Change Your Child's Negative Attitude

3 Simple Strategies to Change Your Child’s Negative Attitude6 min read

By Jon Beaty

October 16, 2015

children, parenting, complaining, attitudes

Brian and Lisa had a problem. Negative thinking had taken root in their family. What they noticed most was that their children, Kate and Kyle, complained. They complained a lot. Brian and Lisa wanted to stop it.

Complaining Children

Kate and Kyle were 12 and 10 years old. Their negative attitudes spilled over in the form of constant complaining.

  • They complained about school and homework.
  • They complained about friends who disappointed them.
  • They complained about teachers who didn’t seem to care about them.
  • They complained about their clothes.
  • They complained about what Lisa did or didn’t put in their lunch, and what she served for dinner.
  • They complained about having to go to church.

This is the short list.

Brian and Lisa tried to be understanding. They listened to the complaints. They made suggestions. Sometimes they’d buy new clothes, or change the lunch and dinner menu, just to stop the complaining.

But the negativity persisted.

Problem Solving

Brian is a counseling psychologist. He works with adults. Kids aren’t his specialty. But he knew that what we focus our attention on causes us to see more of it.

Brian remembered when he bought a new Toyota Camry, he noticed many more new Camrys on the road than he’d noticed before.

When we focus on negative events, we talk about them, we devote time to thinking about them, and we train our brain to notice more negative events.

Brian came up with a plan and shared it with Lisa.

In working with adults who suffered from depression, Brian helped them retrain their brains. Depressed people often develop a severe case of pessimism. Their negative mindset gets so bad, they can’t see anything good in their world.

One of the recommendations Brian offered to his depressed patients was to practice each day turning their thoughts to positive events. Brian suggested that he and Lisa adapt this intervention to address their kids’ negative thinking.

Lisa agreed to go along with it.

The Secret Agenda

Brian and Lisa scheduled a family meeting on a Monday evening. Lisa made up some simple homemade cards, and wrote invitations to the meeting for Kate and Kyle. She placed the invitations on their bed pillows the day before.

When the kids discovered the invitations on Sunday evening, they were curious. The invites said nothing about the agenda. They asked Brian and Lisa what was up, but the parents only smiled, and said, “You’ll have to wait and see.”

The kids assumed something bad was happening. They let their minds come up with catastrophic outcomes. They said stuff like:

  • “We’re moving, aren’t we? Dad got a new job and we have to move away from our friends, and start all over again.”
  • “You’re going to make us go to family counseling, because all we do is complain.”
  • “You’re going to be foster parents, and we’re going to have to share our bedrooms.”
  • “You guys aren’t getting a divorce, are you?”

Brian and Lisa did what they could to address their kids’ worries about worst-case scenarios. But they kept the their agenda secret.

Learning New Attitudes

On Monday evening, Kate and Kyle showed up early for the family meeting. Their curiosity about the secret agenda had gotten their full attention.

Brian revealed his plan.

The family would agree on a time to turn off the TV each weekday evening, Monday through Friday. They’d spend about 15-20 minutes on one of three questions, and discuss it as a family. The questions would be alternated each evening, so that the same question wouldn’t be answered 2 days in a row or more than twice a week.

Brian revealed each question and instructions for each:

1. What’s One Thing that Happened or Didn’t Happen Today that You’re Grateful for?

Each person takes a turn telling the others one thing you are thankful for. Looking over the past 24 hours, you may choose something that happened, or that did not happen, for which you are grateful.

2. The Best Thing that Happened to You Today?

Each parent and child gets a turn telling the rest of the family about the best thing that happened that day.

3. What’s One Thing You Accomplished Today?

Each family member shares one accomplishment achieved. This isn’t necessarily your greatest accomplishment. The point is to tell about anything you achieved, great or small.


A Few Ground Rules

Brian also presented a few ground rules:

1. Participation is voluntary

Everyone must be present for this special family time. No distractions allowed. No phones or tablets, books or magazines invited. But no one is required to answer the question of the day.

