At times, we find our children tending toward a negative, critical or complaining view of life. This can happen even when life is quite good! If you have a child who habitually finds the ‘wrong’ or ‘negative’ in most situations, then it’s important to understand this lesson.
Let’s imagine for a moment that all thoughts are like magnets. This is true for adults, and even more obviously true for our children, if we take a moment to observe.
To see how this works, we must first understand that a thought ‘magnetically’ attracts similar thoughts—not opposite thoughts. This works because a thought automatically causes a feeling to follow the thought. This feeling (or emotional state) is truly magnetic, pulling thoughts that resonate with that emotional state. This means:
• Thoughts of beauty attract more thoughts of majesty.
• Thoughts of joy attract expanded thoughts of happiness.
• Thoughts of criticism attract ideas of severe blame and disparagement.
• Thoughts of sadness attract thoughts that are depressing.
• Thoughts of anger attract judgments leading to rage.
• Thoughts of inadequacy attract thoughts of worthlessness.
We’ve all seen how this works in our life. When we get into a period where we are “a bit down, it seems that we can’t dig our way out. Every critical, sad thought creates intense depressing emotions. This ‘negative emotional state’ becomes the magnet for thoughts that align with that negativity. Literally, this becomes a circle of a thought causing an emotion, which pulls a similar thought that THEN PULLS a deeper emotion.
The good news is that this works with both positive and negative thoughts. Thus, when things are going really well, it’s almost like nothing can touch us. We ride on an invincible wave. We just keep attracting those positive thoughts and those positive feelings follow, which then pulls more positive thoughts to support us.
Our Magnetic Thought Train
For a moment, consider your thoughts to be like a train. Sometimes the train can be short, and sometimes the train can long. At the end of the train, there is always a caboose, which is filled with emotions that come from the preceding thoughts. This caboose has the emotional ‘juice’ to magnetically attract the next thought train that comes along.
We can all easily get hooked on thoughts, which usher us to similar thoughts, and perhaps even more thoughts… ultimately leading us to the inevitable emotion that is tied to those thoughts. That’s the caboose!
But guess what? You can’t really control what goes on at the end of the train. That’s a consequence of the thoughts you give your life attention to. You see…the caboose must simply follow the train of thoughts. It’s really too late when we try to directly change the feelings we have, because we weren’t paying attention to where our train of thoughts was taking us.
Most of us do not understand this. We are constantly trying to affect the feelings we have while ignoring the ‘thought train’ that causes these feelings. We do this with some healthy coping mechanisms, like running or meditation. We also do this with both prescribed and non-prescribed medications. All are an effort to affect the consequences of our thinking and beliefs, while (often) ignoring the cause. We are living in the drama of the ‘caboose’ of our thought train, and trying to calm the effects without attending to the cause.
Children Are Like Sponges for Our Thought Trains
Our children, of course, are not immune to the influence of these thoughts and emotions. While we often readily acknowledge the power of someone’s depressive energy when they walk into the room, we tend to think of this as an adult awareness only. We also know the influence of a powerfully positive person, whose presence just lights up a room.
We easily see the impact such individuals on our own emotional states. Yet, in reality, our children are much more susceptible to the influence of Mom and Dad’s emotional state, as well as the thoughts that produce that emotional state. When we are truly immersed in thoughts of joy and happiness, this is a powerful attractor for our children…pulling conversation and questions into an escalating loop of growing enthusiasm and joy.
These positive thoughts also serve to focus our attention. The thoughts serve like a filter to perceive only similar thoughts and energies…all the while…the children are resonating with where these thoughts take our attention.
Of course, when we get on a negative train of thinking, we continue to influence our children…except it’s usually in a direction that is not serving them. They jump on board our train of thinking, whether we want them to or not! In part two of this series, I will give you some concrete tools for pointing your thought train in the direction you choose…not in the direction set by chance.
Incentives Do Work…But Not The Way We Think They Do.
It is a well-researched fact that incentives DO WORK! This is true for adults and for children. However, with years of great studies behind us, we now understand more precisely how and when to use incentives. From Kindergarten to mature adults, the following general principles seem to hold true.
