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Benefits of Teaching Positivity to Children

Follow the advice of “fake it ’til you make it” or just “be positive”, and you may end up oozing a kind of “toxic insincerity” says Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology and specialist investigator of positive emotions and psychophysiology at the University of North Carolina. Dr. Fredrickson was speaking at a workshop that was part of the Young Minds conference held last week at Darling Harbour in Sydney. Teaching the benefits of positivity, Dr. Fredrickson says instead of ‘thinking positive’, we should aim to identify the experiences and contexts that give us a positive emotion, and then repeat them. Research indicates that experiencing positive and negative emotions in about a 3-to-1 ratio, has the potential to enhance your relationships, improve your health, relieve depression, and broaden your mind.  

By improving our ability to notice and savour the many positive “micro-moments” in our day, we can increase our resilience and our feelings of warmth and connection with the people around us. Positive emotions fundamentally change the way our minds work, says Dr Fredrickson; they set us on different trajectories by expanding our awareness and allowing us to see the big picture in situations. Sharing various scientific studies into the effect that positive emotions have on our brains, our health and our thinking patterns, Dr Fredrickson concluded her presentation emphasising that positivity in our lives can make the difference between “languishing or flourishing.”  Her advice: “Lean into your experiences of positive emotions and absorb them.”

If you’re a parent spending time with children, your day probably seesaws between joyfulness, frustration, exhaustion, fun, and everything in between. And if you’re parenting a tricky child, sometimes the entire day seems filled to overflowing with unpleasant emotion. Learning to notice, harness and increase those ‘micro-moments’ of positivity is likely to have benefits for both parents and children.

Physiological Benefit of a Positive Emotion

In the last two decades, science has provided ample evidence of the physiological benefits of positive emotion for children’s development. We know, for example, that children with very supportive parents are more likely to have a larger hippocampus – this is a part of the brain that assists with memory, emotion regulation and stress regulation.

Even a smile means a lot to a toddler. Dr. Tim Moore, psychologist and senior research fellow at the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne (referencing Sue Gerhardt’s book Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain) explains why even smiles are very powerful:

• When a baby looks at the mother (or father), he/she reads their dilated pupils as indicating that their sympathetic nervous system is pleasurably aroused
• In response, the baby’s own nervous system gets pleasurably aroused and his/her heart rate goes up
• These processes trigger off a biochemical response: a pleasure neuropeptide (called beta-endorphin) is released into circulation, specifically into the orbitofrontal region of the brain
• Natural opioids like beta-endorphin help neurons grow, by regulating glucose and insulin, as well as making you feel good
• At the same time, another neurotransmitter called dopamine is released from the brainstem and also makes its way to the prefrontal cortex
• This also enhances the uptake of glucose there, helping new tissue to grow.

Speaking at Young Minds, Dr Fredrickson gave a number of specific examples of the importance of positive emotion, including research showing that vagal tone (a key indicator of health in everyone) is enhanced by the sustained experience of positive emotions. The quality and type of gratitude we express was one example of how a subtle difference in communication can enhance relationships; resilience was also discussed as an example of an important trait that is bolstered by our ability to seek out positive emotion.

Gratitude and Children

In research with adults, Dr. Fredrickson and colleagues found that the way we express gratitude can be transformative. ‘Higher quality’ expressions of gratitude have a lasting effect on how partners in a relationship feel about themselves, about the relationship itself and about the long term value of their relationship. By thanking someone for a good deed using an expression that focuses on their valued qualities, as opposed to the benefit to you, you’re engaging in ‘high quality’ gratitude. Here’s an example involving a child who has tidied up her toys before a friend visits:

Low quality: “Gemma, thank you for tidying up your toys, that’s a great help for Mum and Dad because now we can vacuum the floor.”

High quality: “Gemma, you tidied up the toys! Thank you. You put them away very carefully. I love the way you always take care of your toys. You are so thoughtful and helpful for Mum and Dad.”

High quality thanks makes a person feel understood, validated and cared for, which in turn affects the quality of a relationship. Dr Fredrickson suggests that as well as using high quality gratitude with and around your children, you help them to notice the positive emotions that are associated with gratitude and good deeds. For example, you might ask your child “How did it feel to receive that gift?” or “How did it feel when your teacher told you she was proud of you for always trying your best?”

One important proviso is highlighted by Dr Fredrickson: “Indebtedness is like the evil twin of gratitude.” Parents should be wary of trading favours with their children because of the lesson that might be taught. If your child offers to clean up his room, or eat his dinner or cooperate if you reciprocate with something like extra computer time or payment, he may have started to associate gratitude with its “evil twin”. Instead, it is better to insist on the behaviour required and give specific praise and where appropriate, high quality gratitude.

Resilience and Children

Educators who value social and emotional learning know that teaching children to be resilient contributes to their emotional wellbeing, to their willingness to persevere at challenging tasks and to their ability to be social problem solvers. Dr. Fredrickson explained that using positive emotions to “bounce back” after a difficult experience is a core technique of more resilient people. And researchers have found that there is a strong