Tuesday, March 28, 2023

After a long day of school, Reuven comes home to tell his mother about the contest that is going to be taking place in his class. Here is a conversation between Reuven and his mother:

Reuven: In class today, Rebbi told us that we are going to be having a contest. Each talmid will be allowed to sell raffle tickets. If we sell $100.00 worth of tickets, each talmid will be awarded a special prize.

Mother: That’s great!! I am so excited for you! Let’s make a list of people that you can call to sell tickets.

Reuven: I am not sure that I really want to do this. What if no one wants to buy any tickets?

Mother: Let’s give it a shot! I know that you can do this! You did a great job selling the tickets for the shul raffle two years ago!

Reuven: That’s okay! No one is going to buy from me anyway!

Negativity, or negative thinking, relates to the way that we perceive people, things, and events. Negative thinking can influence the way that people respond to daily events. In the above example, Reuven’s thinking or belief that he would not sell tickets may have influenced his decision not to make any effort to sell any tickets.

Negativity refers to a prolonged focus on the negative part of any situation. Children who present with negativity may notice and focus on the negativity quicker than other children, who seem to have a better balance between positive and negative aspects of a situation. Furthermore, these children may experience a sudden and rapid emotional reaction in response to the negative situation. So for the child who feels that he never gets what he wants, not getting what he wants for dinner may produce a angry reaction such as, “In this house I never get anything that I want.” The child may be angry and storm off to his room.

Negativity becomes exacerbated as the negative elements of a situation are magnified by the child. The negative elements are blown up to the extent that the child may not focus at all on other elements of the situation. This magnification can often lead to sadness, anger, and other negative emotions that may impact the child’s daily life. While research shows that there may be a predisposition for negativity, research about brain flexibility tells us that reframing and positive thinking can help to shift this negative predisposition.

Dawn Huebner, in her book What to Do When You Grumble Too Much, attempts to provide techniques to help empower parents to be their child’s coach. As “coaches,” parents can show their child that they understand what the child is feeling. Statements like, “I see why you are so frustrated” or “this must be making you really angry” helps the child to feel validated and understood. Once the child feels validated, the “coach” (in this case the parent) can encourage the child to reflect on what s/he would like to be done in this situation. For example, a parent can ask the child, “What would you like to do now? How do you think that the situation can be handled?” Therefore, instead of the child complaining or getting upset, a child can begin to tell himself that this is a problem that I can overcome and make better.

Tamar Chansky, in her book Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, offers an analogy for how to help children learn how to “flip their brain” to learn to focus more on the positive aspects of a situation. In her discussion about anxiety, Dr. Chansky writes that one’s brain can be likened to a train track. As a train approaches a fork, it can go in one of two directions: to the right or to the left. Similarly, a child’s “brain train” can also go in one of two directions: One can choose the smart track or one can choose the worry track. Helping the child to understand this “brain train” analogy helps him to understand that just as his/her brain focuses on the worry track, the child can also “talk back” to his/her brain to help the brain choose the smart track in other situations to achieve a different result. Similar to anxiety, negativity also involves choosing one set of facts over another. Helping the child to realize that there are two sides of the coin (the negative and positive/problem solving side) will help the child to begin to focus on potential solutions to the problem.

Negative thinking can also lead to anger. Therefore, it is important to help one’s child learn how to recognize and deal with his anger. Relaxing, taking deep breaths or engaging in an enjoyable activity can often help a child to step away from a difficult situation, enabling the child’s mind and body to relax. This will then help to prepare him/her for dealing with the situation in a different way.

As with many situations, the dynamics and circumstances may be very complex. If your child seems to respond or act negatively, it is important to take notice and assess the impact that it has in home and social interactions.

Mark Staum, LCSW, is a social worker at The Frisch School and a therapist in private practice in Teaneck, NJ. Please feel free to submit your comments and questions regarding this article to mstaumlcsw_gmail.com.

By Mark Staum, LCSW

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