• Keep It Simple (For Incentives To Be Effective)
When studying simple tasks, like showing up to school or reading a book, incentives have proven successful. When motivating children or adults, adding a ‘bribe’ is useful for simple, task that are understood and easily managed.
Avoid trying to use incentives in any fashion with complex, creative tasks, or those requiring a significant amount of brain power. This includes any set of tasks that are challenging for your child’s abilities.
Why? Because performance decreases with complex tasks! When we add an incentive to anything that is demanding, creative or taxing of the intellect, we see performance decreases. This has been tested with toddlers, and with adults. It is critical that the tasks are easily mastered.
• Thus, Make Sure Kids Can Easily Do The Task You Incentivize
The key here is that the more effortlessly your child can perform the task, the more likely an incentive system could work. The issue here (addressed by the incentive) is one of simple, pure motivation.
We see very effective incentive models that actually get children to read books, for example. Assuming reading has been mastered, and the material given is not too challenging, incentives cause children to read more books, at least in the short term.
However, these same systems do poorly at improving reading comprehension or grades. Such complex events do not respond well to incentives. The complexity is the issue, because if too complex, children do not feel as if they can control the outcome.
• Children Must Know That Their Efforts Are Directly Related To Receiving Incentives
This is where clarity begins to emerge in understanding incentives. When the task is simple, and the rules are clear, children are able to increase their performance. “Read a book and earn a buck.” This is straight forward, and children do respond. They read more books in this model, with the one dollar incentive.
Similar results can be found with basic chores: “Clean your room. You earn 5 dollars.” Children do respond to this.
If told they will earn new sneaks for every ‘A’ they may feel there are too many factors that have nothing to do with effort. In fact, they can control their study time, but they can’t control the grade. Thus, this is where problems begin to emerge, and incentives do not work well here.
In the adult world, we see where this understanding could be applied for better results. A number of my clients work on commission. For some, the sales process is simple and incentives are straightforward, thus the incentives work.
For others, they work in a system with a very long sales process that is complex and requires creativity. In such systems, incentives are actually (likely) making performance decline. The pressure of the incentive detracts from creativity and promotes more fear based thinking. In such systems, we know that more options for creativity and autonomy would serve the business. Yet, these approaches are seldom adapted.
• Incentives Also Eventually Fail Unless Motivation Becomes Intrinsic
This is why I am not a fan of these extrinsic motivators and bribes. They do work temporarily, with simple, easily mastered tasks. But without a clear plan, external incentives are NOT an effective long term model to build responsible children.
First, most of the responsible behaviors we seek are easily handled with a solid parenting game plan. This is not just hype…but it’s reality. Most families are waiting too late to initiate a plan for building responsibility, and then when they do…they choose too much based in soft ‘pop psychology’ that has little proven track record. Programs like my Essential Parenting home study course, is just one example of how to get these tools without resorting to bribing children for a few chores.
There are other more serious considerations as well. If using incentives, the incentive must get larger, and keep changing, especially for the more challenging child or teen. Within a short while, even the biggest incentives fail unless the motivation is shifted to one internal to the child…and not built on external bribes and incentives.
I have an associate, who has two challenging boys. He lives near Disney, and has a season pass. They are at Disney at least 3-4 times a month, and he used this as an incentive model for months. However, after you child has been to Disney a couple dozen times, you find that Disney is not enough to get them to clear their room.
See the problem? I am sure you do.
Have I used incentives in my parent coaching with families, to help with difficult kids? Yes, of course. However, this in built into a system that is designed to teach responsibility and nurture a child’s internal motivation. In addition, it is used with a very clear plan to eliminate the external incentives as soon as the ‘habit’ of responsibility begins to emerge.
Bottom Line: You can use incentives to get cooperation on simple tasks. It is not a substitute for a poor game plan that is failing with a child or teen.
Instead, seek out Parent Coaching if you have serious concerns, so that you can get the long term results. Or perhaps, consider a proven training program, like my Essential Parenting Home Study Program. If on the right track, you should find that most of the behavioral challenges are gone within a few weeks, and then you are on the path to building consistent responsibility without bribes and constant conflict.
