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Privileging Positive Emotions Promotes Children's Connection

Is your child struggling with relationships? Try privileging positive emotions.

Key points

  • We all often likely to focus on children’s "negative" rather than "positive" emotions and behaviors.
  • Positive interpersonal connection emotions include feeling seen, loved, delighted-in, kind, and grateful.
  • Highlighting and processing emotions associated with "positive connection" can help atypical children.

Anger and anxiety–we (parents, therapists, and teachers) are quick to react to and try to suppress these kinds of emotions when we notice them in neurodevelopmentally atypical children and teens. At initial evaluation sessions in my practice, parents often identify reducing anger episodes and/or anxious avoidance behaviors as primary treatment goals.

What about positive emotions? What about positive affective experiences like connection, confidence, curiosity, determination, pride, gratitude, and love? To what extent do we notice, highlight, and try to expand these? What might happen if we made enhancing these kinds of emotions primary parenting (and therapy and education) goals?

Exceptions, positive opposites, and privileging positive affective experiences

Solution-focused (attending to and building on "exceptions" to the problem, not just the problem) and behavioral (reinforcing ‘positive opposites’ of problem behaviors) techniques have long been a staple in my work with neurodevelopmentally atypical children and their families.

I was recently reading a book chapter by Diane Fosha (2021) on privileging "positive affects" (emotions and moods and their expression) that arise in the context of “healing and transformation.” Fosha writes about “transformance glimmers” and “more-begets-more upward spiral(s)” of “positive neuroplasticity.”

Fosha’s accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy (AEDP) approach has prompted me to add another layer to my solution-focused and behavioral interventions. I have begun incorporating, more frequently and directly, a focus on privileging (identifying, discussing, and expanding upon) positive affective experiences.

Fosha comprehensively discusses affective experiences associated with safety, self-efficacy, transformation, flourishing, and more. I will focus here on noticing and expanding upon positive emotions associated with interpersonal connection.

Using positive emotions associated with interpersonal connection

Experiencing interpersonal connection can be especially challenging for neurodevelopmentally atypical children, especially those diagnosed with Autism. They may be unfamiliar with connection experiences, not know or only partially know what we are talking about when we are talking about connection, and not notice interpersonal connection when it occurs.

For many years in my practice, I have tried to notice when episodes of connection occur (between the child and me, between the child and their parent) and help these children and adolescents become more familiar with and better able to access these experiences. I "stop the action" and "make it big and clear" and use (and thus teach) words that identify and describe these moments of connection.

After reading Fosha’s (2021) chapter on positive affect, I realize I can be more specific and clear when focusing on interpersonal connection. I can notice, stop the action, highlight, and put into words times when the child or adolescent seems to be feeling seen, loved, cared for, accepted, delighted in, grateful, compassionate, kind, and/or generous. We can ‘savor’ (an AEDP term) together these kinds of connection feelings, perhaps making them more familiar and more likely to be repeated.

As I am working to help neurodevelopmentally atypical children become more familiar with feelings that mark interpersonal connection, I also try to help them better "see" and understand how these feelings and connections are experienced and expressed by others (e.g., me as their therapist, their parents). We are, thus, working to help them develop their social perspective-taking skills or "theory of mind" and their abilities to read facial expressions, body postures, and voice tones that signal other people’s emotions.

Glimmers, partial exceptions, and successive approximations

Neurodevelopmentally atypical children, in general, and children diagnosed with Autism, in particular, tend to rarely or only partially express the kinds of positive emotions associated with interpersonal connection. It is important to identify and then work to expand upon "glimmers" of positive affect (an AEDP term), "partial exceptions" (a solution-focused term), and "successive approximations" (a behavioral term) rather than only noticing and highlighting full-blown positive affective experiences.

And, yes, implementing this kind of change on a day-to-day basis takes a lot of patience and persistence on the parent’s part, which is why working with a therapist or joining a parent support group, or involving a co-parent or peer accountability partner can help.

This is like the "Nurtured Heart Approach"

Howard Glasser’s (1999) "Nurtured Heart Approach" is a program developed for parents and teachers that emphasizes describing “what is right about the person in front of you” by recognizing “Polaroid moments” and using “emotionally nutritious words” to “transform the way children perceive themselves, their caregivers and the world around them” and build a “positive portfolio of themselves” or “inner wealth.”

Similarities between Glasser's Nurtured Heart Approach and AEDP’s "privileging the positive," solution-focused therapy’s focus on "exceptions" to the problem, and behavioral therapy’s reinforcement of the "positive opposites" are clear.

The Nurtured Heart Approach to highlighting "connection affects" might be something like ‘I see/hear/feel that you are becoming a person who is: a helper, a good listener, compassionate, cooperative, considerate, fair, forgiving, generous, gentle, grateful, honest, kind, patient, respectful, trustworthy, understanding, etc.

Give highlighting and expanding upon "connection affects" a try

For some time in my practice, I have taught parents to do between sessions what we are doing in sessions. I model, then prompt, then encourage practicing focusing on exceptions and positive opposites, on teaching parents to say to their children, "You are becoming a person who...."

I have, more recently, been experimenting with encouraging parents to notice, highlight, expand upon, put into words, and then verbally process experiences associated with interpersonal connection, times when their children seem to be feeling seen, loved, cared for, accepted, delighted in, grateful, compassionate, kind, and/or generous.

I invite you, as parents (or teachers or therapists), to experiment with this approach as well.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Kazdin, A. E. (2009). The Kazdin method for parenting the defiant child. NY: Harper Paperbacks.

Fosha, D, (2021). We are Organized to be Better than Fine. In Fosha, D. (Ed.) AEDP 2.0: Undoing aloneness and the transformation of suffering into flourishing. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Glasser, H. & Easly, J. (1999). Transforming the difficult child: The Nurtured Heart Approach. Austin, TX: Nurtured Heart Publications.

Taylor, E. R. (2019). Solution-focused therapy with children and adolescents: Creative and play-based approaches (1st Ed). Routledge: Oxfordshire, England. UK.

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