Do you want your child to have a positive attitude to handle the ups and downs in life? Can you help him develop a positive attitude for life? Yes, you can. Read on to find out how.
By Dr Meghna Singhal
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. - Victor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (1946)
Positive attitude refers to looking for good around oneself. It is a much-desired attitude in today’s world, surrounded as we are by news of terror, violence and suffering. A positive attitude does not mean ignoring the negative. On the contrary, it means perceiving situations or others in a constructive manner.
Most of us agree that thoughts are powerful and that it is far preferable to think positively than negatively. Self-help books, inspirational quotes and motivational speakers also emphasise the importance of mentally re-framing negative situations into positive ones. The benefits of positive thinking have been well-documented by both psychological research and anecdotal evidence. It is even linked to good physical and mental health, for instance.
When children develop a positive attitude early in life, it helps them face challenges with strength and hope. But can children really grasp the concept of a positive attitude? Young kids may not have the vocabulary to express what a positive attitude entails. But they understand the difference between being happy in one set of conditions and not in another.
Interpreting an ambiguous situation as positive is a mental capability that starts to develop by five years of age owing to cognitive changes. In a recent study, it was found that a child’s ability to understand that thinking positively improves emotions, and that thinking negatively makes one feel worse, significantly develops between five and 10 years of age. As children grow, they become better at applying positive thinking. For example, when asked how they deal with the fear of getting vaccinated, 7-8 year-olds reported thinking of a happy time, such as eating ice cream. In contrast, younger children reported more tangible distractions, such as playing with a toy.
What if we could inculcate a positive attitude in our children? That we could give them the tools to challenge negative thinking? And not let difficulties defeat them and obstacles control their minds?
Let us look at some dos and don’ts to help our children build a positive attitude.
Have you noticed the way you talk in front of your child? Are you likely to complain (“We’ll never get there on time.” Or “I’m not going to get that big project.”), thereby modelling pessimism in your child? Or are you more likely to talk positively about situations and people (“Our neighbour is so kind. She gave me a ride despite running late for work.” Or “That outing tomorrow is going to be so much fun!”)? Role model a positive attitude to your child by predicting positive outcomes. Modelling positivity can take you from cribbing when your maid doesn’t come to rolling up your sleeves and switching on some great music while you do the dishes!
Do you discourage your child from taking part in activities that you feel she may not be able to do or because you feel she may not be as skilled as other children? Parenting out of fear leads children to become anxious about the world. Try to let go of your tight rein and let your child take risks. Encourage your child to occasionally step out of her comfort zone and try new things. So what if she fails? It is only through trying and failing can she learn to be competent. Jessica Lahey in her book The Gift of Failure , writes, “Knowing how to manage risk through experience is real, hard-earned competence, and it makes [children] feel great about themselves.” Give your child credit — and praise — for her effort, not so much for the result.
Do you hover over your child to ensure he completes his task? Do you give your child frequent reminders about the things he’s supposed to be doing? Do you do things for your child that he’s capable of doing for himself? Sometimes parents become so focused on the outcomes that they forget to look at the life lessons their children are learning along the way. Amy Morin in her latest book 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do, talks about instilling responsibility by giving children age-appropriate tasks and teaching children to do chores around the house. She writes, “Help your child connect the dots between his behaviour and the outcome by saying things like ‘You studied really hard and all that work helped you get that good grade’ or ‘Your soccer skills have really improved because of all that practising you’ve been doing every night’.” Teaching responsibility helps children gain competence and self-worth, which is a prerequisite for positive thinking.
Do you give your child a false sense of hope to boost her morale? Do you tell her that she is so smart when she gets a B? Or tell her she can play tennis better than all her peers when she really can’t? Being realistic with your child is crucial, because not only can she see through false praise but she may also experience adjustment problems when she realises that there is a clash between her parent’s idea of her and the real world. Instead, help your child take steps to solve the problem rather than giving her a false sense of hope. Help her figure out what she needs to do to pull up her grades or to play tennis better than she is now. One strategy for accomplishing this is what the researcher Gabriele Oettingen proposes in her book Rethinking Positive Thinking. She suggests a strategy she calls WOOP or Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. It entails thinking of an important wish, imagining the best outcome, identifying your main inner obstacle, and making a plan or doing one thing you can to overcome the obstacle.
Helping your child confront the realities that impede her goals can enable her to address her fears, make concrete plans, and gain energy to take action.
During moments of stress, how do you respond? Do you let stress take over you and indulge in negative self-talk? Negative self-talk breeds pessimism and undercuts resilience. Watch for negative self-talk in your child (“I am terrible at Math. That was the worst exam ever! I will definitely fail”). Catch it and instead of rushing to correct him, hear him out and empathise with him. Empathising helps acknowledge the negative. Then ask him questions designed to help him fight back against the overly pessimistic thoughts running on his mind. For example, what was the one thing you did well during the exam? What is the one thing you can do to practice this week at Math? Turning negative talk into actionable plans can help your child feel in control versus feeling helpless.
Let us now look at how parents can incorporate instilling a positive attitude in their children through some everyday activities.
Challenge your child to go look for things along the way to the park that make him happy. It could be something as simple as a friend waving to him, a puppy wagging his tail, or beautiful flowers dotting the sidewalk. Practising this helps him learn to look for simple things (otherwise ignored) that can make him happy and add value and meaning to his everyday life. Discuss what simple things in your everyday life make you feel good.
Have each family member write one positive thing that they have experienced in the week on a slip of paper and put the slips in the jar. Once a month, on a Sunday, take out all the slips and read them. You’ll be surprised as to how many positive events in our lives are so easily forgotten. This is a good exercise to remember and value those positive things.
Encourage your child to keep a journal to keep track of seemingly tiny moments of happiness, of accomplishments, as well as disappointments. When your child records his disappointment, have him reflect on what he can learn from this experience. Praise him for recognising the lesson and for taking a proactive approach to mistakes instead of dwelling on them.
Make a dinner-time gratitude ritual, in which each family member says what they are thankful for that day, taking care not to repeat any statements. This exercise compels us to find things to be thankful for each day and shifts our focus on what we have, making us feel better about ourselves and our lives.
We cannot always protect our children from disappointments and failures. But we can help them navigate through the difficult times in their lives by teaching them the power to be positive!
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