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Get Your ACBs Straight: How to Belay Negative Responses When Bad Things Happen

Updated: Oct 17, 2023

If you’re like many people, you’ve got your ABCs all out of whack and don’t even realize it.

People tend to think that when bad things happen to you, you feel badly as a result. For example, if your child earns a poor grade on a test, he’ll feel discouraged.

“Many people believe that feeling bad is determined by the ‘stressors’ or adversities that happen to us,” explained psychologist Martin Seligman in his book The Optimistic Child. “We feel angry when someone transgresses against us. We feel depressed when we lose something we cherish.”

Put another way, many children and adults think Adversity = Consequences, or A = C, with consequences being “how you feel and behave following the adversity,” Seligman said.

The problem with this equation is that it’s missing a crucial component: your Belief. Researchers agree that adversities don’t cause emotions; how you interpret the events leads to your feelings. A negative view of the adversity contributes to negative feelings about it, while a positive consideration leads to more positive feelings. What you tell yourself makes all the difference, Seligman said.

Take Theo and Jack, for example. Each boy scored 70% on a test. Theo thinks the low grade means he’ll never catch on, he’s stupid, and he’s sure to fail. (Cue black cloud.) Theo moped the rest of the day, feeling completely dejected. Jack, on the other hand, told himself he could do better on the next exam if he spent more time on his homework. Fueled by determination, Jack started spending an extra half hour a day on the subject. Both boys experienced the same adverse event, yet their consequences were quite different because of their beliefs.

What you think is connected to how you feel. A more accurate equation, then, is Adversity + Belief = Consequences, or A + B = C.

It’s important to talk to your child about his internal dialogue and explain how his beliefs can affect his perception. These four basic skills can help decipher those beliefs:

1. Catch your automatic thoughts: This involves recognizing “the thoughts that flit across your mind at the times you feel worst,” Seligman explained.

Example: Ten-year-old Katie felt dejected after a morning at the local homeschool co-op. She complained to her mom, “Sarah didn’t sit next to me in class. She must hate me! I’ll bet she was talking behind my back to the other girls. We’ll never be friends again. The other girls won’t like me either. I’ll never have any friends.”

2. Evaluate these thoughts: This step comprises looking for evidence of whether those initial thoughts are truthful. “This means acknowledging that the things you say to yourself are not necessarily accurate,” Seligman said.

Example: With her mom’s help, Katie examined her thoughts. “Just because Sarah didn’t sit next to me doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to be friends anymore. Before class, we had a good time playing tag outside (evidence). And it doesn’t mean I’ll never have any friends. I do have other friends at the co-op and in our neighborhood (evidence).”

3. Generate more accurate explanations of why a bad thing happened. There are usually two sides to every story, as the saying goes.

Example: “Sarah is naturally outgoing. Maybe she wanted to sit with the new girl to make her feel welcomed (alternative). I was a little grumpy before class, and when I’m like that, I’m not great company (personal responsibility). I haven’t known Sarah to gossip about anyone, so it’s unlikely that she was gossiping about me.”

4. Decatastrophize: Catastrophizing is ruminating about the worst possible consequences. Instead, do the opposite: Focus on the likelihood of the worst-case scenario actually happening.

Example: “Hate is a strong word. Sarah was just being herself and probably didn’t realize I felt hurt. Besides, she’s not obligated to sit with me all the time. Maybe I’ll invite her and the new girl to go skating so we can all have fun together (plan of attack).”

Once children are aware of the things they tell themselves, “you can work together to evaluate the accuracy of these statements,” Seligman said. “When [your child] suddenly feels mad or sad or afraid, there was a thought that triggered the feeling, and once he’s able to uncover the thought, he can then change how he feels.”

Be sure to work on applying these skills to yourself before you teach them to your child. You’ll be much more effective that way. Tune in soon for further discussion about D (disputation) and E (energization).

Photo by Andre Hunter at Unsplash


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