“What was the best part about school,” Diana Stanwell* asked her 10-year old son, Miles*. “Nothing,” he grunted. “Come on,” she pushed, “there must be one good thing that happened.” “I didn’t die,” he shrugged before chucking his backpack into the trunk.
As an optimist, Diana sometimes struggles with the fact that Miles sees his glass as half empty. He is at the top of his class academically, has loads of friends and shines on the baseball diamond, but his constant negativity concerns her.
Luckily, there’s a bright side for Debbie Downers. According to a study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, genetics only account for 25 percent of a person’s risk of becoming a pessimist. That leaves kids like Miles with a 75 percent chance to break out of their funks. And researchers have found that we can retrain our brains to become more positive. Here’s how:
- Listen and validate. When bad things happen, validate your child’s negative feelings, says Vancouver Psychologist, Dr. Erika Penner. “These are normal and typical emotions. We don’t want to promote the idea that the only acceptable emotions are happiness or positivity,” she says. If your son sat alone at lunch, try saying, “I’m sorry you were lonely. Let’s try to figure out why that happened.”
- Catch kids being good. Boost your child’s self-esteem by recognizing good behaviour. “[We tend to] pay more attention to kids when they’re behaving badly as opposed to when they are doing well,” Dr. Penner says. Congratulate good deeds so they can feel proud of their actions.
- Go outside! Slow down and have everyone take notice of things they hear, see and touch when playing outdoors. Kids will become more in tune with their environment and reduce stress in the process.
- Model balanced thinking. Children are awesome mimics. If you’re down on yourself, they’ll notice, Dr. Penner says. If you make a mountain out of a molehill, they will, too. Don’t be self-deprecating around them; and the next time you burn dinner, stay calm and say something like, “I’m frustrated that dinner is ruined, but now we can order in from your favourite restaurant.”
- Set achievable goals. Help your child set a specific and realistic goal. If she remembers to pack up her homework every night for a week, commend her for reaching her target.
- Talk about your day. Set aside family time to share the best and worst parts of the day. “It’s important to have kids feel safe when talking to you,” says Dr. Penner. “Sharing emotions as a family allows you to celebrate mistakes and challenges in the same way you celebrate success.”
- Focus on the positive. Have your child log a positive event or share something she’s grateful for. She can write it in a journal, tell you about it, draw a picture or record a voice memo.
- Find a personal strength. Encourage your kid to practise positive self-talk by finding one of his strengths and thinking about how he can use it to make himself or someone else happy.
- Pay it forward. “Our behaviour influences our feelings and thoughts,” says Dr. Penner. “Doing something good tends to make us feel and think better.” Pick flowers for an elderly neighbour or donate toys to a kid in need.
- Meditate. Have your child sit in a quiet place and breathe slowly in through her nose and out through her mouth. Ask her to think about something that makes her feel happy.
Be Positive, Live Longer
Several studies have proven that negative thinkers live shorter, unhealthier, more stressful lives than their more joyful counterparts. They are more likely to develop chronic conditions like coronary heart disease, diabetes and depression. “Negative emotions provoke an assortment of physiological effects that can be deleterious to health in the long term,” says Charles Carver, Distinguished Professor of psychology at the University of Miami.
Positive thinkers, on the other hand, live longer, healthier lives. They boast lower blood pressure, better weight control and a decreased risk of certain diseases. “Optimists have a more favorable balance of positive to negative emotions,” says Charles. “[They] believe that things will work out well.” As a result, they are better able to solve problems and deal with hardship and stress.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, Winter 2017.