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Being Positive with Children Who Aren’t

Almost every child from time to time acts negative. They act like they want to ruin things for everybody—peers, adults and even themselves. At times like this, if you’re the care-taking adult (parent, teacher, grandparent, babysitter, child care or day-care worker), you’re going to have a hard time knowing why or how to be positive. But you need to know.

And some children seem to be negative most all the time. It seems the only way they know to ask for attention is to act up and evoke criticism or punishment. These are the children who need your positive response the most, if you know how to give it.

Since these children misbehave so often and behave well so seldom, the cycle of ignoreà criticizeà punishà ignore apparently isn’t working with them, as it’s producing very little positive behavior.

Why are these children so negative? Perhaps they assume that they can’t behave, or that if they do, it won’t be noticed or appreciated. They may feel weird and unreal if they are praised, so they need time to get used to it. They chose negative attention over none at all. Or perhaps they think misbehavior is a safer path than getting their hopes up in vain for achieving success or popularity.

Now when children misbehave, I’m certainly not against negative consequences. I’m just saying that criticism and punishment are a lot more effective when children realize that they could do better, and that you hope they will do better next time.

I really believe all children need to be appreciated when they are doing positive things, and I believe all children give moments worth celebrating if you watch for them. So I encourage you to affirm and celebrate children, especially “negative” ones, when they show their:

1. Arrival and departure—when they show up and walk into the room, or you walk into theirs, and when it’s time to say goodbye, these are good times for a positive word. Use your smile like two bookends for the day.

2. Beauty, brains, charm or humor—notice positively her hair or the colors she’s wearing, how handsome he is when he smiles, how quickly they learn something, or how cute or charming they are when they’re not misbehaving.

3. Feelings—remember these aren’t good or bad. It’s how we choose to show emotions that makes our behavior a good or bad choice. When their ways of expressing their feelings are inappropriate (wouldn’t work well in real-world relationships), show them better ways to express their feelings, such as putting them into words instead of body language, frowns and voice tones.

4. Social skills or leadership—when they are connecting well with the wrong people, or connecting with better people but in the wrong way, it’s good to ask sometimes if they are ready to try something new, make a new friend, join a new group, take a risk, or help out someone less fortunate than they are.

5. Determination—when they refuse to change their behavior despite ramped-up consequences, you can use reverse psychology by acknowledging their strong-willed choice to learn the hard way by suffering and frustration over a longer period as showing toughness, instead of learning the easier way now for popularity and privileges.

6. Independence—when they play alone, or alienate others, you can say that you see they’re choosing to go it alone no matter how lonely it gets. You doubt they’re as big a misfit as they think, but they may not be ready to find out yet.

In general, it helps to ask how they like to hear you say their name, giving them a choice of different pronunciations and inflections. Use their name the way they like to hear it when they’re going good, or no harm, saving the other ways for times of criticism and punishment.

And every child needs a little physical acknowledgment, a brief gentle touch on the shoulder or back when you pass by and they’re not acting up, best done so that other children won’t notice it.

I started this by saying that virtually all children need some positive acknowledgment. The thing is, we care-taking adults need it too. So that’s the last reason to be positive whenever you can afford to be, even with negative children, because we reap what we sow.

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About Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD

Dr. Paul Schmidt, PhD is a psychologist life coach with offices in Louisville and Shelbyville, KY, 502 633 2860.