You’re warm, sympathetic, and attentive. So why is your child still miserable?
One way of showing interest to loved ones is to show concern for their problems. Mom sees an unhappy looking ten-year-old at the kitchen table: “You look like something’s bothering you sweetie ... what’s wrong?” Sweetie launches into a tirade about an unfair teacher or a mean classmate. Mom listens sympathetically, asking lots of questions, trying to get the whole story, offering coping suggestions. The child is happy to have someone to talk to about it and feels a lot better afterward. So far so good.
Next day, more of the same. Sweetie has had a run-in with one of the older kids on the playground. “Tell me about it,” Mom invites. The youngster offers up the gory details, Mom listens and problem-solves. The child calms down and relaxes with some milk and cookies.
If this is the end of it and the child returns to a more peaceful and happy existence, then all is well and good. However, suppose the youngster continues to have lots of miserable days at school. Mom’s help isn’t helping. Is it time for a visit to the guidance counselor or a mental health professional? Not yet.
First, Mom can try applying a little brain science to the issue at hand. It seems that the child in question has developed tunnel vision, a condition in which one sees a limited slice of reality. Sure, there are daily hassles with peers and teachers — and lots of other annoying problems as well — but why does it seem to this child that the only important parts of the day, the parts worth talking about, are those that are problem-related? Why isn’t the youngster telling Mom about the interesting science class, the funny joke the principal made, or the great snack a friend shared? In fact, why isn’t the child even remembering these positive highlights of the day?
One reason has to do with the brain’s natural tendency to focus on bad news. The brain is always vigilant for things that might go wrong so that it can protect its owner from disasters. Good news is boring, indicating nothing that requires attention. Bad news, however, wakes up the brain. “Take action,” it shouts. “Do something about this!” Indeed, bad news is so popular it seems like people can never get enough of it — just read the media!
Another reason has to do with the allotment of attention — both the parent’s and the child’s. In our scenario, we see that Mom shows a lot of interest in and gives a lot of attention to problems. If the child does happen to mention some small piece of positive news, Mom gives a weak smile and offers a small comment. “That’s nice.” But give Mom a piece of bad news to chew on and then see what happens! Mom is all over it, eyes glued to her suffering child, sitting up close, poring over the story, working it through, offering it quality attention.
Wiring the Brain
Attention accomplishes two things: it reinforces the behavior that precedes it and it wires the brain. In this case, parental attention occurs when a child shares problems; therefore, sharing problems is reinforced and is more likely to occur again. More serious, however, is the fact that we all build our brains as we use them. Usage creates neural pathways (neural highways of frequent behaviors, thoughts, and feelings). For example, the more times we access an unhappy pathway, the bigger the unhappy pathway grows. In fact, it can take more and more literal brain space. The result of this is that the unhappy thought process then becomes the default go-to location for first thoughts to think, the road of least resistance. Now, focusing on the positive feels “phony” and unnatural. Focusing on the miserable feels “real” and “at home.”
Rewiring the Brain
One way that Mom can help her child build a happier brain is by helping the child attend to happier thoughts more frequently. Problems and negative thoughts must be acknowledged first. However, a brief, compassionate, but rather lukewarm reception is sufficient. “Really, Sweetie? That sounds unpleasant! Well, tell me some good news too. Did anything funny happen today?” Once the child gets on to the good part, Mom can embrace it enthusiastically, asking questions, sharing her own funny stories of the day and really getting in the mood with her child.
All this high-quality attention will help to reinforce the sharing of more positive experiences and help the wiring of new, happier networks in the brain. Soon the child will start to spontaneously offer the good news of the day a sure sign that the positive neural networks are growing and thriving.