5 Tips for Raising Positive Thinkers

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Some kids are naturally more optimistic than others.  Some kids just seem to approach all tasks, no matter how difficult, with a smile and a can-do attitude,  But others…others might seem a little more pessimistic or quick to throw in the towel when the going gets tough.  That doesn’t mean that those kids are quitters.  What it means is that they need a little help along the way.

It helps to consider why some kids immediately start chanting, “I can’t…” or “I’m not good at…” when things aren’t working out as planned.  For many kids, it comes down to a few issues:

Fear of failure.

Perfectionism.

Fear of disappointing others.

Low self-esteem.

And/or…

Low frustration tolerance.

It’s not easy to be a kid, and some kids have huge ideas…the kind of ideas that might be just out of reach when it comes to developmental level.  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try.  Sure, you want your kids to set age-approriate goals so that they can succeed along the way.  But you also want them to reach a little so that they can begin to understand the importance of practice, patience, and learning from mistakes.

So how can you turn an “I can’t” kid into a can-do kid?  With a little bit of patience and a lot of positive energy.

Reframe it first:

If you have a kid who regularly declares defeat before even digging into whatever project takes center stage at the moment, chances are you have a little perfectionist on your hands who can’t stand the thought of failure.  And the only way to truly avoid failure is to quit before you actually give it a try (in the mind of a child, anyway).

Teach your child to reframe his negative thought immediately.  When my little perfectionist musician-in-training (not really, but in his five-year-old mind) throws up his hands in defeat the minute he forgets a song lyric, I give him a simple task:  “Flip it.”  The first few times I needed to be a little more specific, as in, “Let’s say something positive about what you can do instead of giving up right away.”  But now we’re down to two words.  Before we even discuss the issue at hand, I help him flip the negative thought into a positive.

Reframing negative thoughts helps break the cycle of giving up in frustration.  It retrains the mind to find one small positive to keep you going.  When there is a light at the end of the tunnel, you will fight to get to it.  If you all you see is darkness, you’re more likely to curl up and hide.

Look for obstacles:

Kids have a lower frustration tolerance and are more likely to become sad and upset when they are sleep-deprived, hungry, or sick.  Assess your child’s physical and emotional state before launching into a speech about following through and trying harder.  Major life lessons are often lost on exhausted, starving, and/or sick kids.

Often, a little snuggle time with mom or dad and a comforting snack can bring back the positive.

Empathize:

Remember that time that you cried for three hours after you struck out three times in one game?  Your little baseball player needs to hear that.  Or how about the time that you froze during the school play and completely forgot your lines until someone whispered them to you?  Your little actress might need to hear that one.  You get the point.  Empathize with your child.  Share your own childhood stories and talk about times that you felt the very same way.

When parents empathize with their children, their children feel understood and less alone in their frustration or sadness.  They also see that their parents survived those very big feelings and overcame whatever failure caused the negative feelings in the first place.  That can be very eye-opening for little kids.

Celebrate failure:

Ok, maybe don’t throw a party with balloons and streamers and cupcakes…but learn to find the positive in failure.  You know what the best part of failure is?  Learning something new.  Finding a new path.  Exploring a different option for the next time.  Have you updated to the iOS7 yet?  New path necessary.  They’re probably not sobbing in frustration at Apple headquarters, but you can bet they’re working on something better.

Kids need to learn that failure isn’t the end of the world.  But that’s not an easy task, so they need you to help them get there.  Remain calm.  Let them cry and yell and vent their feelings, but then help them find the silver lining.  Ask questions about what might have gone wrong in order to kickstart the problem-solving process.

And learn to laugh about, own up to, and share your own failures along the way.  We all make mistakes and we don’t always get it right on the first (or second, or third) try.  When we show kids that we also struggle at times, they learn that it’s ok to get back up and try again…that perfect doesn’t actually exist.

Model it:

If you want your kids to have a positive attitude, you have to have one, too.  Watch your words, body language, and mannerisms around your kids.  You might think they’re not paying attention when you’re venting to another mom at school before the bell rings, but they usually are.  Save the venting for a time when the kids aren’t around, and rely on a positive attitude in front of your kids as much as humanly possible.

When you keep your emotions in check and use adaptive coping strategies to work through difficult tasks (deep breathing, taking a quick walk, frequent breaks, asking for help, a cup of tea) your kids learn the importance of learning to work through their feelings while tackling difficult tasks.

How do you help your kids stay positive?

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About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of “The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World” (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and the forthcoming “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls” (Penguin Random House, 2018)