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LIVING WITH CHILDREN

Parenting advice: Improve child’s attitude by making him confront his negativity

Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - 12:01 am

Q: Our 7-year-old son is very negative about everything. He's a middle child, so that may have something to do with it, but everyone else in the family is very happy, positive, optimistic, and so on. He never has anything positive to say about anything. Things the rest of us enjoy he says are “stupid” or “dumb.”

We raise all of our kids the same, so we don't understand where the negativity is coming from, or what to do about it. It's beginning to drive us a tad batty. In fact, we are starting to not want him around us, which is causing us guilt. By the way, he's often this way around his friends and other people. We've tried talking, but that's gotten us nowhere. We hesitate to punish for fear that he can't help it. Any ideas?

A: So, if I understand you correctly, you are beginning to have a negative reaction to your son's negativity. That's perfectly understandable. As for not wanting your son around you, that's perfectly understandable as well.

You are obligated to love him unconditionally. You are not obligated to like everything about him. In this case, the behavior in question is clearly anti-social. As he grows, if this isn't checked soon, it's going to become a significant social handicap.

As for why he's this way, some professional might tender a guess, but it would only be a guess. The most likely explanation is “just because.” Maybe because he discovered, quite accidentally, and early on in his life, that being negative in a family of positive people caused him to stand out, to get lots of attention. That's a guess, mind you, but it's one informed by lots of parenting experience, both personal and professional.

The problem is that like certain behaviors, emotions can become habits. That's not a problem when the emotion in question is functional (e.g., an optimistic outlook), but it can become a major problem when it's anti-social (e.g., finding humor in other people's tragedies). A person who repeatedly says, “Life stinks,” is in danger of coming to believe it, despite lots of evidence to the contrary.

Likewise, your son is in danger of his negativity becoming a habit. The good news is that he's young enough for you to head that off at the proverbial pass.

First, you sit down with him privately, when he's not in a foul mood, and you gently confront him with his gloom-and-doom attitude. You tell him that it's not appropriate, that he lives a better life than 90 percent of the world's kids (true), and that bad moods affect other people in bad ways.

So, from now on, he won't be allowed to be around the rest of the family if he's in a bad mood. You're simply going to send him to his very nice room to mediate on his bad attitude. When he can be happy, he can rejoin the family. In other words, you take away his audience.

When you're making plans to go somewhere or do anything as a family, ask him, “Do you think what we're going to do is stupid? Because if you do, we can find you a very mean and ugly babysitter, and you can stay home. You're only invited if you can be happy, like the rest of us.” The overwhelming likelihood is that he'll want to be included in the event. Right? Right!

That approach (I call it loving confrontation) will force your son to begin practicing a positive attitude. Within a few months, if not sooner, you should have a much more likeable middle child on your hands.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents’ questions on his web site at www.rosemond.com.