How to Reframe and Handle a Kid’s Negative Attitude

hategraffiti.jpgI am once again sharing an article by Hather Forbes, who is one of my favorite parenting experts. Her “love-based” parenting directly addresses the fear (“fight-or-flight”) responses that so many traumatized kids experience. This perfectly explains how to reframe and handle a kid’s negative attitude — a common problem. 

Q: My 8-year-old son “hates” everything: the particular car driving down the street, the shirt I’m wearing, the kid next door, the color of the living room, the cashier at the grocery store, etc., etc. I am having trouble understanding this and how to deal with it. Any insights?

A: I’m certain that this is a maddening place to be with your son and that it feels as if nothing will make him happy. There’s nothing more frustrating than to try to send positive energy to someone, only to be met with resistance and negativity.

In order to reverse your child’s perception of the world as negative, it will first take a new understanding of why he “hates” everything. When children’s needs are met early in their development, their blueprint for the world becomes positive and optimistic. When a baby is crying and sending out stress signals, he is in need of nurturing and comforting care. When this is given to him, his system is shifted back to a state of regulation and the world is a good place-he develops a sense of optimism.

If he is not cared for and if he is left on his own to navigate through his internal stress, the world becomes a scary place.  Negative repetitious conditioning breeds an outlook of pessimism. No matter how much he cries, no matter what he does, he can’t seem to convince his caretakers to help him. Helplessness and overwhelm prevail. For such a child, nothing is working, so his universal blueprint of “nothing is right” is being created.

A child who “hates” everything is a child in a perpetual state of fear and dysregulation. His neurophysiological system has been programmed to see the world as half empty instead of half full. He truly doesn’t know that everything is going to be all right. He really doesn’t know that good always overcomes evil. Essentially, he is programmed to live an operatic tragedy instead of a light-hearted drama.

Think about this…isn’t it great to simply go to Netflix and pick out what kind of movie you want? Maybe it is a romantic comedy; maybe it is an action movie; maybe even during this Halloween season it is a horror flick.

But in our own realities, we don’t have the luxury of returning one life and checking out another so quickly. What we do have are three key elements to make significant changes to our life stories: 1) understanding, 2) relationship, and 3) plasticity.

The first of these, understanding, was addressed in the beginning of this article. The second, relationships, is something that is always available to initiate. Healing happens in the context of relationships, and most fervently through the context of the parent-child relationship. And third, plasticity, is what an 8-year-old has plenty of. The brain continues to make major changes until we are 25 years old.

Your child needs to know that the world is safe and good. In order to do this, it will take creating a deeper relationship with him. It will take helping him to express himself at a deeper level. The next time he makes a negative statement, such as, “I hate the shirt you are wearing,” sit with him and listen to him. Ask him more about what he hates.

Validate his negativity instead of trying to convince him of something more positive. “You really do hate this shirt. Wow. Help me understand how much you hate it. Tell me more.” As he expresses himself, help him shift into the feelings behind these words. (It’s really not about the shirt.) “How does that make you feel?”

Essentially, his “I hate the world” statements are indicators of his own internal reality: “The world hates me and I don’t even deserve to be in this world.” When a child (or adult) feels this depth of darkness from within himself, it makes sense as to why all his comments are negative towards his external environment.

Think about a time when you were just in a bad mood. Nothing seemed to be right; nothing seemed to be the way you wanted it to be. Your perception of the world matched your negative framework. So, it is the same with your child, simply at a deeper level within the core of his being.

When you can help him to move into this core area within himself by listening, validating, maximizing, tolerating, accepting, and staying present with him, you’ll be there in relationship to guide him towards feeling safe and loved. Thus, you’ll be able to guide him to see that the world is good and hope does exist. It will take positive repetitious conditioning to do this for him (see Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control, Chapter 3).

The reason this works is because our neurological systems are “plastic.” We have the ability to change and be molded, especially children. Your son is growing and developing everyday. He still has years ahead of him to create new neuropathways. Every interaction with you is an opportunity to literally change his brain and lay down new neuropatterns of positive thought and positive outlook.

