Bad Stuff is Sticky
Have you ever noticed that kids (and adults) dwell on the bad stuff that happens in life way more than the good stuff? It seems that when a bad thing happens, it sticks to kids like it’s being held with the strongest glue, but when we achieve something good or when good things happen, we just brush them away like we are shooing away a fly.
Of course, it seems crazy to dwell on the bad and ignore the good all the time, but as always, there is a biological reason for this behavior. When we experience bad things in life, the bad stuff activates our fight or flight stress response system which causes immediate production of the over-used and usually toxic stress hormone called Cortisol and once the Cortisol tap is turned on, it can take 2-3 hours for it to shut off in the body. The whole time that the Cortisol tap is flowing, it makes us feel very bad, sad or scared and it causes us to dwell on the negative.
It’s Just the Stress Response System
But don’t be too upset with your child’s innocent stress response system because it’s just trying to do it’s very important job of leading your kids away from things that may be harmful. The challenge comes in when there are so many upsetting things that happen on a day to day basis and the human brain can no longer tell the difference between the things that are upsetting (a little or a lot upsetting) and the things that are life-threatening. So, just to be on the safe side, the brain produces the Cortisol hormone, no matter what, to get kids ready to deal with the threat just in case it’s real.
On the other hand, when we do something good or when something good happens, there is no equal and opposite hormone that is activated automatically. The brain can and does make happy brain chemicals that act as feel good rewards when we do good things, but we are biologically designed to only get a small dose of these reward chemicals each time a good thing happens. It is possible to fix or re-balance things in the human brain, but the problem is that most of us have never been taught to do this and so good stuff just passes by unacknowledged most of the time while the bad stuff seems to hang around forever.
Time to Change All That
Maybe it’s time to change all that. If we take the time to train ourselves to dwell on the positives and release the negatives, then we can get some happy brain chemicals flowing on purpose and when we want them to (imagine… happy brain chemicals on demand… cool, huh?) and we will have a much better chance to make good stuff stick in much the same way that bad stuff sticks already.
Now, I know it doesn’t seem fair that bad stuff sticks without effort and good stuff takes a lot of concentration, but we were designed to survive and we are hard wired to move away from pain and towards pleasure. If we know we are going to suffer a lot when we are in some kind of danger, then we are heavily motivated to stay far away from the risky behavior
So, it’s easy to get the nasty hormone, but getting the good hormone takes a little more work. You see, the feel-good reward hormone called Dopamine is not actually designed to make us feel like we are getting a real reward. Instead, it just gives us the feeling that we are going to get a future reward, but then the reward never actually comes. So, kids become addicted to the promise of a future reward and since that reward never actually comes, but it feels so good to think we are going to get a reward eventually, it keeps us always wanting to try to get the reward. In other words, it keeps us motivated.
It Seems a Bit Vicious, I Know
It seems a little vicious, I know, but Dopamine is a big part of the brain programming that helps us to survive in this big, bad, scary world. We are programmed to move toward pleasure and away from pain always and it’s our stress hormones and neuro-chemicals that make it all happen.
And we will keep striving to do the positive things over and over again because of the promise of the yummy reward feeling, no matter how short or fleeting that feeling may be. For example, if we get a bit of Dopamine when we are successful at finding something we need for our survival (like food), then we will want to keep searching for more food so we can get more Dopamine every time we are successful. It’s called comfort food for a very good reason, after all.
A Little at a Time
But we only get a little at a time because if we get too much Dopamine all at once, then we will stop searching for food because we will be too busy enjoying the feelings of pleasure and we may stop being diligent about finding the food or doing other things that promote survival. That’s when we could really get into some trouble with a predator or a dangerous situation. And remember the body can’t really tell the difference between phony dangers and real dangers and vice versa.
So, to recap, our anxiety management system wants us to stay far away from things that could kill us and it gently and continuously prods us to keep moving towards things that ensure our survival. That’s why the natural reward and punishment system in the human body seems so unbalanced and that’s why bad stuff sticks and good stuff falls away so easily.
However, kids, and all of us really, can change how bad stuff sticks and good stuff is brushed away. It’s just a matter of training the brain to spend more time acknowledging achievements and the good stuff and then acting to release the repressed emotion from all the bad stuff that builds up over time, especially the bad stuff that is not really life threatening, which is most of it.
Time to Re-Balance
And a re-balancing session for the brain doesn’t have to take long and is quite easy to do. As parents, we can just help kids make two short but important lists every few days or even once per week. The first is a list of things that have made your child sad, mad or scared in the last few days and then we can use a technique like EFT Tapping to tap away the bad feelings from each item on the list. The second list is a list of good things, no matter how small or insignificant, that have happened in the last few days. With this list, we force ourselves to just think about these things, pray about them, meditate on them or even tap on them.
By doing this, we are forcing ourselves to dwell on the positive for a few minutes and if this is done everyday for 6-8 weeks, then a new neural pathway can be built in the brain. After that, it only takes a few times per week to keep the programming in place and after that, our brains are much more likely to find it easier to focus on the positive instead of the negative all the time. After about 2-3 months, our precious kids will have changed their stress index ratio from a negative ratio to a positive ratio.
With my own kids, I spend a lot of time helping them to examine successes and helping them to create tangible ways to recognize and acknowledge and remember successes. Bad stuff is dismissed very quickly, but the good stuff gets to stick around for the long haul. In this way, my kids can keep stress, anxiety and depression at bay more easily.
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