Many parents argue vehemently for the value of the bribe, but then do not understand why it is failing to work. Most of these parents, I find, had success as a child when their parents added an incentive. The missing ingredient however, is that most of these parents were (as a child) already thriving academically. This is not a good measure of such incentive systems.
In recent years, the debate on this topic has been hot and furious. Interestingly, the research continues to point in a very clear direction, and findings with children reflect years of research with adults. While much of this research seems to be ignored in modern business models, we nonetheless have a reasonable clear idea of how to approach the whole incentive based conversation.
Do Incentives Work, or Not?
Yes, that appears to be the question. Whether it is better to coerce your son or daughter into getting better grades with a bribe, or to leave them on their own to figure it out. The same might be said of a doing chores, or going cooperatively into a doctor’s appointment or even simply cleaning up some toys.
We tend to believe that incentives or bribes are helpful, because they often work ‘in the moment.’ And many times, these incentives continue to work…at least for a while.
Then we notice that the same bribe doesn’t work very well any more. So we try something new, perhaps bigger, or maybe more compelling. Rather than a movie, we offer a video game. Rather than a video game, we offer 20 bucks. Rather than 20 bucks, we offer 50!
Seems insane? Yes…it is. Recently, I worked with parents over the phone from Denver that was buying their 12 year old a $150 pair of sneakers for every “A” on his report card. (The child already has over 20 pairs of these sneakers.) On his last report card: four “C’s” and three “D’s”. He did get an A in technology, and still was given one new pair of sneaks. Both parents concede that it was bizarre that they had ended up in this place, but felt helpless without a better plan.
Most of us recognize that something has gone askew here. The plan isn’t working. Is it fair to conclude that bribes are not effective…at least over the long term? No, it’s not.
Childhood anxiety continues to rise, and the reasons are complex and not fully understood. However, there are mistakes that we often make, which tend to cause more problems with anxiety than they solve.
In previous post, we discussed the first two mistakes that will increase your child’s anxiety. These were:
1. Modeling Anxious and Fearful Thinking
This occurs when we allow our own thoughts and fears to be expressed repeatedly to our children, and then they begin to see the world through the same filters of anxiety. We can also direct the questions our children ask themselves, through the types of questions we ask them. When questions reflect anxiety and worry, our children then begin to ask the same questions.
2. Treating Anxious Thoughts Like a Thing
This process is more dangerous than it appears. We take the actual thinking of anxious thoughts, and we look at the outcome we see in our child (i.e., anxiety). We then focus on the outcome, as if it were static and unchanging. We make this ‘thing’ the problem, when the real problem resides in the ‘anxious thoughts’ that cause this thing (anxiety) to occur. We can change thoughts. It’s very difficult to change the consequences of our thoughts, and yet we tend to focus our children on the ‘thing’ rather than the thoughts that produce the ‘thing’ (anxiety).
In this post, my primary focus in on mistake number 3.
3. Protecting Children from Facing The Anxiety
Most childhood anxiety is the result of fears that are not based in reality. As discussed last week, these non-reality based thoughts wreak havoc because they create very real consequences, in the form of anxiety and suffering.
When children believe that there is something to be afraid of, they react as if that fear is real. We can see it. We can resonate with their tearful upset, and pleas for help.
This is where the real problem emerges.
The wide majority of these tearful moments are based in the non-reality based thoughts. Perhaps it a fear of saying goodbye to mommy, as I walk into the classroom. Or perhaps it’s an anxiety about going ‘upstairs’ alone to get a toy or even to go to the bathroom. Or maybe it’s a trepidation about going to soccer practice.
All of these are common. And all of these anxiety based problems share the common theme of children having a moment of discomfort or anxiety because a thought arises that causes the anxiety. The ‘thought’ is not real. There is no danger in the classroom. There is no boogeyman in the hallway upstairs, and no monsters on the soccer field.
So, why do these moments seems to get worse and worse?
Because we simply feed into them. We mean well, but our choices make things worse.