In the beginning Kyle was stubborn about participating. He resisted sharing anything positive. But after a few days of being exposed to the positive comments and emotions of the rest of the family, he got into the action.

2. Practice active-constructive responses

Celebrate each family member’s positive reports.

Brian and Lisa made a promise to each other to show their kids how to do this. Brian knew from his research that this kind or response to good news builds a stronger connection between the news-bearer and the person who hears it. It also magnifies the impact of the news reporter’s positive experience.

Brian and Lisa made comments to each other’s reports, and their kids’ reports, like, “That’s awesome!” “Congratulations!” and, “You go!” They expressed real enthusiasm. They also asked questions about what each family member reported. They said things like, “Tell me how that happened,” and “How did you do that?”

Put this plan to work with your family.

Press the Button Below to Get the Free 1-Page Parent Guide.

Gradual Transformation

Brian and Lisa didn’t see results right away. But they stuck to their plan. Over a period of about 3 weeks, they noticed a gradual decrease in complaining from Kate and Kyle. Family conversations about positive events in their lives began to occur spontaneously.

Three weeks is about the length of time it takes to establish a new habit. After 3 weeks of doing this daily exercise with their kids, Brian and Lisa counted it a success.

It didn’t totally eliminate negative thinking and complaining by Kate and Kyle. It did result in positive comments becoming more frequent than negative comments. It was a total turnaround from the way things were before.

The family, especially the kids, began to look forward to their evening sharing time. Every few months Brian asks the family if they want to continue their evening discussions. Every time, the vote to keep it going is unanimous.



The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience, by Martin E. P. Seligman (affiliate link).

Disclaimer: Brian and Lisa, and their children Kate and Kyle are figments of my imagination. However, the science behind the interventions they used are supported by real science.

About the author

I help Christian leaders apply the ways and words of Jesus to:
- Overcome limiting beliefs, habits, and traits.
- Build stronger connections with the people they live and work with.
- Clarify and achieve their personal goals and life mission.

  • This is such a great parenting, success, story. I especially appreciate ground rule #1. I like how your friend made participation voluntary, and didn’t rush the process. It would be very unlikely for a teenager to attend these meetings for a full week and not participate. It’s funny how when kids and teens feel pushed into something, they will shut down. But, when participation is voluntary, they dive right in.

    Of course, I’m highlighting this because it is such a good reminder for me personally. I tend to be really good at being patient with the teens I work with, but can try to rush the process with my own children. It’s a great reminder for me, as a dad, to keep participation voluntary, and to allow time for the process of change to take place.

    Thanks for the PDF too. What an excellent parenting tool!

    • I also find it easier to be patient with people who aren’t living with me. I think how we treat the people closest to us is probably a more accurate reflection of our character–evidence that we need more of Jesus, less of self.

      By the way, the family in this post is a figment of my imagination (see the disclaimer at the end of my post). I was reminded by a podcast I was listening to this week that stories are an effective teaching tool. I thought I’d try sharing info in story form–I like how it turned out.

  • Really good stuff here. I teach something very similar to your gratitude exercise and what I call ACR (active constructive responding). ACR is really just responding in a authentic, active and constructive way threat builds on the interest in a relationship making it stronger. I think the real key here is awareness and engaged parenting.

    Our negative thoughts is like a boxing match we are constantly battling them round after round. One way to counter negative thoughts is to use sentence starters like

    – That’s not completely true because…
    – A more optimistic way of viewing this is…
    – The most likely implication is…and I can…

    I found the middle sentence starter the easiest for me because my #1 character strength is hope and optimism. I really enjoy reading this articles about resilience. Plus it re-engages me to evaluate how I’m doing in these areas.

      • I first heard it a year ago and I borrowed it. It painted the picture. I asked him why he used that metaphor. He told me it tells the story and people remember things visually so if you paint the picture they are more likely to remember. Our minds aren’t made up of a bunch of data like the matrix but snapshots and pictures. It made sense to me.

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}