Parenting a negative child can be emotionally draining. The daily debrief of all that was unfair. The difficulty to get them interested in anything. The recurring conversations about the little things in their life that they should be able to sort out. Their siblings also have to bear some of the brunt of this, and it can be pretty hard to put up with it constantly. Everyone in the family might get drawn into responding in kind, quickly becoming a massive cycle of negativity, tension, and stress.
Terrible as this negative attitude may be, your child doesn’t set out to be constantly so. Interestingly, their attitude might be a way of contacting you, expressing themself in the one place in the world where they feel they can let out—the home. They store all their issues up during the day, and then process them when they feel comfortable in your presence. But this is still a negative way of establishing contact, well-meaning as it may be. We all want our children to be happy, but sometimes the biggest hurdle is themselves. As a parent or caregiver, you can play a vital role in transforming a child with a bad attitude, starting from how you respond to their outbursts.
Where Does All That Negativity Come From?
The truth is we are all hardwired to be negative, not just children. We are more inclined to see the negative than the positive. Since early evolution, it’s been a survival instinct where we focus on threats in the environment as there was an overload of information. When we assess situations, we are programmed to be attuned to the dangers.
How does this relate to children? When your child feels the burn of failure, the feeling of disappointment and inadequacy that comes with it, their brain preserves those feelings. “As the brain evolved, it was critically important to learn from negative experiences—if one survived them!” says Dr. Rick Hanson, a psychologist, and Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. “Most positive experiences flow through the brain like water through a sieve. While negative ones get caught routinely. Scientists call this our ‘negativity bias.’ In effect, we have a brain that’s like Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for good ones.” Hence your child’s negative attitude. But this isn’t the only reason for their negativity.
Contagion is another reason. Constantly sharing the same space with people who are always negative can influence a child. You can see emotional contagion in action when one person smiles at another person. It will take effort for the recipient of the smile not to smile back. That’s how powerful emotional contagion is. In a child’s case, the home is where they spend most of their time. This means that parents will have to check themselves and the immediate family. Are we, unconsciously due to our worry, being negative? Are we modeling a positive outlook and not being too stressed about little things that might put them on edge? Is it possible that they are picking up on your own parental anxiety?
Additionally, negative attitudes in children can also come from a desire to make others miserable. This isn’t as bad as it sounds. In the course of their day, something may happen to a child that makes them feel miserable. In an attempt to cope, they might want to make everybody else feel the same way. This is why you might hear some of those cutting statements.
How Can I Stop My Child From Being Negative?
A child’s negative behavior can feel like something that can’t be transformed. Notice it long enough, and it can begin to feel like a trait. But you can change it. Below are a few tips on dealing with negative child behavior.
- Identify their underlying needs. If you observe carefully, a pattern will emerge out of your child’s constant negativity. This will help you start the journey of identifying what’s beneath all the complaining. When do they usually complain? Is it in the morning before school? In the evening after school? In the night before they go to bed? Are they trying to adjust to a new routine? When you identify the root cause of their negativity, then you’re better equipped to help them. It might be that they are looking for a more meaningful relationship with you, and they know they have your attention if they are negative.
- Be careful not to indulge them. Sometimes, your child’s negative behavior is their way of getting your attention. This is often subconscious on both sides. The issues often come out as you are lying in bed together or in each other’s company. The bond over problems is a meaningful bond. A child may well enjoy that time in your arms, being the center of your world. This is, in a strange way, enjoyable. So look to make that time a positive interaction. We should always be available to listen. However, perhaps rather than lead with a question about something negative, play a game or read together.
- Don’t force it. Obviously, you don’t like your child’s negative attitude. No parent does. So you may be tempted to force them to change because it all feels very personal to you. It is also very exhausting. This is usually the case because most parents think that they’re responsible for their child’s feelings. If they are upset, it is up to us to make it better as we love them. If anything, you’re more accountable for the way you respond. Trying to force a sunny attitude on your child might result in fierce pushback. Things will become heated between you both and more frustrating. Although ‘tough love’ is a horrible phrase, they need to find their own answer for some aspects of emotion. If this means they don’t play football with the other boys as they get pushed around but rather quietly play Rubix cube with one other boy, let that be. That is your child being themselves and realizing it. The mental health benefits of exercise can not be ignored so use these ideas to see if there is something else out there for them.
- Provide honest feedback. This might not be the typical kind where you give feedback on your child’s progress. This is more about accepting their complaints. But instead of criticizing them, you provide them with feedback on the impact of those complaints. Then encourage the child to share something more positive along the same lines. It is easy for all of us to get into a habit of being negative. It is good to help your child realize that not all negative things are equal. If they complain about five things, it is ok to say that three are part of everyday life. Let us focus perhaps on these two. In the same way, it is always important to listen. But I tell my children that I wouldn’t be the parent I want to be if I didn’t offer advice on how to solve the problem. This, hopefully, models that we are responsible for the outcomes and that we are able to do things about them. I am also happy to talk openly about my own experiences so that they can see that these things are normal. If it is due to body image this article may help.
- Set aside specific time to talk. If your child complains constantly, then you should consider setting aside time to talk about this. As James Lehman in The Total Transformation Program advises, let them know what time they can complain and for how long. A good practice I have is to say, ‘you will have all my attention, and we can have an excellent chat about it when we go for a walk this evening.’ Walking is the perfect opportunity to talk. It also means that there is a specific beginning and end. They may also not be so willing to go for a three-hour walk rather than an hour! It ensures the time isn’t too long. It also means that after a quick chat, you can move things on to something else on the way home from school. Here we discuss more about how to get your child to talk to you.
- Teach them more words to express their emotions. You may be surprised to read that humans have way more words that describe negative emotions than positive ones. According to a study led by Robert Schrauf, Head of the Department of Applied Linguistics at the Pennsylvania State University, emotion vocabulary typically has more words for negative emotions (50%) over positive (30%) and neutral (20%) emotions. Also, as an adult, we realize there are degrees of negativeness. Children are not able to verbalize these. “The literature suggests that cross-culturally, there are maybe five to seven basic emotions that show up in every language that seem to have the same meaning,” says Schrauf. “Seven words, and only one positive. Isn’t that awesome?” The reason for this is that humans process negative emotions more for threat assessment. This translates to more words. Teaching your child more positive words can help them talk about positive emotions more.
- Practice gratitude with them. As humans, gratitude makes us happier and healthier. Your child is invested in seeing things negatively. The more invested they are, the more negative things they will see. An excellent way to break this cycle is to practice gratitude with them. In a study led by Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California, participants who practiced gratitude through journaling were a full 25 percent happier and reported fewer health complaints. In the same vein, you could encourage your child to keep a journal and help them find time to write down things they’re grateful for at least once a week.
Final Thoughts on Helping a Negative Child
Dealing with a negative child and helping them through it will test your patience. Some people are just more negative, however teaching perspective is essential. In her Melbourne Ted talk, Professor Lea Waters explains that “Positive emotions broaden our capacity for thinking and they build our connection to other people.” The response we want to do for our child is to make everything ok. However, as in all forms of helicopter parenting, are we actually preparing them for life? It is also loving to listen to their problems and then structure how they might be able to solve them for themselves. Firstly they need to decide if it is a real problem or a perception. Then discuss what strategies they can do to help themselves. Then intervene only if their immediate well-being is in danger. If these conversations can happen, when possible, at a fixed time and location, the child will know that they are valued, and you are supporting them. However, it will not be the default topic of every conversation, which is healthy for them and you. If things aren’t bad enough to join you for the walk, they may not be that bad!