Rather than gently letting our child know that these moments often cause a bit of worry, and that they will get through this moment, we do the opposite. We hold them. We soothe them. We soothe even more. And as they cry, we find ourselves unable to push them forward to face the dreaded experience.
Yet, this is what must be done.
Over and over, through hundreds of studies, the research (as well as my clinical experience) argues that the way we get over fears, is by facing them. The same is true for children.
The more we help children avoid the feared situation, the worse things get. The more we gently reassure them that all will be okay, and then allow them the opportunity to face the situation, we find that they get better.
Every kindergarten and first grade teacher has seen this dozens of times. The parent who lingers, and soothes excessively, will nurture the most clingy, fearful child who shows more and more separation anxiety. Don’t do this!
Here’s my advice: Be courageous!
Trust that they can handle the situation, and let your actions lead more than your words. Show your child how to be courageous, by facing your fears.
They can handle it. But they need you to show them that. They will not fall apart (despite the emotion that sometimes looks that way).
Trust them. They will handle it. That is what is needed. When you honor this, you will see miracles occur in just a very short time…guaranteed!
There are several ways that parents and caretakers can heighten anxiety and create fear, even when they are working hard to avoid this. In fact, this is usually when parents end up with the biggest challenges if their child has anxiety or fear. Without a clear understanding, once we try to protect our children from their fears, our actions usually make things worse very quickly
In the very short term perspective, it can appear as if we just rescued our child. Yet, this is an illusion.
Most of the ‘fears’ that families bring to my office are not based in some reality. In other words, the child is afraid of something that has never happened to them, or they are afraid of something that, in reality, presents no tangible threat.
It is critical, in the early stages, to accurately understand the sources of such anxiety and how you can most effectively help eliminate any parental contribution to making this explode out of control. Let’s explore three common mistakes, which actually disable children over time, by escalating their anxiety.
1. Modeling Anxious and Fearful Thinking
ome of us are wired to be a bit more worrisome by nature. This is reality. However, the secret to keeping these anxious thoughts under control is more within our grasp than it appears.
Anxious thoughts feed on our attention, and repetition. The more energy and attention we give to them, the more they show up. The more we ‘believe’ them, the stronger they get. The more we discuss them, the more they haunt us.
For our children however the effect of our anxious thinking is much stronger ON THEM, than it is on us. This is particularly true when children are younger, and when we allow those anxious thoughts to filter into our parenting behavior.
For example, when we are afraid that our son can’t handle his new classroom, we begin talking about it. We discuss how scary news things are. We encourage them to tell us their deepest worries, and to ‘call me’ if you need to. When our son responds with a question or worry, we resonate with that worry. This is how our modeling anxiety becomes a palpable part of our child’s thinking.
2. Treating Anxious Thoughts Like a Thing
When we label a child’s reaction as anxiety, we perform a mystical transformation. We turn the consequence of anxious thinking, into a thing or entity (i.e., anxiety).
Of course, the feelings that we call anxiety are real. However, we deceive ourselves when we think of the feelings as the ‘thing’ that is the problem. The feelings are the result of the problem thinking. The feelings are a pointer to the source of the problem: anxious thoughts and fearful thoughts! The anxiety your child feels is like the caboose of the train; the direction (and the substance) of the train is controlled by the thinking.
Why is this important? Because ‘the caboose’ cannot change where the train is headed. The power is in shifting the thinking, and then the feelings will change. When we discuss ‘anxiety’ without attention to the anxious thinking, our children have no sense of control. The consequence (anxiety) is, in fact, predetermined by the thoughts that precede it.
We want to focus on what is changeable, and within our control. This would be the anxious or fearful thoughts
With our children, we need to address their anxious thinking, and try to avoid calling this anxiety. They have no idea of what to do with the anxious feelings. However, you can, with a little awareness, help them change their thoughts.
When the thoughts change, the feelings will change. This is more powerful, and useful. This shift allows you and your child to know that there is a way to be free of the anxious thoughts, and the anxiety feelings that follow.
In part two, I will cover the most significant mistake we tend to make with childhood anxiety, and how to correct these errors.