Work to stay in a place of understanding, keep yourself regulated, and know that through loving influence, you have the ability to create exactly the environment he needs for healing, hope, and optimism.

Press on,

HeatherHeather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.

“Validation” is not Reflective Listening

January 28, 2013

Blogging from a two-day seminar on Dialectical Behavioral Treatment (DBT).  Several of the key concepts of DBT track right along with what are core ideas of Pack Leader Psychology. One concept that I agreed with is that clients with borderline personality disorder and other behaviors that are appropriate for DBT were usually raised by parents who invalidated them. What does this mean? I believe it is very similar to what I blogged about on January 24, “Parents: How to Teach Your Children to Have Low Self-Esteem!”

Quite simply, these parents didn’t listen to their children. Parents are often so busy teaching the right thing to do, that they don’t listen to what the child is expressing and feeling. My opinion, and this is supported by research, is that children know what is the right thing to do in a general way. They know it isn’t right to hit their siblings or torment the dog. But parents are often busy educating kids, not listening to what is going on inside the child.

This happens because so much of what parents communicate is a solution, an external opinion.  The child may be pitching a fit about not wanting to go to his math tutor, but the parent doesn’t ask what is causing this tantrum.  The parent instead immediately launches into why it is important to go, the child must go, because I said so, and any of a million logical reasons. Forget those. The child is acting out because of an emotional response. Use reflective listening to uncover that fear or at least honor the emotion for the child so he can experience it himself.

I think parents do this because this is how they were parented. I know this is how I was raised back in the 60s. For parents it just seems to make sense to explain things to a child instead of ask him how he feels. Besides, those facts are so much more comfortable to discuss than feelings!

But parents often discover that instantly arguing with a child only escalates the argument. And the child never feels listened to.

Well, I was feeling pretty good about DBT at that point, but then the speaker showed a humorous video about “validation.” The storyline was of a guy in a booth who gave a string of compliments and feel-good messages to people: “You are handsome. What beautiful eyes.” The video showed this “Validator” come across a sullen woman who seemed impervious to his upbeat charm. He then worked endlessly to get the woman to respond to his “validations,” Eventually she smiled and changed her attitude. Happily ever after, etc, etc.

This may be what most people mean by validation, but it is not what parents should do with their children (or what therapists should do with clients!) Validation should not be considered “positive reinforcement” and compliments. Validation is not equivalent to approval! To validate someone’s feelings means to honor those emotions as real, rather than disregard them or diminish them.  The point of validation should be to allow the receiver (child or therapy client) to learn to recognize his or her emotions as legitimate and valuable.

Quite the opposite of reflective listening  (see Jan. 24 post), a compliment is merely the giver’s opinion of the receiver. This sort of transaction teaches the receiver that external approval is key to her self-worth – a very dangerous message, in my opinion. It teaches that a parent or other person has power over the child’s reality and diminishes his sense of self. People with borderline personality disorder and many other “mental disorders” are already overly dependent on external approval, so this is exactly the opposite of what they need. They need to be more self-“validating” and self-accepting.

Compliments should be included in therapy in small doses and for specific behaviors. I believe that telling clients they are fabulous and great is dangerous because it is a further denying of the client’s reality, probably something that their parents did to them as children. It shifts the power balance toward the therapist.

Instead I would recommend using the idea of reflective listening, which I explained in full in the Jan. 24 blog. Instead of giving opinions and compliments, ask how the person is feeling and reflect that feeling back.

“Validation” as shown in the video also communicates a type of manipulation: If I give you a compliment I can try to “make you feel” a certain way. The “Validator” was endlessly upbeat, trying to make everyone smile and feel better about themselves. While this may seem positive and pleasant on the surface, this type of communication can be construed as inauthentic.

When in doubt as a parent or therapist: Ask, don’t tell.

Parents: How to Teach Your Children to Have Low Self-Esteem!

