First of all, what is the negativity bias?
It’s the concept that we, as humans, are inclined to allow negative things (for example, unpleasant or harmful thoughts or experiences) to affect us more than positive things.
We have an innate tendency to focus on the bad. Even when there’s plenty of good stuff going on.
But what advice is there on the effect of negative thoughts on our kids – and how to overcome negativity bias?
The (Brief) Science Bit
It’s thought that the negativity bias is an evolutionary function of ours. Our ancestors faced many more immediate threats than we do. These ranged from potential starvation to looking for a safe shelter and needing to escape dangerous animals.
When faced with such threats, the amygdala part of our brain is activated, triggering the ‘fight or flight’ response and setting adrenaline coursing through our bodies. Our ancestors needed to think the worst because the threats were many. This way of thinking would be the most likely to keep them alive.
This idea was really driven home to me recently as I was watching an animal documentary with my daughter. One focus was two leopard cubs – one cautious and timid who spent his days hiding and protected, the other playful and curious. One of them, sadly, was attacked and killed by a prowling lion. I think you can probably guess which one it was.
While our lifestyles have changed over the years, our brains haven’t necessarily caught up in every area. Early homo sapiens had brains a similar size, possibly larger, but of a different shape to our brains today.
The change in shape was due to our increased capacity and need for planning, communication and problem-solving. For further reading, check out this article: A brief History of the Brain in the New Scientist, and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.
So, while the negativity bias might have helped our ancestors millennia ago, it doesn’t necessarily help us today.
The negativity bias has ensured the survival of the human species, but it has also lent itself to depression, anxiety and lack of self-worth. One example of the negativity bias is just how skewed our news channels are – reporting on tragedies and negative news stories rather than positive events. Research has shown that we as a society respond more to negative events or stories as they arouse and trigger us more.
What Can Parents Do To Help Kids Figure Out How To Overcome Negativity Bias?
More and more, I’m aware of how much our education system is in need of a reboot with a focus on emotional intelligence and the ability to adapt needed.
It’s clear that in twenty years’ time, many children will be doing jobs that haven’t even been invented today. Not only that, but if the rate of technological advancement continues at the speed it has done in recent decades (and this is almost definitely assured), they will need to be super resilient, adaptable and open-minded.
For more on this, take a look at What Jobs Will There Be For Our Kids In The Future? It sounds daunting. There are, however, things you can do as a parent to bolster your child’s emotional resilience. Here are a few ideas on how to overcome negativity bias:
If you want to feel positive, surround yourself with positive people. Many will have heard the concept of some people being ‘radiators’ and others ‘drains’.
While those you love may need your help and support during tough times, children need to learn to recognise unbalanced relationships which don’t make them feel good about themselves. Encourage your child to spend healthy doses of time with those who they can ‘catch’ positive emotions from.
Talk to them about how to prioritise friends who make them feel good when they spend time with them and minimise time spent with those that don’t. Obviously, it should be mutual and children need to be encouraged to spread positivity as well as absorb it. There are so many ways they can do this: telling (neutral and inoffensive) jokes, seeing the good in others, supporting friends when they’re feeling sad or disappointed or minimising the impact of a bad mood on others.
For more, read my post on How To Encourage Kindness For Kids.
Social Media and News
It’s not just relationships. In this current age, we are bombarded with news headlines and social media updates – many of which are upsetting or tough on our self-esteem.
Learning to switch the news off when you recognise it’s starting to make you feel anxious (that rolling news on Covid-19 is a prime example) is vital. As is limiting time on social media platforms and only following people who deliver positive messages or images that make you smile.
Real-Life Heroes/ Motivation and Achievement
Kids need real heroes to look up to. And by that, I don’t necessarily mean Iron Man or the Avengers. I mean actual real heroes. It’s what education writer Linda Stade calls ‘The Elevation Effect’. It may be a sports person such as Mo Farrah; it may be a young environmentalist such as Greta Thunberg. Or it may be someone actively involved in their lives: a teacher, coach, relative (even a parent perhaps!) or family friend.
When kids see someone they look up to behave positively, or feel that someone important to them expects and believes they will do well, they’ll be motivated to achieve and possibly give back. Stade says that events such as the Olympics can also inspire and influence children.
Important in so many ways, exercise (for me) is not about being the best or about winning. It’s about three things specifically: keeping physically healthy, keeping mentally healthy (that shot of dopamine to the brain) and building social connections.
Ensuring that exercise (in whatever form fits for your child) is built into your daily routine and prioritised will hopefully act as both a distraction and a coping mechanism when needed – and on into adulthood too.
Reading and watching
I love these books, which will serve to inspire kids and help them realise that many people who have achieved amazing things started with humble beginnings:
1. Stories for Boys Who Dare To Be Different – Ben Brooks and Quinton Winter
2. You are Awesome – Matthew Syed
3. Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls – 100 Immigrant Women Who Changed The World – Elena Favilli et al
4. Women In Sport – Fifty Fearless Athletes Who Played To Win – Rachel Ignotofsky
5. Barack Obama Quotes To Live By – Carlton Books
6. Michelle Obama Quotes To Live By – Carlton Books
7. I am Malala (YA version) – Malala Yousafzai and Patricia McCormick
8. Greta’s Story – The Girl Who Went On Strike To Save The Planet – Valentina Camerini
For more ideas check out The 5 Best Books About Kindness For Kids.
And also take a look at The Top 10 Most Inspiring Books For Kids.
Think about what your kids read and watch in relation to how to overcome negativity bias. Choose inspiring books (such as the ones above) and TV programmes. My favourite is The Kindness Diaries (Netflix) with Leon Logothetis. Not only does it inspire with its footage of stunning scenery all over the world, but it also perfectly captures the impact being kind can have. Not just on one individual, but on the many people who surround them. A kind of ‘pay it forward’ travel doc. Bring the tissues; it is emotional.
Plan what to talk about at the dinner table each evening. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t happen every evening, but try and talk about good news or inspiring stories a few times a week.
Over the years, I’ve often shared a few positive details from my (social) work (names withheld). For example, some of the amazing ways foster carers have supported the children they’ve cared for, or what a child has achieved in spite of a difficult background. I think it’s also helped the kids see the wider picture at times.
Role model being positive. It’s helpful to let kids know when you’ve had a bad day, or that you feel sad about something. That’s part of life after all. But it’s also a good thing to reassure them that you know you’ll be ok and what you’re grateful for, even when things are tough. Teaching our kids how to be positive is a life skill and one that will arguably serve them better than great grades!
Start a gratitude journal with your child, or build a few minutes into your evening routine whereby you share three things that happened that day that you’re grateful for. I don’t always remember to do this, but when I do it also offers a real insight into each other’s days. My son also started a process whereby we go around the table and say one thing we like about each other. Try it, it’s a real confidence boost (most of the time!)
Obviously, life can’t be positive all of the time and it is important that kids learn that there are ups and downs. It’s a good idea to help kids understand it’s ok to feel sad sometimes. However, hopefully, some of the above suggestions might help children navigate those ups and downs and see how much there is to be positive about!
For more advice on helping your child overcome negative thoughts, have a look at How NLP For Kids Can Help With Anxiety.
Learning how to overcome negativity bias can be challenging on your own. Read Why Is My Child Depressed And What Can I Do? which provides advice for parents.