A Workbook for Teens by Mary Copeland, M.A., M.S., and Stuart Copans, M.D.

- When Nothing Matters Anymore: A Survival Guide for Depressed Teens by Bev Cobain, R.N.C.

- The Stress Reduction Workbook for Teens: Mindfulness Skills to Help You Deal with Stress by Gina Biegel, M.A., LMFT

For Pre-K Children

It’s never too early to start teaching problem-solving and decision-making skills to young children, says Sasha Fradin, a licensed psychological associate in the Psychoeducational Clinic at N.C. State University’s Department of Psychology.

Teaching young children how to recognize their emotions is important. Parents can focus on teaching children:

- How to recognize feelings in themselves and others.

- How to become aware when their body feels a certain way.

- Problem-solving skills in all areas.

She also recommends giving choices, within limits, whenever possible.

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