As a parent, it’s never easy to hear your child express negative thoughts or to see her wallow in feelings like self-doubt, sadness, or anger.
Unfortunately, science says it’s natural for people to dwell more on negative thoughts than on positive ones, and this can be even more true for children. This negativity is usually driven by fear, doubt, or shame, which produce stress chemicals in the brain. Ultimately, a negative attitude can shape how a child sees herself and the world around her.
But as parents, there’s plenty we can do to help our children develop a more positive attitude about themselves and their world.
Are Negative Thoughts Bad?
There are no “bad” emotions. All thoughts and feelings are valid. Both positive and negative thoughts and emotions play a valuable role in how we process the world around us.
For instance, sadness can help us process difficult times, and we would have no moral compass if we never felt shame or guilt.
Danish psychologist Svend Brinkmann explains that the pressure to think positively and be constantly cheerful has turned happiness into “a duty and a burden.” Additionally, trying to be happy all the time alienates us from our emotions, which simply isn’t healthy. In fact, recent psychological research indicates that emotional avoidance is one of the main causes of many psychological issues.
For these reasons, there's no need to pressure children to avoid or dismiss negative emotions.
What Can You Do Instead?
Instead, we can teach our kids to accept negative emotions and process them in a healthy way. We can encourage positive thinking and positive affirmations.
According to positive psychology researcher Barbara Fredrickson, positive thinking is important because it broadens your sense of possibility and opens your mind, allowing you to build new skills. Positive thinking, Fredrickson says, “broadens and builds.” It also makes children (and adults) more resilient.
Neurobiologist Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin explains that the brain is “plastic” and can be trained to be more emotionally resilient and to respond to certain emotions in a healthier manner.
This can be accomplished by engaging in mental exercises that help “rewire” the brain.
By practicing skills that foster positivity, people can learn to be more positive.
Here are seven activities you can practice with your child to encourage a more positive attitude.
1. Loving Kindness Meditation
Dr. Barbara Fredrickson found that just six weeks of training in a form of meditation focused on kindness and compassion resulted in increased positive emotions, social connectedness, and even improved health for participants in her study.
In a similar study, Dr. Richard Davidson found that as little as two weeks’ training in compassion and kindness meditation led to changes in brain circuitry linked to an increase in positive social behaviors, such as generosity.
Even three months after these experiments concluded, participants continued to display increased mindfulness, purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms.
Loving kindness meditation involves thinking of loved ones and sending them positive thoughts. Later, your child can expand her positive thoughts to more neutral people in her life as well. Dr. Fredrickson describes this form of meditation as “directing good-hearted wishes to others.”
The four traditional phrases are, “May you feel safe. May you feel happy. May you feel healthy. May you live with ease.” But the actual wording you and your child use isn’t important; it’s about generating feelings of kindness and warmth.
By practicing generating these feelings, the brain is conditioned to think more positively. It also shows your child how easy it is to engage in feelings of compassion and kindness, which can help her connect more easily with others and increase her overall well-being.
2. Helping Others
Helping others is obviously beneficial to other people, but it will also enhance your child’s own positive feelings and attitude.
People who volunteer have been found to have higher self-esteem and overall well-being than those who don’t.
Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor at the University of California, Riverside, says, “People who engage in kind acts become happier over time.” When your child helps others, she will feel good about herself as a person, which will ultimately help her feel more optimistic and positive in general.
"People who engage in kind acts become happier over time."
Helping others is also linked to fostering a sense of belonging, inner peace, and gratitude. Your child could help others by assisting an elderly neighbor with yard work or chores, helping a friend with homework, or participating in a canned food or clothing drive. You could also make volunteering a family affair and regularly help out with a soup kitchen or other charitable organization.
A very young child can assist you around the house, help a younger sibling with picking up toys or getting dressed, or even accompany you (and be your “assistant”) when you help others.
The more your child helps others, the more positive she’ll become.
3. Recording Daily Awe Moments
Dr. Fredrickson explains that positive thinking can stem from recognizing and appreciating small moments of happiness and beauty. These simple moments can include laughter, a hug, a beautiful sunset, or the sound of birds singing.
One practical way to work on this skill with your child is to have her start an Awe Journal. You can keep one of your own as well, and you and your child can discuss them weekly or daily.
In the Awe Journal, you and your child will record sights or moments from your daily lives that you find beautiful or extraordinary: a rainbow, a kind act, or even the smell of freshly baked cookies. Your child can record these moments with drawings, descriptions, poems, etc.
It may seem small, but writing about positive experiences can actually have a major impact on positive thinking. A study published in the Journal of Research in Personality examined 90 undergraduate students who were split into two groups.
One group wrote about an intensely positive experience every day for only three days. The other group wrote about a control topic. Three months later, the first group was still experiencing better mood levels and fewer illnesses.
