By Megan de Beyer

I feel like I am always the bad cop in our house. I am always telling my son what he is doing wrong. I want to kick myself. But I do it again the next time. How can I have fun with him rather than always being the dragon?

The Negaverse

Does this sound like you? Do you find yourself stuck in the ‘negaverse’?

Parents tend to look out for all that is negative before we appreciate the positive. It’s a type of mental hardwiring. Yet, in an important way, it serves as a survival mechanism. We have an in-built tendency to pay attention to bad news before good news. After all, the bad news might bring things that hurt us and so it’s instinctive behaviour.

As parents we are quick to say to our teens (when they’re withdrawn or struggling with something): “What’s wrong?” We say these words with deep sincerity. We may spend enormous time researching a symptom or an attitude that appears to be the problem. We seek out the best treatments – therapists, specialists and tutors – to sort out the “issue”.

Sometimes these “issues” might just be the not-good-enough qualities of our children or ourselves. We live in a world that points out everything that is “not enough”. Our children’s grades aren’t good enough; dinner is not quite right; our relationships are not fulfilling enough; and of course there’s never enough money or time!

Psychologists have discovered that being positive is not our normal default position. Instead, being constantly positive is the result of practice. And it’s a worthwhile practice – to break us out of the negaverse. To be appreciative of just what is. To resist the urge to say to your children: “So you got a B. Okay, but now where’s the A?” To drop the comparisons with other teens or families and simply appreciate our loved ones as they are right now.

To be grateful over and over again for a warm breeze, a blue sky, a family meal, a smile, a hug or just the fact that your teen is safe at home …

When you wake up dissatisfied, do you ever wonder why? It’s probably because you, like all of us, have developed the habit of zoning in on everything that’s wrong in your life. And so, what to do?

Be Like Goldilocks

I’d suggest you start being like Goldilocks. Things are as they are (neither too simple, nor too complex) and that’s just fine. Practise saying positive things like the below to your children:
“So nice to have you home!”
“That was a kind thing to do.”
“I love spending time with you.”

Avoid staying things like:
“Did you thank Mrs Smith?”
“Did you lock the door?”
“Why are you just sitting around?”

All these remarks indicate that they didn’t do it right, or not well enough.

Rehearse saying something positive or encouraging instead. Simply be okay with what is and with what your children are doing.

The Growth Mindset

We can learn positive thinking. We can learn to put a positive spin on things, and we can learn to have a broader perspective. What I like most is an approach called ‘the growth mindset’. This is the idea that intelligence can be developed and is not set in stone. It is a thinking style that is touted in American education, made famous by Carol Dweck in her book Mindset: The new psychology of success.

The goal is to revise the dogmatic educational system of ‘right and wrong’ or ‘pass and fail’. From a practical thinking level, a growth mentality is simply asking yourself, ‘What did I learn from this situation?’ Failure is therefore not a problem, because it can help us learn from the experience.

Research on the growth mindset has proven that children who had been praised for their intelligence performed worse in future tasks and were fixated on comparing themselves to others. But the children who had been praised for their efforts performed better in future tasks and were more open to learning new things.

This is vital information for parents. The more we say, ‘You are so clever, bright, gifted’, the more we pressurise our children into a fixed mindset. The more we discuss and dialogue about their style and strategy of performance and what they learnt or could do differently, the more our children will be motivated to improve and discover new things.

It’s subtle, but it does mean that we have to give up this standard question: ‘What mark did you get and where did you rank?’ Rather adopt a style of quality feedback with the belief that your child can learn and improve.

A growth mentality, positive thinking, a clear head not bogged down by negative feelings and an ability to reflect are all vital for future careers, and good for overall mental health, too.

Exercises for the Family

Yes, some people seem to be naturally more positive and have a mental mind-set that immediately sees the good in everything. You might be one of those lucky ones, and your home might be constantly bubbling with shared laughter and fun. I too look for those activities where we all have things in common and I plan for the occasions when we can share them. “Engineering” towards happy times builds family bonds and creates amazing memories of togetherness.

How about inviting your teen(s) to suggest some togetherness activities? In my book, How To Raise A Man (Hachette Australia), I note the benefits of including the suggestions from everyone. You – and your children – might be pleasantly surprised – and inspired.

Specialist parent psychologist Megan de Beyer facilitates the popular course ‘Strong Mothers – Strong Sons’ and has written an essential book How To Raise a Man (out now with Hachette Australia).