Got a negative child? You know, the one that seemingly sees the worst in every situation? Kyle and Ella came to me for coaching, concerned that their 6-year-old daughter, Maya, was “always negative about everything.”
“What can we do to change that?” they asked.
Knowing that children (and people) are rarely “always” anything, I recognized that Kyle and Ella had stumbled into the pitfall of extreme thinking and were bringing their judgments about Maya’s negativity to their interactions with her.
So what should you do when you feel like your child is always so negative?
Have you assigned the “negative child” label to one of your kids?
Judgments we have about our children can cloud our thinking about how to best help them. (We know this from the early days of our own parenting!) Sadly, these judgments overflow in subtle but powerful messages to that child. For example, when parents believe a child is “always negative” this passes on a message that, “You’re a problem that constantly needs to be fixed” or “You are incapable of being anything but negative.”
Does this leave you feeling discouraged and stuck? You’re not alone! Many parents struggle with this challenge. You don’t need to stay stuck. Read on for ideas to equip you.
There are two primary questions to answer when dealing with a child’s seeming negativity.
1. What is an accurate description of my child’s feelings?
Kyle and Ella were very honest and eager to learn, so I asked a few more questions: “On a scale of 1-10 where 1 is ‘truly always negative, never ever a positive emotion’ and 10 is ‘the most positive child in the world’, where would you place Maya?”
The parents answered, “Three.”
“What keeps it from being a one?” I asked. They responded quickly, “Oh, when she’s happy, she’s filled with joy.”
So, not a totally negative child.
As I probed deeper, Kyle and Ella began to make a shift from their exaggerated perception of Maya to an accurate, helpful perspective: Maya is a passionate, sensitive child. She feels both frustration and joy deeply, but seems to be discouraged fairly often. Not quite the same as “always negative about everything”!
Getting an accurate picture of Maya’s true feelings set the stage for the next question…
2. Who is responsible for the negative feelings?
Often when children express negative emotions, parents’ knee-jerk reaction is driven by the parents’ own anxiety. We try to control or “fix” those feelings because they make us uncomfortable.
- “Oh, honey, it’ll be ok. Look on the bright side.”
- “Don’t be upset. We’ll buy you another one.”
- “I’m sure your friend really didn’t mean that. I know she really likes you.”
- “Don’t be discouraged. You’re a good soccer player!”
In a strange sort of way, our efforts to persuade our “negative” child toward positive emotions keeps them in the driver’s seat. In this situation, the child is the one who determines whether or not the parent has made them feel better. And, if kids do give in to parents’ efforts to fix their feelings, they have not learned a process to self-regulate!
Not only that, but giving extra attention to frequent negative displays of emotion reinforces the wrong message. Kids learn they are more important, significant, and heard when they are irritable or negative.
As we talked, it became clear to Kyle and Ella that instead of an approach geared toward needing to fix Maya, they could instead change to focus on helping Maya learn how to better identify and manage her emotions herself.
If your child seems caught in negative thinking
Does Kyle and Ella’s story hit a little close to home for you? Are you empathizing with these parents? If so, here are some questions and first steps to consider:
- Become aware of your own feelings and beliefs under the surface. For example, extreme thinking by parents can make a child prone to extreme thinking as well.
- Communicate a message of, “We love you no matter what! Good mood or bad mood, we love you!”
- Communicate to your child that their emotions are theirs to feel, understand, and respond to. But you, as the parent, are available as a resource to provide encouragement and support as needed. (If your child is older, you may even consider outside support and resources as appropriate.)
- Help your child accurately identify what they are feeling in a given situation. (If they have trouble, offer some empathetic suggestions.) Remember, sometimes negative talk is really shorthand for complicated feelings under the surface.
- “Math is stupid!” might translate to, “I’m really frustrated. I don’t know how to do this math assignment.”
- “I don’t like her!” might translate to, “I thought she was my friend, but she hurt my feelings.”
- Help your child problem-solve what to do about the situation. This gives your child power over their own emotions. (Perhaps ask some thoughtful questions.)
- Empower your child to empathize and understand others’ emotions. There is power in learning to empathize and recognize emotions in others, so we may be able to see them more clearly in ourselves!
“Negative” children can learn to effectively manage their own emotions
It can be a challenge to stop yourself from rushing in to manage, or “fix”, a child’s frequent negative emotions. But by working with children to help them own and understand their feelings, it will equip them for wisdom and insight for themselves and others for years to come.
And, as followers of Christ, we know that Jesus is the source of resilient joy in our lives, despite the crankiness of our kids. When they see that modeling in us, they are much more likely to learn resilient joy themselves over time!
Nehemiah 8:10b, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Want to learn more about these concepts? Download our one hour recording of a Discipline That Connects workshop.