'Accentuating the positive' in children: WFU counseling expert advises parents

By Cheryl Walker
June 24, 2005

Quoting Johnny Mercer, Wake Forest University counseling expert Samuel T. Gladding says parents should "accentuate the positive/eliminate the negative" with their children.

"All kids can feel good about themselves and increase their achievement if they feel empowered and encouraged," said Gladding, author of "Family Therapy" and several other widely used counseling textbooks.

He reminds parents that everybody has something that is a strength, something that they are good at whether it is academic, artistic, athletic or personal.

"The kid who is not seen as the star also has talent or ability or a positive trait," said Gladding. "Reinforcing that is important."

Parents can do a lot to take advantage of these positive traits by noticing them, then providing feedback and encouragement.

"If a child thinks of himself as valued or competent in at least one area, chances are they will see spillover effects in other areas," said Gladding, who is president of the American Counseling Association and chair of Wake Forest's counseling department.

He suggests parents use a strategy called reframing, literally relabeling an experience without changing the facts to focus on another aspect of it. For example, a child may not do well at piano lessons. Instead of looking at the child as a musical failure, the parent can help the child see that they now have the opportunity to explore another possible talent. Gladding suggests parents might say, "Now that you have learned that you do not enjoy playing the piano, it might be time to see what you can do with another instrument or with another activity like painting since you will now have some additional time."

Gladding offers another example to illustrate the value of reframing. A child may discover that he or she is not good at batting or throwing a ball, but likes being outdoors. Parents can help the child to avoid thinking of Little League experience as an inability to play baseball, but as a chance to discover a love of nature and being outside.

If a child comes home and says he had a bad day, help him focus on the things that went well. "Look for the exceptions by asking questions like 'When didn't you feel bad today?'" Gladding suggests.

The child may say he messed up on a math test and did not read well, but he made a new friend on the playground or spelled most of his spelling words right.

For many children, homework can be a negative experience and make children feel incompetent. Gladding suggests ways to help children focus on the "cans rather than the can'ts."

With homework, it is always good to end on a positive note, Gladding says. Help the child make a plan to tackle the hardest subjects first and then work on the subjects they do well in and enjoy the most last. If a child does not have a strong subject, it is particularly important for parents to set up some sort of reward for completing the work. This can be as simple as playtime with a parent or doing an activity they enjoy.

Gladding says parents can also establish positive rituals around homework such as petting the dog seven times when they finish a math assignment to make homework time more fun and relaxed.

The difference between encouragement and discouragement is the difference between success and failure, he says.

Gladding recommends setting aside time each day to talk with your child. Parents should have a checklist in their heads of all the dimensions of the child: physical, mental, emotional and behavioral and regularly provide positive feedback in each area.

"Always be truthful, but stress what the child can do along with a sense of what he or she can discover that is new, engaging and worthwhile," Gladding says. "Children, like adults, want to feel competent and confident. They are usually aware of their limitations, so, most of the time, they don't need parental reminders."

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