Negative thoughts lead to more negative thoughts, but using logic and self-reflection can help guide your child out of this pattern.

Party pooper, stick in the mud, and Debbie Downer are all terms for negative thinkers. Negative or pessimistic people can be a drag and should be avoided when possible. This is not only true of adults, but for negative thinking kids, too.

While this may be a chicken or egg situation, pessimists start to feel rejected and this leads to more negative thinking about others, themselves, and the world in general. When negativity becomes entrenched in one’s way of thinking, it can lead to learned helplessness. When kids truly believe that no matter what, nothing is going to get any better they give up and stop trying to surmount obstacles.

Research by psychologist Martin Seligman has shown that children who adopt a pessimistic way of thinking are at higher risk for depression than positive or optimistic thinkers. (Seligman’s most famous research is on learned helplessness as a major risk factor for depression.) For example, when things go wrong, they think in a biased way that is self-defeating.

They believe bad events are permanent, pervasive, and personal, while good events are temporary, and depend on certain lucky circumstances. This is a biased explanatory style.

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Pessimistic children may also have a pattern of automatic negative thoughts. This may include black and white thoughts (all good or all bad), fortune telling (making grim predictions about how things will go), or mind reading (everyone thinks I’m an idiot).

Depression is not necessarily a result of bad life circumstances, but instead could stem from one’s self-defeating thoughts and negative explanatory thinking style.

Negativity may be inherited. In other words, pessimistic children may have negative parents. The good news is that children can change their way of thinking and see things in a more realistic and optimistic light.

The best way to get children to change their negative mindset and explanatory style is to get them to think about their own thinking. With guidance, children can learn to identify automatic negative thoughts and then challenge these thoughts with logic. For example, if a child moans “Everyone hates me,” have him examine whether or not this is 100 percent true. Is there any compelling evidence to support this feeling?

Captain Snout and the Super Power Questions” by Daniel Amen, is a wonderful children’s book that teaches parents how to guide their child through the process of challenging negative thoughts with questions.

The idea of automatic negative thoughts was first developed by Aaron Beck, who is a pioneer of cognitive behavioral therapy, an evidence-based technique used by psychotherapists to treat depression, anxiety, and other challenges.

A key concept of cognitive behavioral therapy is that thoughts and feelings go hand in hand. When people change their thinking, their emotional reactions change. Negative thickeners get into a pattern of pessimistic thinking such as catastrophizing, which leads to emotional overreactions. These children may overreact to small challenges or withdraw completely and give up.

Some children have problems tuning into their social world and make faulty conclusions about the point of view of others. Poor social insight can lead to pessimistic views. Seligman uses the term “confirmation bias” to explain how pessimistic children tend to over focus on evidence that confirms their negative perception of themselves and the world.

However, with a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy and social skills training, these children can make progress in seeing the world more realistically and can learn to interact with others in a more mutually satisfying way. This more positive outlook leads to more positive feelings.

The following books may be very helpful to parents and children:

The Optimistic Child” by Martin Seligman

Captain Snout and the Super Power Questions” by Daniel, Amen

Mind Coach” by Daniel Amen

What to Do When You Grumble Too Much: A Kids Guide to Overcoming Negativity” by Dawn Huebner (a workbook for kids)


Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., is a licensed developmental psychologist who writes Nola Family's award-winning "Learning Years" column. 

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