Jan. 24, 2013

Parents, I’m going to offer you the simplest, easiest way to teach your children to have low self-esteem.

Oh, sure, the obvious way is to do any or all of the following:

  • be emotionally or physically abusive to your children or spouse
  • be emotionally distressed yourself, with anxiety, depression, narcissistic/self-absorbed, etc, (but don’t go get therapy!)
  • be a substance abuser
  • abandon your children physically or emotionally
  • be inconsistent with discipline or too permissive
  • be too authoritarian and strict

But those are all a lot of work!  You don’t even have to go to all that trouble. Here is the easiest way to teach your child to feel shameful about himself:  Don’t listen.  That’s it — the key to raising a child who feels bad about himself.

I see this every day in my therapy practice with parents and their children.  Yet these parents are just behaving as their parents did and as many, many parents do today.

To illustrate, here is one scenario of a typical parent/child conversation:

Mom: “What a beautiful picture you drew in school today.”

Child: “Oh, well, I think it sucks.”

Mom: “No, it’s great. Look at the pretty colors! And the people you drew are so nice.”

Child: “Mom, it sucks. I hate it. I hate drawing.”

Mom:   “Don’t say that. You don’t hate drawing. You are a good artist. Look at this nice picture you drew. We have so many pictures that you drew that are so nice.”

Child: “Mom, I told you it sucks. I hate drawing. I’m never going to draw again.”

I’m sure most parents can claim a conversation similar to that one. Normal parenting, right? Supportive of the child, building his self-esteem, reinforcing his talents, right?

Wrong! Instead, this conversation taught the child:

  • your opinions don’t matter
  • your feelings don’t count
  • your “self” isn’t real and important
  • your mother doesn’t know or care about the real you
  • adults don’t listen to your concerns or ask how you feel
  • talking about feelings is wrong and scary
  • admitting faults is wrong and scary and vulnerable

Now those are some terrific lessons in building low self-worth.  And all from a simple conversation about a painting in first grade!

Instead, I recommend to parents that I see in therapy that they use a simple technique called “Reflective Listening.” This is actually something we use as psychologists (Shhh — don’t tell!).

With reflective listening, the conversation above would go something like this:

Mom: “Looks like you have something there in your hand from school.”

Child: “Yeah, I drew this picture, but it sucks.”

Mom: “Oh, you think this painting isn’t very good.”

Child: “Yeah, it sucks. I hate it. I hate drawing.”

Mom: “You really, really don’t like drawing or this picture.”

Child: “No. Hate it. Everyone draws better than me.”

Mom: “Ah. You feel like everyone else in class can draw better than you do.”

Child: “Yeah, and Miss Smith didn’t say she liked my drawing.”

Mom: “Oh, so it didn’t feel good when Miss Smith ignored your drawing. It seems to me like you are angry.”

Child:  “Well, maybe a little.”

Mom: “And sad, too?”

Ok, so you get the point.  Reflective listening involves the extremely simple idea of reflecting back (hence the name!) what the other person says.  It can at first seem boring and repetitive, but if done well, it can lead to some good stuff:

  • the person feels “heard”
  • the person is able to process his feelings without solutions, direction or opinions of the other person
  • emotions are recognized and validated
  • his real “self” is honored and accepted

The first scenario can seem so “good” as a parent — you are telling the child that he is worthwhile right? You are saying his painting is good and he is good. But instead, the opposite is happening. You are in essence telling the child he is wrong, his opinion is wrong, and he concludes that his self is also not worth much. Notice in the second conversation how the child isn’t contradicted or challenged.

Reflective listening ideally also leads the conversation to an emotion. Try to describe how you see what your child is feeling:  angry, sad, frustrated, upset, happy, content. Honor those emotions and let the child see that it is OK to express and talk about emotions.

Ideally, with an older child, if you can introduce the topics of shame and the need for acceptance and belonging as the roots of most emotional distress, that’s ideal. But you might just need a graduate degree in psychology for that trick.  Or maybe just go see a therapist for family counseling!