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Negativity Bias in Family Relationships

Negativity bias is a term used to describe the tendency of the human brain to notice problems or threats more readily than positive or beneficial situations. One theory on why this tendency exists is that it has historically had survival value. If, while sitting around the fire, we hear a stick break in the darkness nearby, some may dismiss it as harmless, and others may assume it is a wild beast looking to eat them. More often than not, those who panic are wrong, but the consequences of that are minimal. When those who dismiss the potential threat are wrong, though, rare as it may be, the consequences are deadly. Those who more frequently noticed dangerous situations were more likely to survive and pass on their genes.

This pattern of focusing on the negative while ignoring the positive can have a devastating effect on our relationships. If we are not aware and active in countering our negativity bias, we may end up with the majority of our interactions with our children or other family members being based around correcting problems. This shows up as complaining, nagging, warning, and giving consequences as we try to change the negative situation. When this pattern becomes prominent, children can get the impression that we only see them in a negative light or, if they internalize our judgments, that they are unacceptable.


Of course, we’ve all seen disrespectful or maladaptive behaviors in children that have needed to be addressed. In working to counter the negativity bias, the suggestion is not that we ignore the negative, but rather that we remember to grow the positive. Acknowledging and expressing appreciation for the things kids do well are powerful interventions in their own right, and, even when addressing behavioral problems, it’s important to go beyond stopping the problem behavior to also teach the positive opposite or what a child should do instead.

Positive interactions related to shared interests are also needed in healthy relationships. Expressions of appreciation and quality time spent together often quickly disappear when an adolescent begins to struggle, and relationships suffer. It is challenging for parents to express gratitude to a teen who isolates themselves in their room, consistently breaks rules, and treats their parents like enemies. Although this disappearance is understandable, it’s still important to see it as part of the problem.

At Blue Ridge, we work on both sides of the family relationships. In our interactions with students, we point out their efforts and positive qualities. We express appreciation often even for small changes. As students make progress, we help parents understand the role that positive regard and acknowledgment have played. In our family work, we coach parents on changing old patterns of mistrust and excessively focusing on the negative. Parents and students are simultaneously challenged to change their patterns of communicating, and the time away from each other, engagement in therapy, and the slowed down process of letter-writing provide the ideal environment for change to take place. Parents get better at noticing the good things their child does, and students give parents more good things to notice as treatment progresses. Students also begin to notice more positive qualities in their parents, and relationships strengthen as the family shares this process of change.


In one such case, I recently used Karpman’s Drama Triangle to help a father to see his tendency for aggressive communication toward his child as he played the persecutor role in his family dynamic. We discussed the negativity bias as it applied to this pattern of interaction. He was surprised at his realization that he rarely said anything positive to his son, and he was willing to do the work to examine the basis of his anger and fear in his love for his child. My reports of our use of positive acknowledgment in the woods and the results of these interactions helped to convince him that it was time for a change. When the student received a letter from his father describing the good his father saw in him and expressing his hopes for the type of relationship they could have in the future, the student tearfully acknowledged this dramatic shift in communication, and both father and son began mending their long-damaged bond.