Working on the Awe Journal will also teach your child to begin recognizing and searching for beauty everywhere, which will help her form a more positive view of the world and herself.
4. Setting and Achieving Goals
Dr. Fredrickson and her colleagues also suggest that achieving goals helps people become more optimistic, positive thinkers with a greater sense of well-being.
Dr. Gabriele Oettingen, a Professor of Psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg, explains that positive thinking alone doesn’t help people reach their goals. Sometimes, she says, “Dreamers are no doers.”
At times, people who are too optimistic about reaching their goals don’t take the possible setbacks they may encounter seriously, and they ultimately fail at achieving these goals, which may negatively impact their outlook.
To help your child achieve goals and develop more long-term positive thinking, try using Dr. Oettiengen’s WOOP strategy:
Wish - Help your child come up with a goal she would really like to accomplish.
Outcome - Engage your child in visualizing the best outcome that could result from accomplishing this goal. What would this outcome look like? What would it feel like?
Obstacle - Take wishing and visualizing a practical step further by generating a list of obstacles that could prevent your child from reaching the goal. These obstacles could include wanting to give up or getting distracted by something, like wanting to play with toys or check a cell phone.
Plan - Finally, make a plan for dealing with these obstacles if/when they occur. Have your child say or write sentences like: If/when [Obstacle], then I will [Plan to overcome the obstacle].
Visualizing and planning for obstacles in advance makes it more likely that your child will actually achieve her goals, resulting in increased confidence and a more positive attitude.
5. Sharing Positivity
One of the most powerful ways to teach your child to have a positive attitude is to MODEL this behavior for her. When you accept and process your emotions in a healthy way, you teach your child to do the same.
You can also share positive experiences with your child. Dr. Frederickson observes that “shared positivity—having two people caught up in the same emotion—may have an even greater impact on health than something positive experienced by oneself.”
She suggests such simple activities as watching a funny TV show or movie and laughing together, sharing a funny joke or good news, or being physically affectionate. Anything that sparks feelings of joy, contentment, and love contributes to positive thinking, especially when these emotions are shared.
Laugh with your child, hug your child, set aside time to provide your undivided attention, and enjoy positive experiences together. Taking time to discuss the Awe Journals mentioned above can be a valuable shared experience as well.
These moments of togetherness will deepen your bond with your child, and it will increase her positivity and health, both physical and emotional.
6. Developing Skills and Trying New Activities
Recognize your child’s strengths and give her opportunities to develop them and experience success. For example, if your child has a beautiful singing voice, let her try voice lessons and perform in voice recitals. If she’s an excellent soccer player, sign her up for a local team.
As your child develops skills and succeeds as a result, she’ll increase her confidence and develop a more positive outlook and attitude.
Similarly, trying NEW things can result in increased confidence and resilience. Encourage your child to try a new sport, instrument, game, or activity.
Likewise, if your child expresses interest in a new activity, let her try it out. As she enjoys or finds a degree of success with this new activity, she’ll develop a more positive view of herself, her abilities, and life in general.
You can even find new activities to try with your child in order to increase your shared positive experiences. Sign up for a cooking class, work on a few art projects, or take up rollerblading together.
7. Practicing Positive Affirmations
Positive affirmations are belief systems rooted in the universal truth. They are positive statements that children or adults can repeat to themselves in order to increase self-esteem, promote positive thinking, and change negative self-talk.
Affirmations are most effective if you let your child come up with her own. This is because the healing power of affirmation comes not from saying the positive words aloud, but from internalizing them. Your child will also take ownership of the process and be more committed to her affirmations.
Guide your child to come up with affirmations that are short, positive, and present tense. Examples include:
Instead of giving your child instructions or requiring her to say affirmations, try to use them in a playful manner. Research shows that children learn best through PLAY, so turn your child’s affirmations into a game the two of you play together. Take turns affirming one another and then saying your own affirmations, or come up with a song or dance.
You can also post your child’s affirmations on her mirror or around her room, or the two of you can make a creative art project using these statements.
The more your child says her affirmations, the more she’ll come to truly believe them, ultimately reducing negative self-talk and increasing positive thinking.
Maintaining a positive attitude is a difficult task for adults, and it’s even more challenging for children. But our brains can be trained to be more positive as we engage in positive activities, and you can promote positivity with your child.
Don’t pressure your child to get rid of negative thoughts altogether, but help her embrace positivity using the following activities:
As your child engages in these activities, she’ll train her brain to be more positive and respond to emotions in a healthier manner. She’ll boost her confidence, resilience, and overall happiness, and she’ll gain a more positive outlook on the world around her
Author Ashley Cullins, BigLifeJournal.com