Accentuating the positive in children is the goal

Howard Neighbors

September 22, 2006|By Janet Gilbert

More than 175 people sat politely on folding chairs in the cafeteria of the Homewood Center on Tuesday night, hoping to learn how to smash ANTs to smithereens.

ANTs -- Automatic Negative Thoughts -- are getting in the way of success for our children, according to Nancy Sheain, president and founder of Building Futures LLC.

Sheain, 47, started her business in 2003 because she believes the parent-child relationship is paramount. While raising her children, Sheain noticed that shelves were full of self-help books for adults, but not for kids. "I thought I would take everything [I had learned] and bundle it into something easy to learn, easy to apply and easy to teach your kids," she said.

Mark Sponsky, 42, of Scaggsville, agreed. "There's a lot out there for adults -- I'm here to see what we have for children."

"I'm trying to help my `newly teenagers' get through these next four years," said Brian Dillard, 42, of Columbia.

"It's great that the county puts on these presentations so I can come to a workshop and learn skills," he added.

Swati Phatak, 38, of Ellicott City, wanted to be proactive on behalf of her children. "It's difficult for children to express what is in their hearts. This can help diagnose it [the presence of negative thoughts], and if it is there, take care of it."

Sheain is a believer in proactive parenting, and says that when things are going well with your child, that is the best time to teach tools for coping with future frustrating times.

Sheain opens by asking parents to raise their hands if they have ever tried to talk their child out of a negative comment the child expressed about him or herself. A majority of hands shoot up.

"Keep your hands up if it works," said Sheain. All hands drop.

Sheain emphasizes that the child is the one who needs to combat the negative thoughts. She outlines aims, a four-step plan for parents to broach the subject.

First, there is "Awareness." Sheain says research indicates people experience at most 50,000 thoughts a day..

Next, there are the "Information" and "Motivation" steps. "Thoughts are powerful," Sheain said, categorizing them into "positive" and "negative" thoughts. Sheain explains the benefits of having a balance of these thoughts -- because negative or critical thoughts do have value in keeping us safe -- but that we should be on the "plus" side with the positive thoughts.

"Your brain sends positive brain chemicals that change your brain chemistry. The real problem is when we are consumed with negative thoughts," Sheain said, explaining how negative thoughts cause the brain to release chemicals that are not beneficial to the body.

"Are we going to let our negative thoughts own us," said Sheain, "or are we going to fight back?"

Now the "Strategies" are introduced, and the first step for smashing ANTs is deceptively simple. "When we have a negative thought, we have to catch it immediately," said Sheain. Interrupt the pattern, Sheain says, by visualizing a stop sign and saying firmly to yourself, "STOP."

The audience reacts with skepticism to step two, which is to turn the negative thought into a positive one. For example, if your teenager is saying to himself, "I'm so stupid," he should replace it with, "I'm so smart."

Sheain anticipates the audience's reaction, acknowledging that many children won't believe the inverse of their negative thought.

"The goal is to stop building that belief," said Sheain. If the child is uncomfortable saying the opposite, he should develop a "catch phrase," such as this one a teenager she worked with came up with: "I'm a sexy dude."

"Your brain ... doesn't need to go into that downward spiral," says Sheain. She points out that throughout life, people are going to dismiss, insult, or otherwise reject you. "It's bad enough that kids are going to be mean to your kid -- but do they [your kids] have to jump on the bandwagon, and be mean to themselves?"

Sheain points out that the negative statement "I'm so stupid," isn't any truer than "I'm so smart."

"If you're going to lie to yourself anyway, why not make it good stuff?" she said.

The final step in the ANT-smashing is smile. Sheain says simply smiling has been shown to release positive chemicals and subsequently elevate mood.

In a little more than an hour, Sheain has laid out a potentially life-altering strategy. Lee Pfeifer, 42, a teacher at Elkridge elementary, said she "came here with two hats -- teacher and mom."

"Gifted and talented students can be very competitive, and if they don't get something right away, they can come down on themselves," Pfeifer said. She thinks Sheain's program has application in the classroom as well as the home.

Dr. Sandy Fishbein, 48, licensed psychologist and team leader with the Bridges program at the Homewood Center, helped set up Sheain's presentation, and is working on another in December.

"These are scientifically validated techniques," he said."

More than 25 parents remained after the session to ask Sheain questions and relate personal stories. About a half hour later, Sheain had to stop the questioning as the room was being prepared for the next day.

Information on Building Futures LLC:, or Nancy Sheain, 410-707-6288.

Corrections: In last week's column about My Sexy Lips, the quote, "I started getting e-mails and calls -- the biggest compliment is that people liked it," should have been attributed to owner Shelissa Kearney. Also, the phone number for My Sexy Lips is 866-468-2515.


Is someone in your neighborhood worth writing about? Is there an event that everyone in Howard County should be aware of? If there is, Janet Gilbert, our neighbors reporter, wants to know about it.

E-mail Janet at, or call 410-313-8276. Janet also has a Web site: www.janet

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