Health & Family

How to help a child with ‘a nose for the negative'

One 4-year- old boy gets bumped in line as his preschool class prepares to head out to the playground. He sloughs it off.

Another child in line gets jostled as the class walks outside. Instead of taking it in stride, she takes it personally and cries. Her teacher reminds her that preschoolers are still learning about personal space. The girl has no hope that her classmates will change.

Some kids have a “nose for the negative,” says Tamar E. Chansky of Philadelphia, founder and director of the Children's Center for OCD and Anxiety.

Negative events are permanent, personal and pervasive – they become a “thinking habit.” Chansky, author of an upcoming book, “Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking,” (Da Capo, $14.95, 2008), says parents need to help their children:

Understand the causes of their negative attitudes. Don't squash the feelings, but get your child to focus less attention on the hurt.

Bounce back from struggles.

Narrow down a problem to a specific trigger that is not so overwhelming.

Pessimism puts your child at risk for depression, agrees Martin E.P. Seligman, author of “The Optimistic Child” (Houghton Mifflin, $14.95, 2007).

A psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Seligman and his colleagues have conducted a 30-year study in which they have discovered a link between pessimism – dwelling on setbacks – and depression.

Depression can go away, but if the pessimism remains, a child is at risk for a second round, Seligman says. One helpful approach, he says: Teach your child that there are many aspects to a problem. At any one time, 10 to 15 percent of children and adolescents have some symptoms of depression.

In children, says Seligman, depression looks like four different clusters of symptoms. One is a change in a child's thinking. The negative way a child thinks when he's depressed is different than how he thinks when he isn't. He has a hopeless sense of the future, and small setbacks seem insurmountable.

The other three clusters of symptoms are:

Changes in mood, including irritability that can come along with sadness.

Changes in behavior, such as being passive or indecisive.

Changes in eating and sleeping routines.