Tweens & teens

Turning negatives into positives


Lisa Schab, L.C.S.W.


Getting your kids to stop making mistakes is impossible.  Helping them to turn those mistakes around, however, is not only possible, but one of the greatest life skills you can teach them.

When 14-year-old Madison Heath was required to serve four weeks of community service for throwing water balloons out of a car window, she initially panicked.

Her thoughts included, "Now my summer is ruined," "I really screwed up this time," and "Maybe I'm a delinquent."

But Madison's parents didn't read her the riot act or ground her for life. They did tell her to serve her time and try to turn it around.

After two weeks of cleaning floors at the village hall, she had both proved herself a hard worker and developed a good relationship with her supervisor. Madison asked if she might be able to do filing work as a paid employee, and earned herself a part-time job on Saturday mornings for the coming school year.

Turning negative experiences into positive ones is a skill that will serve your child far beyond his adolescent years. Young teens are at a life stage that allows them to learn this ability, because they are developing broader cognitive skills that help them view situations from more than one perspective. 

When your child learns how much control he has over his experiences, he also learns to take responsibility for them. He learns to create positive situations, and does not fall into a pattern of blaming others for what happens to him. Teaching this skill will empower him, raise his confidence level and help him to begin a habit of generating good in his life.

The tips below can help you instill in your young teen the ability to turn negatives into positives:

• Create support rather than condemnation.  Because teens are growing physically and beginning to look more like adults, we often make the mistake of expecting them to think like adults, as well. Although your child may be as tall as you, his experience and ability to reason is still limited. He is still going to do really childish things and make mistakes you thought he was beyond. The way you react to these mistakes can teach him that everyone messes up, but what's important is that you clean it up.

• Try to respond to your teen's foul-ups objectively.  This may mean you need some cool-down time or rational self-talk before you approach him.

If you react with high emotion, the message you send will be more personal: "I can't believe you did this!" Your anger and disapproval will be the strongest thing he hears.

If you respond with the facts: "OK, you've done this. Now here's what you need to do to fix it," he will get the message that he's still an OK person and there is a solution to the problem. 

• Teach the power of thought. Our thoughts create our experiences. Look at the glass of water as half full and you feel good; look at it as half empty and you feel bad. The glass of water does not create the positive or negative experience-you do. Help your child to understand and use this concept and you will help him create a positive life, no matter what comes his way.

A teen who fails a test can say, "I've failed; I'm a failure," and his attitude will affect every choice he makes, ultimately confirming his belief. 

Or, he can say, "I've failed to get a passing grade on this one test, but I know that if I study harder or ask for help I will do better next time." This attitude will also affect his future choices, and he will find much success in life.

The failure on the test didn't change; but his perception and attitude did.

• Practice changing negative to positive. Help your teen get used to choosing positive thoughts so that it becomes second nature to him. If this is something new, remember it will take time and practice. You may hear a bit of grumbling. But plow ahead.

Remember, your children are soaking up what you tell them. After explaining the power of the concept, give him ways to practice this behavior. You can do this one-on-one, or let the whole family benefit. For example, as soon as you hear him complain about something, challenge him to "turn it around" and see the positive. Or at the dinner table, let each person give an example of a situation that occurred during the day that could be "turned around" from negative to positive.

As you get more proficient at it, make it a challenge to come up with more difficult situations to turn around.

• Model this behavior yourself.  The way you live your life is a walking testimonial to any philosophy that you preach to your kids. Seeing you put an idea into practice gives them examples of how it works and shows them the benefits in action.

Lisa Schab is a licensed clinical social worker in Libertyville and the stepmother of two, ages 21 and 25. She can be reached at (847) 782-1722.


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