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.
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.
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?”
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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.