Q: Our seven-year-old son is negative about everything. Everyone else in the family is happy, positive, and optimistic, but he never has anything positive to say about anything. Whatever the rest of us enjoy he says is stupid or dumb. We raise all our kids the same, so we don’t understand where his negativity is coming from or what to do about it. It’s beginning to drive us batty to the point that we’re starting to not want him around us. But that simply causes us guilt. He’s often this way around his friends and other people. We’ve tried talking to him, but it’s gotten us nowhere. We hesitate to punish him for fear that he can’t help it. Any ideas?
A: You’re clearly beginning to have a negative reaction to your son’s negativity, which is understandable. As for not wanting him around, that’s also understandable, because you’re obligated to love him unconditionally. However, you are not obligated to like everything about him. In this case, the behavior in question is clearly antisocial. If this trait isn’t checked soon, it’s going to become a significant social handicap for him as he grows up.
As for why he’s this way, the most likely explanation is “just because.” Maybe it’s because, early in life, he discovered, quite accidentally, that being negative in a family of positive people got him lots of attention. That’s a guess, mind you, but it’s one that’s informed by lots of parenting experience, both personal and professional.
The problem is that certain emotions can become habits. That’s not a problem when the emotion in question is functional, such as an optimistic outlook, but it can become a major problem when it’s antisocial. A person who repeatedly says “Life stinks” is in danger of coming to believe it, regardless of evidence to the contrary. Your son is in danger of his negativity becoming a habit. The good news is that he’s young enough for you to head it off at the proverbial pass.
I recommend that you begin by sitting him down privately when he’s not in a foul mood and gently confronting him with his gloom-and-doom attitude. Tell him that it isn’t appropriate, that he lives a better life than 90 percent of the world’s kids, and that bad moods affect other people in bad ways. So, from now on he won’t be allowed to be around the rest of the family if he’s in a bad mood. Tell him that when he does have one, you’ll send him to his very nice room to meditate on his bad attitude. When he can be happy, he can rejoin the family. In other words, you remove his audience.
When you’re making plans to go somewhere or do anything as a family, ask him, “Do you think what we’re going to do is stupid? Because if you do, we can find you a very mean and ugly babysitter and you can stay home. You’re only invited if you can be happy, like the rest of us.” The strong likelihood is that he’ll want to be included in the event.
That approach—I call it loving confrontation—will force your son to begin practicing a positive attitude. Within a few months you should have a much more likable child on your hands.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.