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Negativity is Like Second-Hand Smoke

Help yourself and young people breathe "yes" into life

Source: 123RF

Do you ever catch yourself paying more attention to negative feedback, than positive? When someone compliments you on a job well done, do you shrug it off quickly then shift your thinking to what needs improvement?

Well, children do the same! But there are proven ways for all of us to fight back--to tame our inner critic!

Negativity is like second-hand smoke. It not only permeates the room but has dire health consequences for those unfortunate enough to be in its path.

According to neuroscientists, our brains are hardwired to focus more on the negative, including worry, disapproval, danger, illness, fear, and even the word, “no.” As we verbally express these thoughts, additional stress chemicals are released.

The listener’s brain is changed too, feeling more anxious and irritable. Trust and cooperation between people is undermined. In short, negativity can destroy family relationships and cause emotional harm.

When I first met my husband Richard in the late 1970’s, he proudly displayed the personalized license plate “YEESSS” on his Triumph sports car. When asked about its significance, he quickly replied, “It helps me remember to think positively – to say yes instead of no. I’m much happier when I say, “YEESSS” to life.”

Thinking back on that conversation, I must admit Richard was wise beyond his years. He already understood what it has taken neuroscientists years to discover – that negativity is linked to increased stress and unhappiness.

The Power of YEESSS

Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Prof. Mark Robert Waldman, authors of the book Words Can Change Your Brain, show how negativity and stress are related. For example, with just one flash of the word “no,” our brains release dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters that create havoc with our normal functioning.

Barbara Fredrickson, a pioneer in the positive psychology movement, discovered how positive thoughts affect the brain. In her book, Positivity: Groundbreaking Research Reveals How to Embrace the Hidden Strength of Positive Emotions, Overcome Negativity, and Thrive, Fredrickson shows how to overcome our bias toward negativity by developing a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative thoughts.

When we achieve this balance, we are more likely to find ourselves in caring relationships and productive work situations.

For a moment, think how many times children and teens hear the word “no” or experience negativity in their families or classrooms. Each exposure to negativism, as well as the child’s own negative thoughts, is likely to cause emotional turmoil over time.

How do we help kids achieve the optimum balance between negativity and positivity?

There are several parts to the puzzle. First, we must acknowledge that adult behaviors influence children. And second, we must understand how children develop their own patterns of positive thinking.

The Art of Positive Communication

Adults play a big role in how children perceive and respond to negativity. When communicating with children, keep these simple principles in mind.

1. Stop and Think about your Words

Say “yes” whenever possible. If you can’t say “yes,” reframe your response to invite positive conversation. For example, if Susie asks to extend her curfew until 3AM, you might be tempted to say, “Absolutely not!” But instead of a quick, negative response, try asking a question to invite conversation on the topic. You might ask Susie, “If you were the mother, what would convince you to allow your daughter to be out that late?” You may or may not end up changing your mind, but you will engage Susie in meaningful conversation that will help her understand your decision-making process. And you’ll spare Suzie’s brain and your own from some stress-producing hormones!

2. Pay Attention to Delivery

Yelling and arguing produces bad chemicals in the brain. If you feel frustrated with a child, take a deep breath and try to relax before engaging in conversation. Good eye contact and a warm tone in your voice send positive signals to the brain. Words and delivery are equally important when parents are engaged in conversations in front of children. Like second-hand smoke, yelling affects everyone in the room!

3. Slow Down

Research shows that slowing down your speech produces calm feelings, particular with children who may feel anxious or angry. Speaking slowly also deepens people’s connections, allowing them to better understand each another.

Helping Children Tame Their Inner Critics

In addition to building healthy channels of communication, research suggests three ways to help children tame their inner critics and build deeper roots of positivity. Adults support children and teens as they learn to:

1. Develop Gratitude

When children learn to recognize and appreciate the good things in life, they develop satisfaction and a sense of optimism. In The Transformative Power of Gratitude, I outline five ways to nurture gratitude in homes and classrooms, including helping kids focus on the present moment and fostering their imagination.

2. Define and Experience a Positive Day

Taking time to be with family and friends and doing the things you enjoy helps deepen relationships. Encourage children to design a day with you or someone close to them that would make both people happy. At the end of the day, help them savor their positive experiences by reflecting on the things they most enjoyed.

3. Develop their Best Selves

When children imagine themselves at their best their confidence increases. We help children become their best selves by showing interest in them and the kind of young people they want to become. Especially at times when children feel good about themselves, help them recapture their thoughts and feelings. What feels good to them? Tell them what you noticed about them.

How have you nurtured a balance of positivity and negativity in your own family or classroom? I always love to hear your stories!


Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is the author of Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. A developmental psychologist and researcher, she works at the intersection of positive youth development and education.

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©2013 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please see reprint guidelines for Marilyn’s articles.

Photo Credits: R. Krishnan; K. Alsawintarangkul

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