The power of positive thinking is touted in the popular press and the therapist’s office. Most adults understand that the way we think about a situation can change the way we experience it. But what about children? When and how do they learn about the connection between thoughts, feelings, and experiences?
Research has shown that this awareness evolves in early childhood and matures over many years. When children are three to four years old, they can identify emotions that occur in many typical situations. They know that birthday parties are happy times and scoldings are not. By the time they are five to six years old they have an increased awareness of the connection between thinking and feeling. By age seven many children understand that people can interpret the same situation in different ways.
Training children to recognize the benefits of positive thinking and disadvantages of negative thinking may not only help children feel better emotionally during stressful life circumstances, but may also provide physical health benefits by decreasing the physical toll of stress.
A recent study investigated whether the developmental changes that take place between ages 5 to 10 would affect children’s knowledge of the effects of thinking positively, and whether this would in turn affect a child's emotional response to a situation.
One character within each pair had a positive thought that framed the event in a positive light, and one had a negative thought that framed the event in a negative light. For example, one character with a broken arm thought about having his friends sign his cast, while the other thought about how uncomfortable the cast was going to be.
The children were asked to report on each character’s feelings: How does the character feel right now? Why does the character feel that way? They were also asked to explain why one character felt better than or the same as another character. The children’s explanations were categorized as situation explanations, meaning that the situation caused the emotion; or mental state explanations, meaning that the characters' thoughts, desires, or preferences were the reasons that the character felt an emotion.
Children in every age group predicted characters' thinking positive as opposed to negative thoughts would have different emotions even though both characters experienced the same objective event, according to the study. The eight- to ten- year olds were more aware that reframing events either positively or negatively could affect a person's emotional experience, but all the children, regardless of age, seemed to believe that when events were negative, thinking positively was not enough to make a person feel good.
"The strongest predictor of children's knowledge about the benefits of positive thinking — besides age — was not the child's own level of hope and optimism, but their parents'," said Christi Bamford, assistant professor of psychology at Jacksonville University, who led the study when she was at the University of California, Davis.
The researchers concluded that children as young as five years old had begun to develop the skills to understand how positive and negative reframing could change a person’s response to a situation. They suggest that training children to recognize the benefits of positive thinking and disadvantages of negative thinking may not only help children feel better emotionally during stressful life circumstances, but may also provide physical health benefits by decreasing the physical toll of stress. Parents, teachers, coaches, and others who teach and care for children can model positive reframing for children to help them learn this valuable life skill.