Helping a Child Overcome A Negative Attitude

Q: My ten-year-old’s rebbi tells me that my son has an “attitude problem” and is very negative. At times, he behaves the same way at home. However, he does enjoy playing ball and certain games. How can we get him to view life in a more positive way?

A: In situations such as yours, parents should first try to find the cause of their son’s apparent unhappiness. A child can sometimes find a teacher’s attitude distant and abrupt, or he may be angry due to constant feuding with one or more siblings. The child may be having social issues at school or he may be worried about a situation within the family, such as illness or parental arguments. He may feel incompetent in the classroom and would prefer to come across as negative rather than unsuccessful.

Children need to be reassured that concrete techniques can be applied to solve problems. Parents can reflect this hands-on approach to problem- solving at home by trying to get to the root of fighting between siblings (if possible). At school, it may be necessary to work with the child’s teacher, even on a daily basis.

Constructive action often speaks louder than philosophical explanations. A sense of negativity often reveals resignation on a child’s part. Low frustration tolerance may seem almost inherent in certain children. For them in particular, modeling NOT giving up is a gift parents can give their child.

One way of doing this is by showing an alternative method of dealing with a problematic situation. A child can either be taught to handle the situation differently, or to envision it differently.

Take a situation in which a boy is very frustrated about not being able to tie his shoelaces, and continually gives up. A parent can teach this skill patiently and concretely in a variety of ways. She can say to the child, “You need to pull each lace in an opposite direction, and then put this lace under the other one,” demonstrating the steps as she speaks. She can also put her hands over her son’s and allow him to feel the movements needed to tie his shoelaces. By doing this several times, the child will learn from experience, and this will help decrease the anxiety he feels while attempting to perfect a skill.

Buying shoes with Velcro closures is another way of dealing with this frustrating situation. This need not be a “giving-up” alternative, unless the parent sees it as such. The parent can say: “While you have these sneakers, we’ll have more time to learn how to tie the other shoes.” This reflects a different way of viewing the problem. The fix may not be immediate, but “we are working on the ultimate solution.” The message is not that the child is a failure, because you and he are not viewing it as such. Negativity is a result of how one views a situation.

Using positive reinforcement can also help change negative behavior that has become habitual. If a child constantly finds reasons to complain or tease his siblings, rewards can be given for “ahavas Yisrael” days. The parent needs to find an attainable goal, so as not to further frustrate the child, and should offer rewards that are meaningful to him. These can be non-material rewards, such as spending time alone with a parent.

Experiencing success helps breed future success and helps lift a child’s spirits. With the creation of solutions to problems, a child becomes more hopeful and begins to view things in a more positive sense.

Parents also need to analyze themselves. “What is my reaction to daily events? How quickly do I respond ‘negatively’ to frustrating circumstances?” Many incidents occur daily in one’s life, and it is clear that one’s reaction to pain and discomfort makes a difference in one’s abilities and responses.

It is important for parents to model how to frame situations in a more positive light in order to imbue a sense of hope in their children. Seeing the good in a seemingly difficult situation is one way to re-envision a problem. Reminding children of how their family has weathered many storms can also be meaningful.

Hatzlachah in this most worthy endeavor!