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Child & Teen Health
4 parenting tips to break the negativity loop
- By Jacqueline Sperling, PhD, Contributor
“It’s a beautiful day outside,” you say, smiling. Your son replies, “It’s supposed to rain later.” You share, “That game was fun!” Your daughter adds, “I messed up one of my turns.”
If you find that your child tends to channel Eeyore from Winnie-the-Pooh and has difficulty seeing some of the bright moments in a day, below are some ways to help them interrupt a negativity loop. The first tip works well for all ages. Choose the other tools depending on whether your children are younger or older.
Start by validating emotions
Parents have a lot of wisdom to share with their children, and their advice often is filled with a lot of logic. Unfortunately, that logic tends to backfire when shared with someone experiencing an unhappy emotion, and can make the emotion even stronger. Both children and adults need to feel heard before their ears can open up and hear what else you have to say, so try to validate first before you try to help children appreciate positive aspects of a situation.
Validation allows us all to feel heard. You are not agreeing or disagreeing with the emotion; you’re showing that you see it. For example, if your daughter comes home sulking after scoring two goals in soccer and missing the final one, you might have the urge to say, “Why are you so sad? You scored two goals and looked like you were having so much fun while playing!” Your intention is kind, yet does not match your daughter’s experience. Instead, try reflecting how she is feeling by saying, “You’re disappointed that you didn’t make that final shot.” This acknowledges that your daughter is disappointed without agreeing or disagreeing with her.
Sometimes, it’s enough to leave it at that. When you think it’s important to have your daughter see another side of a situation, remember to use the conjunction “and” instead of “but” so you don’t negate or erase your validation. In this example, you could say, “You’re disappointed that you didn’t make that final shot, and I am really proud of you for trying your best for the whole game.”
Alternatively, you could add a question to help your daughter discover positive aspects of the experience herself. In this case, you could say, “You’re disappointed that you didn’t make that final shot, and I wonder if there were any parts of the game that you enjoyed?”
A few more tips:
- Say, “You’re [insert emotion here] because…” Some examples of emotion words include sad, angry, worried, disappointed, embarrassed, disgusted, jealous, guilty, and surprised. Try to be as specific as possible. For example, “upset” could be a mixture of emotions, so identify which ones, such as sadness and/or anger, might be at play.
- Try to avoid, “I understand that you’re feeling…” or “I know that you’re feeling…” As children get older, it will be developmentally on target for them to think that you could not possibly know what their experiences are like, and make you feel like you’ve entered a land mine by trying to relate to them.
- Instead, offer a validation tentatively, “You seem…” or “I wonder if you were…”
Reflect on positive events
- Younger children (under 8) may enjoy the High-Low Game, which helps them balance out negative experience reflections with positive ones. You can use the start of dinner time each night to have each family member share one high or positive experience in the day and one low or negative experience in the day. You even can have your son start off by sharing the low before the high, so that he ends on a high note. This is a way to hear about everyone’s day and see how your son views his daily experiences.
- Older children (8 and up) may prefer a positive events diary. If your son walks around in life as though wearing those sunglasses from the ‘80s that look like window blinds and only seem to let in the negative events of each day, try having him write down three positive experiences he had at the end of each day. Not only can this help him realize that his day was not all bad, it also can help him improve his mood.
- Younger children (under 8) may like playing a gratitude game during dinner that involves everyone identifying something for which they’re grateful that day. Practicing gratitude in this way can create a more positive tone at meals. And maybe — just maybe — you might even hear that your son is grateful for the meal you just prepared!
- Older children (8 and up) could try a daily gratitude log, and you can set the tone for doing this by writing in your journal each day, too. It can be a slippery slope once someone starts focusing on all the things going wrong that day. Fostering gratitude, an appreciation of experiences, people, or things that are at least partially outside of oneself or one’s own doing, can help your daughter form a different and more positive relationship with aspects of her day, and research has shown that gratitude can help improve one’s mood. Have your daughter take a step back and remind herself of a few things for which she’s grateful each day. She can use prompts, such as “Someone/Something I was grateful for today was…” to get her started.
When you are concerned that your child reacts more like Eeyore than like Tigger, remember that your child needs to feel heard before he can see another perspective. Validate first, and then you can help your child consider all aspects, both positive and negative ones.
If you find that your child remains stuck in a negativity loop and starts to show signs of depression, ask your child’s pediatrician for a referral for therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, so that just like Eeyore, your child can learn tools to look for sunshine.
About the Author
Jacqueline Sperling, PhD, Contributor
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
You might also be interested in…
Positive Psychology: Harnessing the power of happiness, mindfulness, and inner strength
Positive emotions have been linked with better health, longer life, and greater well-being in numerous scientific studies. On the other hand, chronic anger, worry, and hostility increase the risk of developing heart disease, as people react to these feelings with raised blood pressure and stiffening of blood vessels. But it isn’t easy to maintain a healthy, positive emotional state. Positive Psychology: Harnessing the power of happiness, mindfulness, and inner strength is a guide to the concepts that can help you find well-being and happiness, based on the latest research.
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